Why They Are Shooting at the Authorities in New Orleans

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Mr. Russell is a professor of history and American Studies at Barnard College. He is at work on a study of resistance to police brutality in the 20th-century South.

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The violence in New Orleans was so relentless and cold-blooded that it seemed to be from a Hollywood movie, not real life. Two people walked into a restaurant, forced a brother and sister onto their knees, then shot them in the head. A drug dealer settled a score with a woman by ordering someone to kill her with the command, “Get that whore!” Other women were raped at gunpoint. Hundreds of people were beaten, some fatally, simply for being on the streets at the wrong time.

These acts were not carried out in the last seven weeks by looters, gang members, or opportunistic criminals. They were committed in the last ten years by New Orleans police officers.

For many Americans, the most shocking events in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have been the violent attacks on authorities who are trying to save lives and bring order to the city. But they should not be surprising to those who have experience with or knowledge of the history of the relationship between civil authorities and poor, black residents of American cities. Nowhere has that relationship been worse than in New Orleans, where for decades the police department has been at war with the residents of the city.

Riots in response to police brutality in northern cities are famous – from the rebellions in Watts, Newark, and Detroit in the 1960s to the uprising in Los Angeles in 1992 – but nowhere have African Americans been treated worse by civil authorities – even emergency and medical personnel – than in the cities of the South. Until the 1970s, Memphis police routinely carried out executions and dumped the bodies in the Mississippi River, and Birmingham’s police force was renowned for its large cross-membership with the Ku Klux Klan. The influx of African Americans into political offices and police forces in recent decades has not protected black southerners from police brutality. Even in Atlanta, the model “New South” city, under black mayors and chiefs of police scores of unarmed African Americans have been beaten and shot by police officers.

But no government agency has earned more enmity from African Americans than the New Orleans Police Department. “ Some cities’ police departments have reputations for being brutal, like Los Angeles, or corrupt, like New York, and still others are considered incompetent,” Human Rights Watch reported in 1998. “ New Orleans has accomplished the rare feat of leading nationally in all categories.” From 1996 to 2004, the Justice Department’s civil rights division conducted an investigation of the NOPD, and threatened a federal takeover of the department if substantial reforms were not undertaken.

For many residents of the city, the reforms that were enacted have not been substantial enough. The shots that were fired nightly in early September at the police station on Rampart Street -- dubbed “Fort Apache” by the beleaguered cops inside -- came from a housing project near where a man died after a run-in with the police in July. What now appears to have been a foreshadowing of recent events took place in April at a public hearing conducted by the mayor’s Human Relations Committee, where a man who identified himself as a victim of police brutality was applauded by the audience for announcing that he would “ march into the 2nd District with a gun and open fire on everyone I see.”

African Americans have reason to resent other government agencies as well. Fire departments across the country were all-white until a series of law suits in the 1970s forced a measure of integration, and most still do not reflect the demographics of the cities they serve. And last month, the New England Journal of Medicine published a set of reports showing that black patients in the United States receive far fewer operations, medications, diagnostic tests and lifesaving medical treatments than whites.

This is not to suggest that all authorities in New Orleans deserve the treatment they have received from vengeful residents. But history should help to explain why, in a city like New Orleans, those wearing a uniform are not accorded the deference, gratitude, and respect that most white Americans believe they deserve.


Human Rights Watch, “ New Orleans,” in Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States, 1998.

“Police try to fortify ‘ Fort Apache’,” Houston Chronicle, September 5, 2005.

“Feds end 8-year NOPD probe; Reforms have cut citizen complaints,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 30, 2004.

Michael Honey, Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers.

Glenn Eskew, But For Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle

Human Rights Watch, “ Atlanta,” in Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States, 1998.

Jonathon S. Wright, “Confronting Police Brutality in Atlanta,” counterpunch.com, August 24, 2002.

New England Journal of Medicine , August 18, 2005.

“Daughter points finger at cops; FBI joins probe of man's death,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 2, 2005.

“Residents blast NOPD in heated forum; Racism rampant, speakers contend,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 28, 2005.

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Jamie Stone - 10/18/2005

thank you for actually addressing why this occurs. not just that southern cops are racist

Jonathan Dresner - 10/17/2005

The only claim that I'm dismissing is the one that can't be verified, though there's been a month of trying. The rest of the article, about the background of violent crime and police malfeasance in N.O. is pretty much in line with what I've heard. Numbers would be useful, but some of these things are hard to quantify and even the numbers need careful contextualization which may not be possible in a short article.

John H. Lederer - 10/17/2005

New Orleans has always had a corrupt police force.

In the eighties and nineties New Orleans, initially by court orders and then by a series of black city administrations made a determined effort to make the police force have the same racial composition as the city.

New Orleans police are notoriously underpaid. To change the race of recruits, New orleans imposed its residency requirment.

The intial result was a shortage of police. To counter that shortage the city lowered the acceptance criteria for recruits. A felony conviction, dishonorable discharge, or other evidence of bad character were no longer bars to becoming a cop. It also promoted bad cops to be supervisors.

The end result is a police force that has a large number of "uniformed criminals" in its force. Coming on top of a long and dirty history of corruption, the force sank to abysmal levels. Not too many police forces organize witness murders -- New Orleans police do.

Quite arguably, the New Orleans police force is itself a criminal enterprise

Your solution?.

John Cameron - 10/17/2005

Violence begets violence.
America should get it's own house in order before lecturing others.
Reap what ye sow

Daniel Hurewitz - 10/17/2005

While Jonathan Dresner may be too quick to dismiss Mr. Russell's claims, I do think some numbers would be helpful. How much brutality did we see in New Orleans in the last month or decade? It's too easy for the level of violence to be mythologized...

And at the same time, how should we correlate the level of police brutality with that of violent crime in the city? New Orleans had been one of the leading cities in those terms as well. Thus the boast to shoot up the police station might also be read as indicative of the level of accepted violence in the city as well, not just anti-police hostility.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/17/2005

...the latest I've heard is that there have been no confirmed incidents of people shooting at (as opposed to the sounds of gunshots in the vicinity of) rescuers, including the PD.

So, while the background is indeed dramatic and disturbing, it didn't actually lead to the problem. Though the perception of a problem in the form of rumors did delay rescue efforts in a number of situations.