Revolution #212, September 26, 2010
The Rampages of a Murderous System
Five years ago, on September 4, 2005, some people were walking across Danziger Bridge, which spans the Industrial Canal in New Orleans. They were among thousands left stranded in the flooded city after Hurricane Katrina. Suddenly, they came under fire from the police. By the time the cops stopped shooting, they had killed two Black men—19-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison. Four others suffered serious multiple wounds, including Susan Bartholomew, who had an arm shot off.
The police outright lied about the crime, trying to cover up the fact that they had cold-bloodedly murdered and maimed people who had no weapons and who were not even breaking any laws. None of the cops involved have been charged with murder. In July 2010, six of the cops were indicted on federal charges—of "violation of civil rights," not for murder and assault with intent to murder. Their trial is scheduled for June 2011.
If you look into this outrageous police murder and cover-up, you can see a whole history and present-day reality of brutal, systematic oppression of Black people in America.
Bloody Stain of Slavery
Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, officially founded the city of New Orleans in 1718. That same year the newly formed "Company of the West" began to bring African men to New Orleans, and sell them as slaves, at a price of $660 each.
Six years later Bienville instituted the "code noir" (Black Code) in New Orleans. This set of laws—taken from the French experience in Haiti—mandated the death penalty for any African who struck a Frenchman. Punishments for lesser offenses included cutting off ears, branding, whipping, and hamstringing. It also directed that children of enslaved women would themselves be slaves.
The bloody stain of slavery penetrated and dominated every aspect of life in early New Orleans, for almost 150 years, as the city transformed from French to U.S. rule, and in its years as part of the Confederacy slave state. The city became the largest slave market in the country. Enslaved Black people worked the enormous cotton and cane plantations and the cotton gins and sugar mills, they loaded and unloaded ships at the docks, built levees along the Mississippi River, and tended to every need of the plantations. Black women were raped repeatedly by white "masters"—and the children from these crimes themselves became slaves.
The U.S. Civil War ended slavery. But, as George Carlin once quipped, "not so's anyone would really notice." Plantations in New Orleans and Louisiana were transformed into sharecropping plantations and prison farms, and Black people continued the backbreaking work of growing and harvesting cotton and sugar cane. Violent terror, mob violence, vast prison farms, and laws and institutions that embedded the degraded and oppressed status of Black people into every aspect of social, cultural, and political life to an insane degree of detail became Louisiana custom and law.
Great upheavals of the 1960s and '70s—the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle for Black Liberation, the outpourings against the unjust and criminal war the U.S. waged against the people of Vietnam, the women's liberation movement, and others—helped propel significant changes in U.S. society.
But throughout the centuries, an unchanging feature of the land that has come to be known as the United States of America is the deep and abiding oppression of Black people. From the days of enslavement… through the years of Jim Crow, segregation, and lynch mobs… to today—when one in eight Black men is in prison and when police wantonly gun down Black people from 7-year-old children like Aiyana Stanley-Jones in Detroit to 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta—some of the forms of that oppression have changed, but the stain that began with the first African people brought to this country in chains has seeped into and disfigured every dimension of life.
This is true across the length and breadth of the U.S. But in few places is it more evident than in New Orleans.
A Nightmare of Official Violence and Terror
The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD)—like police departments in every city in this country—had been inflicting systematic terror upon the Black people of the city for years before the deluge of Katrina washed over and destroyed many parts of town, particularly where poor people, mainly Black, live.
In "ordinary" times much of the reality of life, the essence of the actual social relations human beings have with each other, is hidden from view, or distorted, by the normal functioning of this capitalist/imperialist system, and by conscious deceit on the part of its defenders. The appearance of economic equality—that "everyone can get ahead if they really try"—masks a reality of profound inequality of wealth and poverty. The appearance of "impartial justice" covers a judicial system deeply and inherently unjust. The declaration that we live in a "color-blind country" contrasts with the reality that social divisions between oppressor and oppressed, and the subjugation of entire peoples, is embedded in society and in many ways is more heartless and pervasive than ever.
In the chaotic days of Katrina's aftermath, the floods that poured through the city brought to the fore a social reality that shocked millions of people throughout the U.S. and the world. New Orleans, the "City of Dreams," was not a tourist paradise of old time jazz, casinos, and endless drunken bar crawls down Bourbon St. It is a city populated overwhelmingly by Black people, many of them poor. People who for generations—since slaves worked the plantation that became the famed Tremé district to the building of the earthen dams along the Mississippi and the network of canals linking the waterways, to staffing the docks, refineries, and restaurants of the city—have poured their sweat and their lives into building the city, and shaped its rich, diverse, and endlessly creative culture. And people who are ruled by a government that, at every level, is aggressively hostile to them, and will stop at nothing to suppress and dominate them.
Nowhere was this more evident than along the Danziger Bridge the fatal morning of September 4, 2005, a few days after Katrina's aftermath flooded New Orleans.
NOPD cops claimed they got an "officer in distress" signal, and that two cops were "down" at Downman Road and Chef Menteur Highway—the Danziger Bridge. A swarm of cops sped through the desolate and devastated city.
The cops' official report says that after receiving the false—or completely fabricated—report, they "engaged the subjects on the Danzinger Bridge. The subjects on the Danzinger Bridge, which was (sic) determined to be seven, were confronted and ordered by the responding officers to raise their hands. The subjects immediately began going for cover behind the concrete barrier on the bridge, while some of the male subjects armed themselves and began firing handguns at the officers, who subsequently returned fire striking five of the seven subjects. Two of the subjects continued to fire at officers as they fled over the Danzinger Bridge towards the Third District. Officers pursued the subjects, where one was apprehended at the Friendly Inn Motel located at 4861 Chef Menteur Highway and the other was mortally wounded on the scene. Upon surveying the scene on the Danzinger Bridge, officers of the Seventh District located five subjects lying on the north side of the bridge suffering from gunshot wounds. Officers learned that one subject was pronounced dead on the scene while the other four were transported to West Jefferson Hospital, Marrero, Louisiana for treatment."
The report is a complete lie. The cops fired at people who were doing nothing but trying to get food in the devastated city. Ronald Madison, who was mentally disabled, had a hole torn through his spine and chest when he was shot in the back with a shotgun at close range by a cop, who then proceeded to kick him mercilessly. A witness said the cops had lined up "like at a firing range" and shot at Ronald as he tried to flee the bridge. Kasimir Gaston, who somehow survived the slaughter on the bridge, said that Ronald had been running away from police "hands out, at full speed," when he was murdered.
Ronald had been trying to run away from a scene unfolding at the other end of the bridge, where horrible carnage had already taken place. James Brissette lay dying, and four other people were severely wounded, by police bullets. After the initial intense barrage of fire from the cops had sent people sprawling on the bridge, NOPD sergeant Kenneth Bowen "leaned over the concrete barrier, held out his assault rifle, and, in a sweeping motion, fired repeatedly at the civilians lying wounded on the ground," in the words of a fellow cop.
Similar scenes have often played out in this country's history—slave catchers pursuing runaways who sought their freedom, and inflicting collective punishment on everyone on the plantation; lynch mobs acting on vicious rumors and using them as a pretext to destroy entire communities. But this time, the mob intent on inflicting punishment were the armed enforcers of the system—who are given the power to legitimately perpetrate violence and who do so to protect and defend the exploitation and oppression that is the foundation and basis of the system.
Similar horrifying scenes were also taking place throughout New Orleans, not just on the Danziger Bridge, in the days after Katrina. These were not just the acts of random cops, or the proverbial "bad apple" cops. And they were not just the expression of corruption and racism within the NOPD, although there certainly is much of both of those. The assaults and killings that took place across the city were given the green light by leading political and police officials.
A NOPD captain told federal prosecutors this year that Warren Riley, second-in-command of the NOPD ordered New Orleans police to "take the city back and shoot looters." A report by the New Orleans Times Picayune and ProPublica, an investigative newsroom, quotes NOPD Captain James Scott telling a roll call gathering of officers that "We have authority by martial law to shoot looters." Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco was widely quoted saying she was sending hundreds of National Guardsmen to New Orleans, and that "They have M-16s and they're locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will."
This was in a context of a national atmosphere of vicious, non-stop, and completely untrue media attacks that portrayed a city filled with alleged rapists, murderers, and looters shooting at police and at rescue workers. In reality, many of the tens of thousands of people remaining in the city, especially the youth, were heroically battling to save as many people as they could.
About 15,000 National Guard troops, advancing with drawn and pointed weapons, flak jackets and Kevlar helmets were sent to New Orleans to "restore law and order." Heavily armed mercenaries from companies such as Blackwater and ISI were also sent to New Orleans, some saying they had been "deputized" by Governor Blanco and wearing the gold badges of Louisiana law enforcement; some hired by wealthy people to "protect their homes."
And, in a city desperate for the basics of survival, with people dying of dehydration and drowning, people going without needed medical treatment and supplies, children who hadn't eaten for days, the government focused on building a prison. As described in Zeitoun, a book by Dave Eggers, "Camp Greyhound" was "an outdoor jail built in New Orleans' central bus station within hours of the hurricane's landfall at the behest of the federal Department of Homeland Security and FEMA. Similar to Guantánamo Bay, Camp Greyhound (the guards' name for it) was a kennel, runs of wire fencing and concrete flooring; there was nothing to sit or sleep on, and toilet facilities were portables outside the enclosures. Power was provided by a running diesel locomotive parked within yards of the cages, providing a continuous deafening hum and diesel pall."
In addition to all this, racist vigilantes armed themselves and went hunting Black people. At least 11 people were shot in Algiers Point, on the west bank of the Mississippi. One of the racist vigilantes in Algiers boasted "it was great! Like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, we shot it." Gun sales in nearby Baton Rouge went up ten times their normal volume, with the weapons being bought both by cops from or being sent to New Orleans, or white people fearing that their property and lives were somehow endangered by the Black people in New Orleans.
This is how the system responded; this was the atmosphere in which the massacre took place on the Danziger Bridge. Throughout the city, other atrocities were perpetrated by the NOPD. Henry Glover was shot in the back by a cop in Algiers; when his brother and William Tanner, a passerby, tried to take him to help they were beaten by a frenzied mob of cops, who then drove the car a couple of hundred yards from their station, where they set it on fire—with Henry Glover's body still in it.
Keenon McCann was shot twice in the back by a SWAT team sniper, not far from where Henry Glover was murdered. Danny Brumfield tried to get help for a woman screaming in agony on the street outside the Morial Convention Center when he was rammed twice by a patrol car and shot in the back with a shotgun. He died soon thereafter; cops claimed Danny Brumfield tried to stab them through the window with some scissors. Robert Williams and Ernest Bell were pulled over by cops on Religious Street in the Garden District of New Orleans and beaten mercilessly; Robert Williams lost all his teeth as a result. Two news people who happened to be nearby were also assaulted by the gang of about ten cops, who then destroyed pictures they had taken.
And at least 11 people were shot by the NOPD in the days immediately following Katrina.
The Workings of an Illegitimate System
These events were not aberrations. They reveal the normal workings and crimes this system perpetrates on the people—horrors that become particularly intense and acute in a time of crisis, such as in New Orleans.
When the government indicted the six cops earlier this year for the Danziger incident, a key aim was to strengthen the ability of the NOPD to repress, control, and yes, terrorize, the people of New Orleans—especially the Black people who have remained in the city. When officials like U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder talk about restoring trust in the police department, they mean, among other things, establishing a network of snitches who cooperate with the police as they continue their marauding. Those in power fear the fury many people in the city have at the abuse, brutality, murder, and unjust convictions that are a plague upon the people, especially the youth.
How did this system respond to a city in crisis? For days, it let the people suffer and die needlessly—it actively prevented assistance from getting into the city and survivors from reaching safety. It gave its police "shoot to kill" orders, and these orders were enthusiastically followed, up and down the chain of command. It goaded and pumped up racist vigilantes, and ignored them when they publicly celebrated their "kills" and held barbecues boasting of them. It sent in troops and mercenaries. It built a special prison, modeled on Guantanamo and run by the man who is head warden at the infamous Angola prison farm. It spread lies about the people throughout the world to justify its neglect and its crimes. It used its legal system to punish the people, and to cover up the activities of its enforcers. And then, in the aftermath of the devastation of the city, it energetically and quickly moved to shut down the city's only public hospital and much of the housing projects, and to transform public education into a two-tiered system where the large majority of schools are charter schools run by private companies, attended by students with better test scores whose parents have the ability to get them into such schools, while other students have to attend deteriorating public schools.
Time is long past overdue on this system.
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