Article Documents ‘Race War’ After Katrina

WDSU-TV (New Orleans), December 23, 2008

A new magazine article documents reported killings in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, claiming a white militia formed in the days after the storm and shot nearly a dozen black people.

It happened in Algiers Point, a historic community where some say what happened in the days after Katrina borrowed from a chapter in our nation’s history they would rather not relive.

The story, published in The Nation this week , documents a “hidden race war,” describing the shootings of 11 black men, some of whom are believed to have died.

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WDSU spoke to other people in the neighborhood—black and white—who didn’t want to go on camera, but confirmed the stories.

The New Orleans Police Department issued a brief statement, saying “we absolutely have had no complaints to substantiate any of the claims made in that article.”


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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.”

Algiers Point has always been somewhat isolated: it’s perched on the west bank of the Mississippi River, linked to the core of the city only by a ferry line and twin gray steel bridges. When the hurricane descended on Louisiana, Algiers Point got off relatively easy. While wide swaths of New Orleans were deluged, the levees ringing Algiers Point withstood the Mississippi’s surging currents, preventing flooding; most homes and businesses in the area survived intact. As word spread that the area was dry, desperate people began heading toward the west bank, some walking over bridges, others traveling by boat. The National Guard soon designated the Algiers Point ferry landing an official evacuation site. Rescuers from the Coast Guard and other agencies brought flood victims to the ferry terminal, where soldiers loaded them onto buses headed for Texas.

Facing an influx of refugees, the residents of Algiers Point could have pulled together food, water and medical supplies for the flood victims. Instead, a group of white residents, convinced that crime would arrive with the human exodus, sought to seal off the area, blocking the roads in and out of the neighborhood by dragging lumber and downed trees into the streets. They stockpiled handguns, assault rifles, shotguns and at least one Uzi and began patrolling the streets in pickup trucks and SUVs. The newly formed militia, a loose band of about fifteen to thirty residents, most of them men, all of them white, was looking for thieves, outlaws or, as one member put it, anyone who simply “didn’t belong.”

The existence of this little army isn’t a secret—in 2005 a few newspaper reporters wrote up the group’s activities in glowing terms in articles that showed up on an array of pro-gun blogs; one Cox News story called it “the ultimate neighborhood watch.” Herrington, for his part, recounted his ordeal in Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke. But until now no one has ever seriously scrutinized what happened in Algiers Point during those days, and nobody has asked the obvious questions. Were the gunmen, as they claim, just trying to fend off looters? Or does Herrington’s experience point to a different, far uglier truth?

Over the course of an eighteen-month investigation, I tracked down figures on all sides of the gunfire, speaking with the shooters of Algiers Point, gunshot survivors and those who witnessed the bloodshed. I interviewed police officers, forensic pathologists, firefighters, historians, medical doctors and private citizens, and studied more than 800 autopsies and piles of state death records. What emerged was a disturbing picture of New Orleans in the days after the storm, when the city fractured along racial fault lines as its government collapsed.

Herrington, Collins and Alexander’s experience fits into a broader pattern of violence in which, evidence indicates, at least eleven people were shot. In each case the targets were African-American men, while the shooters, it appears, were all white.

The new information should reframe our understanding of the catastrophe. Immediately after the storm, the media portrayed African-Americans as looters and thugs—Mayor Ray Nagin, for example, told Oprah Winfrey that “hundreds of gang members” were marauding through the Superdome. Now it’s clear that some of the most serious crimes committed during that time were the work of gun-toting white males.

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Hill, who runs Tulane’s Southern Institute for Education and Research and closely follows the city’s racial dynamics, isn’t surprised the Algiers Point gunmen have eluded arrest. Because of the widespread notion that blacks engaged in looting and thuggery as the disaster unfolded, Hill believes, many white New Orleanians approved of the vigilante activity that occurred in places like Algiers Point. {snip}

You can trace the origins of the Algiers Point militia to the misfortune of Vinnie Pervel. A 52-year-old building contractor and real estate entrepreneur with a graying buzz cut and mustache, Pervel says he lost his Ford van in a carjacking the day after Katrina made landfall, when an African-American man attacked him with a hammer. “The kid whacked me,” recalls Pervel, who is white. “Hit me on the side of the head.” Vowing to prevent further robberies, Pervel and his neighbors began amassing an arsenal. “For a day and a half we were running around getting guns,” he says. “We got about forty.”

Things quickly got ugly. Pervel remembers aiming a shotgun at a random African-American man walking by his home—even though he knew the man had no connection to the theft of his vehicle. “I don’t want you passing by my house!” Pervel says he shouted out.

Pervel tells me he feared goons would kill his mother, who is in her 70s. “We thought we would be dead,” he says. “We thought we were doomed.” And so Pervel and his comrades set about fortifying the area. One resident gave me video footage of the leafy barricades the men constructed to keep away outsiders. Others told me they created a low-tech alarm system, tying aluminum cans and glass bottles together and stringing them across the roads at ankle height. The bottles and cans would rattle noisily if somebody bumped into them, alerting the militia.

Pervel and his armed neighbors point to the very real chaos that was engulfing the city and claim they had no other choice than to act as they did. They paint themselves as righteous defenders of property, a paramilitary formation protecting their neighborhood from opportunistic thieves. “I’m not a racist,” Pervel insists. “I’m a classist. I want to live around people who want the same things as me.”

Nathan Roper, another vigilante, says he was unhappy that outsiders were disturbing his corner of New Orleans and that he was annoyed by the National Guard’s decision to use the Algiers Point ferry landing as an evacuation zone. “I’m telling you, it was forty, fifty people at a time getting off these boats,” says Roper, who is in his 50s and works for ServiceMaster, a house-cleaning company. The storm victims were “hoodlums from the Lower Ninth Ward and that part of the city,” he says. “I’m not a prejudiced individual, but you just know the outlaws who are up to no good. You can see it in their eyes.”

The militia, according to Roper, was armed with “handguns, rifles [and] shotguns”; he personally carried “a .38 in my waistband” and a “little Uzi.” {snip}

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Apparently thinking they’d caught some looters, the gunmen interrogated and verbally threatened Collins and Alexander for ten to fifteen minutes, Alexander says, before one of the armed men issued an ultimatum: if Alexander and Collins left Algiers Point and told their friends not to set foot in the area, they’d be allowed to live.

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Herrington, Alexander and Collins are the only victims, so far, to tell their stories. But they certainly weren’t the only ones attacked in or around Algiers Point. In interviews, vigilantes and residents—citing the exact locations and types of weapons used—detail a string of violent incidents in which at least eight other people were shot, bringing the total number of shooting victims to at least eleven, some of whom may have died.

Other evidence bolsters this tally. Thomas, the surgeon who treated Herrington, staffed one of the few functioning trauma centers in the area, located just outside the New Orleans city line, not far from Algiers Point, for a full month after the hurricane hit. “We saw a bunch of gunshot wounds,” he tells me. “There were a lot of gunshot wounds that went unreported during that time.” Though Thomas couldn’t get into the specifics of the shooting incidents because of medical privacy laws, he says, “We saw a couple of other shotgun wounds, some handgun shootings and somebody who was shot with a high-velocity missile [an assault-rifle round].” The surgeon remembers handling “five or six nonfatal gunshot wounds” as well as three lethal gunshot cases.

In addition, state death records show that at least four people died in and around Algiers Point, a suspicious number, given that most Katrina fatalities were the result of drowning, and that the community never flooded. Neighborhood residents, black and white, remember seeing corpses lying out in the open that appeared to have been shot.

While the militia patrolled the streets of Algiers Point, the New Orleans Police Department, which had done little to brace for the storm, was crippled. “There was no leadership, no equipment, no nothing,” recalls one high-ranking police official. “We did no more to prepare for a hurricane than we would have for a thunderstorm.” Without functioning radios or dispatch systems, officers had no way of knowing what was happening a block away, let alone on the other side of the city. NOPD higher-ups had no way to give direction to unit commanders and other subordinates. As the chain of command disintegrated, the force dissolved into a collection of isolated, quasi-autonomous bands.

Around Algiers Point people say they rarely saw cops during the week after Katrina tore through Louisiana, and in this law enforcement vacuum the militia’s unique brand of justice flourished. Most disturbing, one of the vigilantes, Roper, claims on videotape recorded just weeks after the storm that the shootings took place with the knowledge and consent of the police. When we talk he makes the same assertion: “The police said, If they’re breaking in your property do what you gotta do and leave them [the bodies] on the side of the road.”

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Fellow militia member Wayne Janak, 60, a carpenter and contractor, is more forthcoming with me. “Three people got shot in just one day!” he tells me, laughing. We’re sitting in his home, a boxy beige-and-pink structure on a corner about five blocks from Daigle’s Grocery. “Three of them got hit right here in this intersection with a riot gun,” he says, motioning toward the streets outside his home. Janak tells me he assumed the shooting victims, who were African-American, were looters because they were carrying sneakers and baseball caps with them. He guessed that the property had been stolen from a nearby shopping mall. According to Janak, a neighbor “unloaded a riot gun”—a shotgun—”on them. We chased them down.”

Janak, who was carrying a pistol, says he grabbed one of the suspected looters and considered killing him, but decided to be merciful. “I rolled him over in the grass and saw that he’d been hit in the back with the riot gun,” he tells me. “I thought that was good enough. I said, ‘Go back to your neighborhood so people will know Algiers Point is not a place you go for a vacation. We’re not doing tours right now.’”

He’s equally blunt in Welcome to New Orleans, an hourlong documentary produced by the Danish video team, who captured Janak, beer in hand, gloating about hunting humans. Surrounded by a crowd of sunburned white Algiers Point locals at a barbeque held not long after the hurricane, he smiles and tells the camera, “It was great! It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it.” A native of Chicago, Janak also boasts of becoming a true Southerner, saying, “I am no longer a Yankee. I earned my wings.” A white woman standing next to him adds, “He understands the N-word now.” In this neighborhood, she continues, “we take care of our own.”

Janak, who says he’d been armed with two .38s and a shotgun, brags about keeping the bloody shirt worn by a shooting victim as a trophy. When “looters” showed up in the neighborhood, “they left full of buckshot,” he brags, adding, “You know what? Algiers Point is not a pussy community.”

Within that community the gunmen enjoyed wide support. In an outtake from the documentary, a group of white Algiers Point residents gathers to celebrate the arrival of military troops sent to police the area. Addressing the crowd, one local praises the vigilantes for holding the neighborhood together until the Army Humvees trundled into town, noting that some of the militia figures are present at the party. “You all know who you are,” the man says. “And I’m proud of every one of you all.” Cheering and applause erupts from the assembled locals.

Some of the gunmen prowling Algiers Point were out to wage a race war, says one woman whose uncle and two cousins joined the cause. A former New Orleanian, this source spoke to me anonymously because she fears her relatives could be prosecuted for their crimes. “My uncle was very excited that it was a free-for-all—white against black—that he could participate in,” says the woman. “For him, the opportunity to hunt black people was a joy.”

“They didn’t want any of the ‘ghetto niggers’ coming over” from the east side of the river, she says, adding that her relatives viewed African-Americans who wandered into Algiers Point as “fair game.” One of her cousins, a young man in his 20s, sent an e-mail to her and several other family members describing his adventures with the militia. He had attached a photo in which he posed next to an African-American man who’d been fatally shot. The tone of the e-mail, she says, was “gleeful”—her cousin was happy that “they were shooting niggers.”

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By Pervel’s count, four people died violently in Algiers Point in the aftermath of the storm, including a bloody corpse left on Opelousas Avenue. That nameless body came up again and again in interviews, a grisly recurring motif. Who was he? How did he die? Nobody knew—or nobody would tell me.

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New Orleans, of course, is awash in tales of the horrible things that transpired in the wake of the hurricane—and many of these wild stories have turned out to be fictions. In researching the Algiers Point attacks, I relied on the accounts of people who witnessed shooting incidents or were directly involved, either as gunmen or shooting victims.

Seeking to corroborate their stories, I sought out documentary evidence, including police files and autopsy reports. The NOPD, I was told, kept very few records during that period. {snip}

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Sifting through more than 800 autopsy reports and reams of state health department data, I quickly identified five New Orleanians who had died under suspicious circumstances: one, severely burned, was found in a charred abandoned auto (see “Body of Evidence,” page 19); three were shot; and another died of “blunt force trauma to the head.” However, it’s impossible to tell from the shoddy records whether any of these people died in or around Algiers Point, or even if their bodies were found there.

No one has been arrested in connection with these suspicious deaths. When it comes to the lack of action on the cases, one well-placed NOPD source told me there was plenty of blame to go around. “We had a totally dysfunctional DA’s office,” he said. “The court system wasn’t much better. Everything was in disarray. A lot of stuff didn’t get prosecuted. There were a lot of things that were getting squashed. The UCR [uniform crime reports] don’t show anything.”

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