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Nicole Gelinas
A Perfect Storm of Lawlessness
New Orleans’ vicious looters aren’t the real face of the city’s poor—their victims are.
1 September 2005

New Orleans hasn’t even been disarmed yet, but the story of those who looted, trashed, and terrorized the city this week is already being re-written. Al Sharpton went on MSNBC Thursday night to say that “looters are people who pay their taxes whose infrastructure caved in on them.” The final PC version of the story is likely to go like this: The desperate people left behind in New Orleans, nearly all black, had justification in brutally attacking their city because the help they frantically sought didn’t come.

In truth, the looters, rapists, and murderers who have terrorized New Orleans since Monday began their post-Katrina reign of terror a full day before the situation grew truly desperate—and it was their increasingly lawless behavior that kept willing but unarmed professional and volunteer rescue workers away from the city and from the poor people who needed saving.

Let’s go back to last Sunday morning—such a long time ago, it now seems. Most New Orleanians with means—the most resourceful poor, the middle class, and the affluent—left the city of nearly half-a-million residents that day, 24 hours before Katrina hit. They took planes, they drove, they hitchhiked, and some walked. Save for the home and business owners who valued their property more than their lives, most of the 100,000 or so who stayed behind were those not only poor in financial resources but in human capital as well.

Some who stayed behind are the New Orleanians who depend on the government on a good day—impoverished women, children, and elderly folks who went to the Superdome and to the Convention Center Sunday, expecting their government to take care of them. And those were the smart ones—those who moved rationally and proactively, despite a lack of transportation out of the city and a lack of government co-ordination, to secure their own physical safety. Thousands of others who stayed in their low-lying homes in the 9th Ward (which predictably flooded, as it flooded 40 years ago during Hurricane Betsy) drowned or now find themselves trapped—starved and dying of dehydration.

And the others who stayed behind, unfortunately, are those who terrorize New Orleans on a low-grade level on a good day—and have now taken over the stricken city. What’s happened is the predictable civil deterioration of a city whose fragile civil infrastructure can’t control or contain its core criminal class in peacetime.

Katrina didn’t turn innocent citizens into desperate criminals. This week’s looters (not those who took small supplies of food and water for sustenance, but those who have trashed, burned, and shot their way through the city since Monday) are the same depraved individuals who have pushed New Orleans’ murder rate to several multiples above the national average in normal times. (New Orleans, without Katrina, would have likely ended 2005 with 330 or so murders—compared to about 65 in Boston, a city roughly the same in size.) Today may not be the best day to get into New Orleans’ intractable crime problem, but it’s necessary, since it explains how this week’s communications and policing vacuum so quickly created a perfect storm for the vicious lawlessness that has broken out.

During the mid-1990s, New Orleans made some progress in cutting down its murder rate from its one-time peak as the Murder Capital of America. With the help of the feds, the city weeded out the worst of its police force (including two murderers) and implemented some new policing techniques borrowed from successful cities like New York, including COMSTAT. But New Orleans—and the state judicial system—has never cemented a sustainable institutional infrastructure to build on early progress, and the murder rate had risen perceptibly again.

New Orleans, first off, doesn’t have the middle-class or affluent tax base to afford the professional police or prosecution force it needs—crime has created a vicious cycle, pushing out taxpayers who fund the police. Nor have the city and state cemented the command-and-control direction of financial and human resources that police, detectives, and prosecutors need to do their jobs.

In New York, the mayor, police, and prosecutors know that taking one killer off the streets means preventing more killings, because a murderer frequently murders again. In New Orleans, killers and other violent criminals remain free, because in many cases, they aren’t arrested or tried; conviction rates remain abysmal. The lawlessness these criminals create in pockets of the city breeds more killers and more lawlessness. Witnesses and crime victims in the inner city fear to come forward: they know that even if a criminal winds up arrested, his associates will be free to intimidate them.

On a normal day, those who make up New Orleans’ dangerous criminal class—yes, likely the same African-Americans we see looting now—terrorize their own communities. Once in a while, a spectacular crime makes headlines—the shooting death of a tourist just outside the French Quarter, or the rape and murder of a Tulane student. But day in and day out, New Orleans’ black criminal class victimizes other blacks. Churches put up billboards in the worst neighborhoods that plead: “Thou shalt not kill.” The inner-city buses shuttle what look like hundreds of war veterans around the city—young black men, many of them innocent victims, paralyzed in wheelchairs.

This week, this entrenched criminal class has freely roamed the streets—and terrorized everyone. On Monday, New Orleans still had food and water stocked in stores across the city, but young looters began sacking stores, trashing the needed food and stealing TVs, DVDs, and other equipment. If the uncoordinated, understaffed New Orleans police had even a prayer of keeping order, it was Monday. By Tuesday, the looters had armed themselves with ample weapons supplies available in stores all across the city; by Wednesday, the armed gangs, out of food and water like everyone else, were not only viciously dangerous but desperate, hungry, and thirsty.

But while the looters have reportedly shot at police officers and rescue workers, they’re mainly victimizing, as usual, other poor blacks. The vicious looters aren’t the face of New Orleans’ poor blacks. Their victims are: the thousands of New Orleanians who made their way to shelter before the storm, and who rescued others and brought them to shelter during and after the storm—but who now cannot get the help they desperately need.

This week’s looting was predictable. When Hurricane Georges, another potentially catastrophic storm (it spared New Orleans at the last minute) was about to hit in 1998, I foolishly refused to evacuate my Uptown apartment. More than one person said I should evacuate not due to the storm, but because looters would terrorize the city afterward.

Was this week’s looting preventable? Failure to put violent criminals behind bars in peacetime has led to chaos in disaster. New Orleans’ officials had only the remotest prayer on Monday of coordinating police officers with no electronic equipment to rescue survivors while at the same time stopping looting before it descended into wholesale terror. Now, those uncoordinated police officers are themselves victims—while early reports of police officers shot remain unconfirmed, at least two officers have committed suicide.

Armed marauders have now taken over every dry area of a deluged city. They’ve hampered rescue efforts: without wanton looting, there was at least a chance that individual police officers could have distributed food in stores to those who needed it most. And they’ve likely hampered rebuilding efforts down the road: they’ve smashed much of intact Uptown and the French Quarter, which will surely be a pyschological barrier for those who knew that the storm didn’t destroy their homes and their livelihoods—fellow citizens did.

Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco lost whatever fragile authority they ever had over New Orleans early Monday, as the waters still rose. The federal government was unacceptably slow at assessing a rapidly deteriorating situation. Now, no civil authorities can re-assert order in New Orleans. The city must be forcefully demilitarized, even as innocent victims literally starve. What has happened over the past week is an embarrassment to New Orleans—and to America.

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More by Nicole Gelinas:
Choosing Citi Bike
Too Soon for Answers in Harlem
West Side Story
More . . .
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