“The next person who calls me resilient I’m gonna stab in the neck…”

Let’s play word association.

I say New Orleans.  The first word that pops into your mind is…

…Saints, it being the start of the regular season. Or

gumbo if you know roux.  Or

hurricane if you’re a meteorologist or a drunkard.

But for the tender hearted among us who love justice, have hope, and believe in the goodness of the good people of New Orleans, the word that has become as stuck to New Orleans as gnats on a South Georgia windshield is…


Post-Katrina, even before the waters overtopping the levees finished pouring into the city, reporters filed stories referencing the resilience of New Orleans.  As the disaster dragged on, the media was determined to turn a story of death and destruction into an uplifting story of hope.  Stories about resilience – of the people, the city, and the culture – did the trick.

Every anniversary, another wave of resilience stories. In 2006, CBS News reported that Resilience Lets Katrina Survivors Cope.  Two years out, a report chronicled Recovery, Renewal, & Resiliency. The next year, environmentalists presented Lessons for Community Resilience.  The 4th anniversary featured Still Here, a book celebrating “courage, resilience, and hope.” At five years, Obama Calls New Orleans a ‘Symbol of Resilience’ on Katrina Anniversary.  Last year’s anniversary saw the release of the book Resilience and Opportunity.  And this morning, I woke up to NPR interviewing a professor whose Katrina experience inspired him to research and write Building Resilience.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of raising up stories of a people’s resilience.  I spent a year doing it myself, mucking around the American South pestering people about community resilience.

But boy howdy, can it get irritating.

In the words of a New Orleanian friend, “The next person who calls me resilient, I’m gonna stab in the neck so he can see for himself what it is to be resilient.”

My friend has (thus far) refrained from any stabbing, but her point is well taken – focusing on resilience can distract from the question of responsibility.  When we celebrate resilience, we focus the spotlight on the people who got screwed over.  The institutions that did the screwing over take the opportunity to slink off into the shadows.

Cops and Cellblocks in post-Katrina New Orleans.

For all the talk of resilience in post-Katrina New Orleans, there’s one resilience story that has not been told enough.  It’s the story of the thing that’s been trying to slink off into the shadows.   It’s the story of the criminal justice system, and the presumptions of violence and criminality that undergird it. 

It’s not just front porch gum gnashing to tell and retell the story of  post-Katrina law & order policing and the presumptions of criminality. Those presumptions caused the death of hundreds of people in the days of the flood.

On August 31, two days after Katrina made landfall and a day after the levees broke, Sheriff Marlin Gusman made a call up to Angola Prison, looking for Warden Burl Cain. The Sheriff had screwed up royally, failing to evacuate ahead of the storm the 8,000+ men and women locked up in the Orleans Parish Prison.  Now, many of his staff had abandoned their posts, leaving men, women and children locked in pitch-black cells with the floodwater rising.  When the Sheriff’s piss poor evacuation “plan” finally got underway, it left thousands of handcuffed men out on an interstate overpass.

But Gusman’s  attention wasn’t entirely on evacuating the men and women in his custody. Hardly. What Gusman wanted was another jail, and fast.  It would take a miracle to build a jail while levees were still busting loose. Thus, the phone call up to Burl Cain, the warden of Angola Prison.

Warden Cain is a man who can work miracles. Jesus’s five loaves and two fish is a pittance compared to the number of churches Cain has built (or could be building) with the “donations” to his Chapel Fund at Angola Prison.  He controls the flow of state prisoners – and therefore the flow of the per diem cash payments – sent out to parish jails, meaning Sheriffs throughout Louisiana are beholden to him.  Many believe Cain is more powerful than the Governor.  In any event, building a jail in the middle of an unfolding disaster was no problem at all.  Cain sent down spare materials from around Angola and a crew of prisoners to do the building.

It took two days – by September 2, the Greyhound Bus Station’s conversion into a new jail was complete. Cain bragged to the New York Times, “This is a real start to rebuilding this city, this jail.” It was, in the words of writer Dave Eggers, a

complex and exceedingly efficient government operation…completed while residents of New Orleans were trapped in attics and begging for rescue from rooftops and highway overpasses.  The portable toilets were available and working at Camp Greyhound while there were no working bathrooms at the Convention Center and Superdome a few blocks away. Hundreds of cases of water and MREs were readily available for the guards and prisoners, while those stranded nearby were fighting for food and water.”

The hero of Egger’s beautifully written true story Zeitoun is a Muslim, Syrian-born building contractor who stays in New Orleans during the flood, rescuing people and dogs in his aluminum canoe.  He is arrested on suspicion of being a looter and a terrorist, and taken to Camp Greyhound.  To Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the chain-link fence cages, open air with nowhere to sleep, “looked precisely like the pictures he’s seem of Guantanamo Bay.”

On the same day that Camp Greyhound was complete, a mile to the west, the second in command of the New Orleans Police Department instructed dozens of officers gathered at an temporary command post outside the Hurrah’s casino to “take back the city” from looters.  Many of the officers later claimed they were told to shoot looters.  Officers at another morning roll call were told, “We have authority by martial law to shoot looters.”

The police brass were repeating Governor Kathleen Blanco’s wild-eyed warning the day before about the imminent deployment of U.S. soldiers “fresh back from Iraq” into New Orleans and “under my orders to restore order in the streets.” She said, “They have M-16s and they are locked and loaded…I have one message for these hoodlums. These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.”  FEMA Director Michael Brown claimed they were working “under conditions of urban warfare.”

If it was warfare, the civilians were not faring well. Across town, 31-year old Henry Glover was shot in the chest by Officer David Warren of the New Orleans Police Department.  The police burned his body in an attempt to cover up the homicide.

Two days later, on September 4, a group of NOPD officers jumped out of truck on Danzinger Bridge and started firing at a family unlucky enough to be on the bridge. The officers killed seventeen-year-old James Brissette and forty-year-old Ronald Madison, and injured four others.  The officers claimed they had been shot at by Ronald Madison’s brother, Lance Madison, and tried to charge him with eight counts of attempted murder. That would have been a neat trick, considering none of the people on the bridge were armed.

District Attorney Eddie Jordan believed at the time that  “40 or 50 murders” had taken place at the Superdome and Convention Center.  FEMA sent an 18-wheeler to pick up what they were told would be hundreds of bodies of people killed in a gang shoot-out. Those reports, alongside rumors of rapes and baby-killings, turned out to be pure hooey.  The four people at the Superdome and three at the Convention Center who died were not part of a gang shootout or a killing spree. They died of a too-slow evacuation. Another person committed suicide.

The two homicides that did occur outside the Convention Center were at the hands of the police: 45-year old Danny Brunfeld was shot to death by a police officer when he tried to wave down his cruiser for help, and 41-year old Matthew McDonald was shot in the back with an AR-15 assault rifle by an NOPD lieutenant.

In total, at least ten people were shot to death by NOPD officers in the days immediately after Katrina.

Hundreds more dead

Hundreds more died because of the shoot to kill, locked & loaded horseshit.  After a single day of the NOPD searching for and rescuing people, Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the NOPD police to quit the search & rescue.  They were to focus instead on stopping looters and maintaining the curfew.

Civilians kept on with the rescues, without much help from the military and police now pouring into the city. When Zeitoun and his friend needed help with an elderly woman who had been clinging to her bookcase afloat in her living room, they  spotted a fan boat…

…a military model, loud, with a great fan anchored perpendicularly to the rear…He and Frank positioned their canoe in the path of the boar and waved their arms. The fan boat came straight for them, and when it was close, Zeitoun could see that there were four or five uniformed officers aboard; he wasn’t sure if they were police or military, but he was very happy to see them. He waved, and Frank waved, both of them yelling ‘Stop!’ and ‘Help!’ But the fan boat did not stop….

This happened repeatedly over the next twenty minutes. Ten of these vessels, all staffed by soldiers or police officers, ignored their canoe and their calls for assistance. Where were these boats going, what were they looking for, if not for residents of the city asking for help? It defied belief.”

Later in the day, joined by two men in a small fishing boat, Zeitoun and Frank rescued the woman.  Zeitoun realizes “he and Frank had heard the people they had helped, in particular the old woman floating inside her home, because they were in a canoe.  Had they been in a fan boat, the noise overwhelming, they would have heard nothing.”  The woman would not have survived another night.

The overwhelming human instinct to help rescue people was repeatedly beaten back by reports of massive looting, snipers shooting at helicopters, and mayhem.  People were desperate to help.   My partner and I were in Lake Charles, with a friend who had a boat and a crawfish hunter of a husband.  The husband had hitched the boat up the minute he heard people were stranded on rooftops.  He was ready to catch up to the thousand people – shrimpers, fishermen, and other experienced boaters – who had set out from Lafayette on August 31 with 500 boats. But at the edge of New Orleans, FEMA stopped the rescue flotilla and ordered everyone to turn around.

This wasn’t simply ineptitude, though there was plenty of that to go around. This was the rhetoric of law and order leaving people to die. How many people? A 2009 report estimated over 900 people died of illness or injury while trapped in their home, waiting to be rescued.

Institutional Resilience

Resilience, from the Latin resilīre, to spring back, is the ability to return to an original form after deformative stress.  When it comes to institutions, those moments of deformative stress can be revealing.  The institution loses its decorative bunting and what we see is its essential nature.

The Sheriff’s department, it turns out, is essentially about locking people in dog cages. Public safety and all that? Decorative bunting. And the police department, it turns out, essentially regard the New Orleanians who did not evacuate – overwhelmingly African American and not wealthy – as a dangerous and violent enemy.

As the stress of the post-Katrina flood eased up, these criminal justice institutions proved to be damned resilient.

Sheriff Gusman did little to help reconnect the 8,000 people who had been in his custody with their families.  Instead, he focused on trying to wheedle FEMA money into rebuilding his already oversized jail into a supersized porker of a pokey.  Fierce, organized opposition by a coalition of community members insisting on a smaller jail has won the latest round, but the Sheriffs remains doggedly committed to as large a jail as possible.

As for the NOPD, the officers involved in the Danzinger Bridge and the Glover cover-up have been charged and convicted, and the Department of Justice has finally put the department under a federal Consent Order.   There’s little evidence, though, of the “fundamental culture change” that is needed.  The NOPD remains committed to its fundamental belief that it is at war with “these hoodlums.”  Within a week of the Consent Order being signed, a new “proactive patrol” policy went into effect, certain to increase the number of junk arrests and harassment of young black men.  And the city’s largest police officers’ association asked to intervene after officers read the Order and realized their use of pepper spray and use of force would be limited.

This Katrina anniversary, it’s worth remembering that it’s not just the good people of New Orleans that are resilient.  Bad institutions are pretty damned resilient too.

Further reading:

Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun (2009) tells the story of Abhulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun, a Muslim family served a nasty shot of post-Katrina fuckery with a post-9/11 anti-Muslim chaser.  Fantastically well-written.

The ACLU’s Abandoned and Abused: Orleans Parish Prison in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina (2006) chronicles the Sheriff Department’s massive evacuation fail.   For thumbnail sketches of the OPP prisoners that remained scattered in prisons across Louisiana for months, the “representative interviews” at the back of SCHR’s Report on Pre- and Post-Katrina Indigent Defense in New Orleans (March 2006).

For background on the NOPD, the DOJ’s investigation of the New Orleans Police Department (March 2011).

ProPublica’s Law & Disorder series spearheaded by A.C. Thompson took the lead on understanding the scope of post-Katrina police killings. It is investigative reporting at its very best.

3 thoughts on ““The next person who calls me resilient I’m gonna stab in the neck…”

  1. Teresa says:

    Dear God- I knew it was bad/ but it was horrendous . Racism is such an evil in our society

  2. AxeofSam says:

    I found this site through Grits for Breakfast. Not only does Grits do wonderful investigating and reporting himself, but he inspires others to do the same (as evidenced by this site)!

    Thank you for this incredibly detailed and thorough story. I am no stranger to the ugly truths behind American propaganda, but this just floors me. And I physically want to vomit right now.

    The evil that is government knows no boundaries.

    I’m still trying to process all this, so I don’t have much else to say at the moment…

    Thanks, again.

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