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Looking Back, and Forward, at Post-Katrina Justice and Accountability

August 29, 2010, marks the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Even now, survivors still face devastation and daily reminders of the governmental system that failed them. Hurricane Katrina raises the opportunity for all of us to question the role of government in communities, especially black communities. It also provides an opportunity to evaluate the use of storytelling in media and justice.

Regardless of political affiliations, most people agree that government should be the public’s safety net, protector and guarantor, particularly in times of crisis and need. In New Orleans just after Katrina, the government withheld critical relief, intervened with rescue efforts, and the police, supposedly there to “serve and protect,” acted like a pack of wild dogs turned loose on a vulnerable city.

While city, state, federal government, and private developers have found the money to rebuild the Superdome sports stadium and French Quarter tourist area, as well as reopen private casinos and other properties owned by large corporations, many residents are still waiting to be allowed to return to their homes. Throughout neighborhoods in New Orleans, there are schools, medical facilities, day care, and senior centers that are still closed. Many small businesses remain closed, unable to reopen. Government might be working for some, but it clearly failed many of the people of New Orleans who were not only abandoned, but abused by the government systems that were in place.

On August 28, 2005, Mayor Ray Nagin issued a citywide mandatory evacuation. Just before payday, many of the citizens who live check-to-check (many of them people of color), lacked the means to evacuate. But this was not the story we heard about in the media before the storm. The story that we heard was about the stubborn, even uneducated, people who were going to stay behind to weather the storm. One CNN writer described the noncompliance as “gambling with their own lives.” No one considered that the poor simply could not afford to run for their lives. Mayor Nagin estimated that over 100,000 people remained in the city on the evening of August 28th, just hours before Katrina came ashore.

Those left in the wake of this devastating storm were abandoned and left to survive by any means necessary. These people’s cries for help were largely ignored by all levels of government. The stories that were told to the rest of the country by the press were largely depictions of mayhem: crazy “looters” and “wild criminals” running the streets. The real trauma and devastation of people’s situations were left out by this style of reporting. What was not relayed were the stories of victims, refugees, or community heroes—everyday folks who risked their lives to help bring their neighbors to safety.

Many of the media’s “reported” stories were later found to be exaggerated or rumor. In the Superdome, for example, where the media perpetuated tales of anarchy, high body counts, rape, and sniper attacks, there were only two verifiable incidents, both of sexual assault. First responders to the stadium, expecting hundreds of dead bodies, found only six (of which four were natural deaths and one was a suicide). Where were the stories of people coming together in the face of disaster?

On August 31, just three days after the hurricane, the New Orleans Police Department were ordered to stop search and rescue missions and turn their attention toward controlling looting and protecting infrastructure and the financial interests of the city, escalating tension with everyday citizens who were left to be their own heroes. Three days after Katrina, while survivors were still desperate for drinking water, food, diapers, clothing, feminine products, toilets, medication, a place to sleep, or a means to leave town, Governor Kathleen Blanco announced the arrival of a military presence. During this announcement, she was quoted as saying, “they have M-16s and are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will. Clearly, the government’s priorities were skewed. They let the people of New Orleans down, and chose their self-interests and the interests of private money over thousands of human lives.

While the mainstream media had everyone across the world focused on “widespread looting” and “bands of criminals roaming the city,” there were many stories that did not get told. Stories such as Homeland Security prohibiting Red Cross from delivering food; the National Guard refusing to do air drops of food and water due to fear of rioting; FEMA stalling airboats set to deliver supplies and food; the presence of a large naval ship with six surgical suites, hundreds of beds, and the ability to make its own water, sitting unused in the area; and crowds of people being turned away from the vacant naval base in the Ninth Ward. And, in the years after Katrina, we’d begin to hear story after story of New Orleans Police misconduct and abuse, even murder.

While we can be critical of reporters and media coverage during the storm and its immediate aftermath, since the tragedy investigative journalists have been critical in starting to bring justice and change to an area starving for it. In the wake of the hurricane, reporters had cameras confiscated and destroyed by the police. Journalists’ commitment to telling these stories, a few of which were recently highlighted in a PBS Frontline investigation Law & Disorder, are now the catalysts for justice today.

For years after Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans police department tried to conceal the crimes of their officers. On September 2, 2005, police killed a black man, Danny Brumfield, who was stranded with his family at the Convention Center. Brumfield reportedly tried to flag down a police car for help, but was deliberately hit by the car, then shot in the back in front of many witnesses.

Five days after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans police officers shot and killed two civilians and wounded four others on the Danziger Bridge: two black men and a family of four. The men killed were James Brisette, age 17, and Ronald Madison, who was severely mentally challenged. Both Brisette and Madison were unarmed. Former Officer Robert Faulcon shot Madison in the back as he tried to flee, and he was then kicked and stomped to death by Sergeant Kenneth Bowen.

On September 4th, another black man, Henry Glover, was taken hostage by police. After being shot (possibly by another police officer), Glover lay in the backseat of a car driven by other black men searching for help. Police officers detained and beat these men, then drove off in the car with Glover. The vehicle, and Henry Glover, were then set on fire in an attempt to cover up the crime. It’s unclear if Glover, who was also shot in the head, was burned while he was still alive.

Since February of this year, federal prosecutors have charged sixteen current and former police officers with offenses committed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. So far, five have plead guilty. Two others have been indicted for killing a man just before the catastrophe. The Justice Department is now conducting a broader survey of the New Orleans Police department’s policies, which could lead to federally supervised reform and a restructuring of the department.

Today, five years later, our job is not to forget, nor allow police and government to forget. In order for the government to work, we have to demand accountability, change and justice.

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