When White Vigilantes Reign

Why are New Orleans militiamen still bragging about shooting black men after Katrina?


America has never had a terribly forthright relationship with its history. No surprise, then, that three years after Katrina laid bare the deep, deadly inequality festering in our nation's cities, we've already blotted the memory. In a breathtaking article in this week's edition of The Nation magazine, investigative reporter A.C. Thompson (you can read my Q&A with him here ) does his best to remind us all just how lasting the disaster was for black folks—and how many urgent issues remain unaddressed. Not least of them is a string of vigilante executions that New Orleans law enforcement has, at best, ignored and possibly encouraged.

Thompson brings readers up close with the white vigilantes themselves, who brag about their murderous reign over the Algiers Point neighborhood that the National Guard designated as an evacuation site. Thompson's reporting reverses the once-popular narrative of black lawlessness in the days after the storm: As order broke down, white residents' fears and fantasies about black people justified an orchestrated campaign of anti-black terrorism.

                                                          - Kai Wright

Reprinted courtesy of The Nation.  A.C. Thompson's reporting on New Orleans was directed and underwritten by the Investigative Fund at  The Nation Institute ProPublica  provided additional support, as did the  Center for Investigative Reporting  and  New America Media .

The way Donnell Herrington tells it, there was no warning. One second he was trudging through the heat. The next he was lying prostrate on the pavement, his life spilling out of a hole in his throat, his body racked with pain, his vision blurred and distorted.

It was September 1, 2005, some three days after Hurricane Katrina crashed into New Orleans, and somebody had just blasted Herrington, who is African-American, with a shotgun. "I just hit the ground. I didn't even know what happened," recalls Herrington, a burly 32-year-old with a soft drawl.

The sudden eruption of gunfire horrified Herrington's companions--his cousin Marcel Alexander, then 17, and friend Chris Collins, then 18, who are also black. "I looked at Donnell and he had this big old hole in his neck," Alexander recalls. "I tried to help him up, and they started shooting again." Herrington says he was staggering to his feet when a second shotgun blast struck him from behind; the spray of lead pellets also caught Collins and Alexander. The buckshot peppered Alexander's back, arm and buttocks.

Herrington shouted at the other men to run and turned to face his attackers: three armed white males. Herrington says he hadn't even seen the men or their weapons before the shooting began. As Alexander and Collins fled, Herrington ran in the opposite direction, his hand pressed to the bleeding wound on his throat. Behind him, he says, the gunmen yelled, "Get him! Get that nigger!"

The attack occurred in Algiers Point. The Point, as locals call it, is a neighborhood within a neighborhood, a small cluster of ornate, immaculately maintained 150-year-old houses within the larger Algiers district. A nationally recognized historic area, Algiers Point is largely white, while the rest of Algiers is predominantly black. It's a "white enclave" whose residents have "a kind of siege mentality," says Tulane University historian Lance Hill, noting that some white New Orleanians "think of themselves as an oppressed minority."

A wide street lined with towering trees, Opelousas Avenue marks the dividing line between Algiers Point and greater Algiers, and the difference in wealth between the two areas is immediately noticeable. "On one side of Opelousas it's 'hood, on the other side it's suburbs," says one local. "The two sides are totally opposite, like muddy and clean."