“It was great! It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it.”
If the images from the Convention Center and Superdome were not enough, if stories of police brutality and subsequent cover-ups do not make you think about the fragility of the civilized society that we live in, maybe Wayne Janak’s hobby of people-hunting will.
The reports from Algiers Point in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina are unnerving and saddening. Upon the invitation of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the Justice Department is in the midst of investigating civil rights violations that occurred during the storm. There have been a handful of arrests in other cases like that of the Danziger Bridge shootings where police fired upon unarmed civilians and then subsequently covered it up. Presently, the Algiers Point militia remains largely unheard of.
There is a much bigger story beneath it all. Over half a century has passed since the Civil Rights Act, but how much progress has actually been made? To what extent, if any, does New Orleans’ unique colonial history have to play in the current state of race relations in the city?
After 1803, there was a decline in the acceptance of free people of color in New Orleans as there was a simultaneous increase in Americanized legislation. The situation in the city was a precarious one: Americans were shunned by the Creole elites to their own sector of the city. Refugees from St. Domingue, as well as other white ethnic groups, were all competing for resources.
By the 1830s, New Orleans was quickly becoming a major center of commerce in the United States. As more business-minded Americans invaded the city, free people of color, as well as Creoles who were becoming victims of increasingly racially-oriented attacks by the Americans, were consequently forced to cluster themselves in newer neighborhoods such as the Faubourg Marigny where American law was enforced less strictly there.
Arnold Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon explain that the racial division between whites and African-Americans was formed immediately upon arrival in the city, as one could instantly identify themselves as white amongst the black majority. The immigrants’ assumption of a fiercely protected racial identity in the midst of rising social and economic tensions was crucial so that their statuses could be constantly reasserted. With this in mind, it would be foolish to think of mid-nineteenth century New Orleans as perpetually on the cusp of destruction by racial tensions. While there was hostility between other ethnic groups such as the Italians and Germans, all these groups found themselves in frequent contact with each other because of the physical layout of the city.
Within the black community, African-Americans became steadily cut off from white culture by the influx of racial-oriented legislation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Rather than work to adjust their culture to the one in power, leaders like Booker T. Washington magnified the rift by promoting pride in one’s blackness and institutions.
Within the last century, what legislation could not segregate, technology did. The city’s first pumping system was operational by 1920, opening up large expanses of land for habitation. These new homes were too expensive for African-Americans to occupy and if a family could afford it, they were prohibited by law from doing so. Blacks who were living in these areas when they were just swampland were forced to move. They found themselves congregating in established black neighborhoods. The technology that had forced them to move also left them extremely prone to flooding in their new homes as these areas were left outside the pumps’ zone of protection.
One hundred fifty years later, the same system more or less remained in place, albeit unofficially. There are good “white” areas and bad “black” areas. While there are not longer “free persons of color,” poor African-Americans are still segregated from opportunities by legislation and custom. What Katrina did was level the playing field. The storm held no prejudices. It took what it wanted.
A lack of return of city services to the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood whose residents are mostly African American, is symbolic of a lack of motivation to help a culture in crisis. As Joel Williamson says about the days of segregation, “Arbitrary relegation to always inferior facilities was a sign of where power actually lay, and where it was likely to lie in the future.” Is the Algiers Point militia an exaggerated representation of tension between local leaders and their African-American citizens?
It is realistic to assume that in times of crisis the agencies designated to protect us will be stressed and moments of order may be few and far between. The two defining characteristics of American militias are a staunch belief in the Second Amendment and a strong distrust of the federal government. With a lack of federal and local direction, these white citizens in Algiers Point took the law into their own hands with deadly force. By doing so, they unknowingly released the skeleton in the closet that New Orleans’s leaders had tried to desperately keep under wraps in order to protect our tourism-driven economy.
As the statute of limitations is about to run out for many of the Katrina-related violence cases, one cannot help but be reminded of civil rights violations in the 1960s, violations that frequently seemed to slip through the cracks of the justice system. While the “protectors” of Algiers Point may not have been a full-blown militia (as opposed to the Hutaree Christian militia in Michigan), their crimes against their neighbors—against their city—are an unfortunate living witness to the history of New Orleans. Their quickness to label “anything darker than a brown paper bag” as a target is a sad, yet truthful image of the current state of race relations in the city, and probably the country. These vigilantes will most likely remain comfortable in their homes, without so much as a slap on the wrist. Living witness, indeed.
Megan E. Paredes
Megan Paredes is pursuing her MA in history at the University of New Orleans.
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