Despite the attempts to explain away the officer's behavior, the incident fits into a well-defined pattern of police conduct in New Orleans. In the last year, seven young Black men have been killed by New Orleans police, and none of the officers involved have been punished.
This year has seen mounting evidence of a police department out of control. Less than a week before Hurricane Katrina, on Wednesday August 24, Keith Griffin, a New Orleans police officer, was booked with aggravated rape and kidnapping. According to a Times-Picayune report, "Griffin is accused of pulling over a bicyclist under the guise of a police stop in the early morning hours of July 11. The two-year veteran officer allegedly detained the woman, drove her to a remote spot along the Industrial Canal near Deslonde Street, then sexually assaulted her."
This is hardly an isolated incident. Another recent Times-Picayune article reported, "in April, seven-year veteran officer Corey Johnson was booked with aggravated rape for allegedly forcing a woman to perform oral sex, after he identified himself as an officer in order to enter the woman's Treme home."
Police misconduct in this notoriously corrupt city goes back decades, and occasionally it explodes in scandal. In a September 2000 report, the progressive policy institute reported "a 1994 crackdown on police corruption led to 200 dismissals and upwards of 60 criminal charges, including two murder convictions of police officers. Investigators at the time discovered that for six months in 1994, as many as 29 New Orleans police officers protected a cocaine supply warehouse containing 286 pounds of cocaine. The FBI indicted ten officers who had been paid nearly $100,000 by undercover agents. The investigation ended abruptly after one officer successfully orchestrated the execution of a witness."
According to one community activist I recently spoke with who is familiar with the investigations, "That crackdown just scratched the surface. They didn't even really begin to address the problems in the New Orleans police."
The white-flight suburbs around New Orleans are in many ways worse. During the 1980s, Jefferson Parish sheriff Harry Lee famously ordered special scrutiny for any black people traveling in white sections of the parish. "It's obvious," Lee said, "that two young blacks driving a rinky-dink car in a predominantly white neighborhood? They'll be stopped."
The New Orleans Gambit newspaper reported that 1994, "after two black men died in the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center within one week, Lee faced protests from the black community and responded by withdrawing his officers from a predominantly black neighborhood. 'To hell with them,' he'd said. 'I haven't heard one word of support from one black person.'"
The Gambit also reported in April of this year that in Jefferson Parish officers were found to be using as target practice what critics referred to as "a blatantly racist caricature" of a Black male. Sheriff Lee laughed when presented with the charges. "I'm looking at this thing that people say is offensive," he says. "I've looked at it, I don't find it offensive, and I have no interest in correcting it."
These accusations of "target practice" gained force a few weeks later with the May 31 killing of 16-year-old Antoine Colbert, who was behind the wheel of a stolen pickup truck with two other teens. 110 shots were fired into the truck, killing Colbert and injuring his passengers. In response to criticism from Black ministers over the incident, Lee responded "they can kiss my ass."
As has been widely reported, the town of Gretna, across the Mississippi from New Orleans and part of Jefferson Parish, stationed officers on the bridge leading out of New Orleans blocking the main escape route for the tens of thousands suffering in the Superdome, Convention Center, and throughout the city.
As the LA Times reported on September 16, "little over a week after this mostly white suburb became a symbol of callousness for using armed officers to seal one of the last escape routes from New Orleans trapping thousands of mostly black evacuees in the flooded city the Gretna City Council passed a resolution supporting the police chief's move. 'This wasn't just one man's decision,' Mayor Ronnie C. Harris said Thursday. 'The whole community backs it.'"
Arguably, the actions of the Gretna police were one of the biggest dangers to public safety to arise from this tragedy, perhaps second only to the criminally-neglected levees. Anyone that wants to focus on relief for the "victims" needs to focus on what exactly people from New Orleans are victims of: racism, corruption, deindustrialization, disinvestment, and neglect. That is why agencies and organizations such as Red Cross, FEMA, Scientologists, their hundreds of well-meaning volunteers are not really providing relief - they aren't addressing the nature of the problem.
We call hurricanes and earthquakes "natural disasters," but the contours of these disasters are manmade. As recent earthquake and hurricane-related mass deaths in South Asia and Central America demonstrate, who lives and who dies is intricately related to issues of poverty and access. Whether the homes are built in safe areas, the soundness of the structures, the length of time it takes for relief to arrive, all of these are intricately tied to poverty. And yet the media generally ignores these issues, and repeats the message that "nature doesn't discriminate." Because of this message, relief is misdirected, and when those receiving the relief aren't sufficiently grateful, the givers become resentful.
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