Battle for New Orleans, 6 Years After Katrina

Political power has shifted to whites, but blacks have not given up their struggle for a voice -- and justice.

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The anger at the changes in New Orleans' black community is palpable. It comes out at City Council meetings, on local black talk-radio station WBOK and in protests. "Since New Orleans was declared a blank slate, we are the social experimental lab of the world," says Endesha Juakali, a housing-rights activist. However, despite the changes, grassroots resistance continues. "For those of us that lived and are still living the disaster, moving on is not an option," adds Juakali.

Resistance to the dominant agenda has also led to reform of the city's criminal-justice system. But this reform is very different from the others, with leadership coming from African-American residents at the grass roots, including those most affected by both crime and policing.

In the aftermath of Katrina, media images famously depicted poor New Orleanians as criminal and dangerous. In fact, at one point it was announced that rescue efforts were put on hold because of the violence. In response, the second-in-charge of the New Orleans Police Department reportedly told officers to shoot looters, and the governor announced that she had given the National Guard orders to shoot to kill.

Over the following days, police shot and killed several civilians. A police sniper shot a young African American named Henry Glover, and other officers took his body and burned it behind a levee. A 45-year-old grandfather, Danny Brumfield Sr., was shot in the back in front of his family outside the New Orleans convention center.

Two black families -- the Madisons and the Bartholomews -- walking across New Orleans' Danziger Bridge fell under a hail of gunfire from a group of officers. "We had more incidents of police misconduct than civilian misconduct," says former District Attorney Eddie Jordan, who pursued charges against the officers but had the charges thrown out by a judge. "All these stories of looting, it pales next to what the police did."

Finally, after more than three years of protests, press conferences and lobbying, the Department of Justice launched aggressive investigations of the Glover, Brumfield and Danziger cases in early 2009. In recent months, three officers were convicted in the Glover killing (although one conviction was overturned), two were convicted of beating a man to death just before the storm, and 10 officers either pleaded guilty or were convicted in the Danziger killing and cover-up. In the Danziger case, the jury found that officers had not only killed two civilians and wounded four, but also engaged in a wide-ranging conspiracy that involved planted evidence, invented witnesses and secret meetings.

The DOJ has at least seven more open investigations into New Orleans police killings and has indicated its plans for more formal oversight of the New Orleans Police Department, as well as the city jail. In this area, New Orleans is also leading the way: In a remarkable change from DOJ policy during the Bush administration, the department is also looking at oversight of police departments in Newark, Denver and Seattle.

In the national struggle against law-enforcement violence, there is much to be learned from the victims of New Orleans police violence, who led a remarkable struggle against a wall of official silence and now have begun to win justice. "This is an opening," explains New Orleans police accountability activist Malcolm Suber. "We have to push for a much more democratic system of policing in the city."

In the closing arguments of the Danziger trial, DOJ prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein fought back against the defense claim that the officers were heroes, saying that the family members of those killed deserved the title more. Noting that the official cover-up had "perverted" the system, she said, "The real heroes are the victims who stayed with an imperfect justice system that initially betrayed them." The jury apparently agreed with her, convicting the officers on all 25 counts.

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans and the author of the book Floodlines: Community and Resistance From Katrina to the Jena Six.