If you ask a lot people in New Orleans about police brutality and corruption they'll give you a personal story, they'll tell you about themselves, or a cousin, a brother, a sister, a close friend who got shafted by the NOPD, stuck in jail for an extended period, with no or bunk charges, beat up for talking back, or disabused in some demeaning way. The department has a long, documented history of abuses and corruption. This includes everything from random assaults to cold-blooded murders, small time drug dealing to protecting warehouses full of cocaine. If you look at enough of these cases a pattern emerges: the closer they get to poor people's neighborhoods, around public housing and areas of town like the 9th Ward, Central City, and eastern Algiers, the more corrupt and summarily violent the police tend to get. The only thing longer than the NOPD's record of documented abuses is their unofficial wrap sheet ("rap sheet") kept updated by the city's vast word of mouth networks. Regular folks do not trust the cops, and for good reason.
Community activists from New Orleans' most over-policed neighborhoods have been trying to expose the brutality of the NOPD for decades by drawing from the experiences and knowledge-base of working class communities, and connecting this information to official channels of justice. It's been a Herculean effort with few clear victories. Post-Katrina this situation seems to have changed. I say "seems" because there's actually some major problems with the way in which many of the NOPD's Katrina-related murders are being handled by the mass media and federal government, ways that don't bode well for shifting our politics toward a more systematic kind of justice that would include regular folks.
The federal investigations into several high-profile Katrina killings, along with the murder of Adolph Grimes have been getting more play in the press. This situation is something of a first for New Orleans. The veil of seemingly impenetrable impunity around many authorities in the Crescent City has been pierced and the possibility of more than a few cops going to jail for their crimes seems real.
The work done by AC Thompson and company deserves a shout out, for it's now at the center of this police inquiry.
But here's something that's been bugging me the whole time: it took an article in The Nation to prompt the FBI to investigate the murder of Henry Glover?
So is this truly how word of Glover's gruesome killing got around to the FBI? If so, what does this say about the FBI? What hole in the sand have they been sticking their heads in? More so, what does this say about the press, especially the local media who knew about the story since 2005 but chose not to investigate? And what does this say about our media in general?
Again, if you ask virtually anyone in New Orleans' working class neighborhoods about the behavior of the cops after Katrina they'll tell you stories of shootings, beatings, and all manner or brutality. (They'll also tell you many cops were helpful and respectful, but the universally militarized atmosphere was overwhelming, and it made individual attitudes somewhat irrelevant.) So how is it that this widely possessed body of knowledge never translated into some kind of action by the federal authorities? Why was it necessary for The Nation and Propublica to publish an article before the countless number of stories about police brutality and murder, including William Tanner's compelling testimonial, were taken seriously by federal investigators?
In my eyes there's an obvious answer. Poor people of color have very little standing as victims, witnesses, and plaintiffs in this nation's "justice system," except perhaps when they are employed to criminalize and incarcerate one another. When they have evidence of misdeeds by powerful organizations and individuals, as is the case with respect to the NOPD's Katrina killings, they are systematically ignored and intimidated into silence, especially by local media and authorities whose tendency is to sweep things under the rug and protect the powerful. Equally, poor people of color have little access and influence over the national media discourse. They are quite often the subject of its analysis, but virtually never agents shaping that discourse. It's always been this way. It still is this way. Their opinions, experiences, and demands are not equivalent to those of more enfranchised groups.
There's also the matter of the FBI. During the Civil Rights Movement (1954-1965) blacks caught hell in the south but were routinely told by federal officers, from the FBI through the Justice Department on up to the President, that federal intervention just couldn't happen. The rule, more often than not, was for the feds to turn down calls for assistance and investigation. We tend to think otherwise because of histories that lionize the federal state for sending troops to de-segregate high schools or for putting resources into several high-profile murders of activists, but the sad truth is that the federal government has always been unresponsive to the calls of black communities when grave injustices are perpetrated by local officials and vigilantes.
And so it seems to be exactly the case with respect to William Tanner's testimony regarding the murder of Henry Glover. "But wait," you say, is not the FBI investigating? Sure, but according to Propublica's AC Thomspon and the Times Picayune's Brenden McCarthy and Laura Maggi this comes only after The Nation published Thompson's investigation into the murders. So we have two issues here. If we believe the reporters, the FBI is clearly in severe dereliction of duty. As I've already noted, Glover's murder was well known amongst New Orleanians from the very beginning and the agency should have been on top of this case by early 2006 at the latest. And judging from the stories I've personally been told, there are other killings that deserve scrutiny.
But there's something else going on here that's also very troubling, and it has less to do with cops and feds and more to do with the dysfunctions of journalism. The simple truth is that contrary to what the reporters working on this story now claim, the Nation didn't break this story with Thompson's article, and as good a piece of reporting as it was, it was by no means path breaking and it did not bring very many new facts to light.
William Tanner's testimony was out there in the public eye a year earlier for all to listen to. It was the People's Hurricane Relief Fund that provided Tanner with his first public forum in which to tell this chilling tale. At their 2007 International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, held in New Orleans, PHRF assembled an international panel of conveners and judges to investigate, record, and report on official government crimes conducted during and after the storms. Tanner's testimony was one of the most shocking and worthy of follow up, but sadly the national media and local media (including the Times Picayune) refused to cover the Tribunal.
The media blackout of the Tribunal was just a part of the larger media blackout of local, grassroots struggle against official crimes and abuses in the wake of Katrina. It was another example of how poor people of color are given very little standing as victims, witnesses, and plaintiffs in this nation's "justice system," except perhaps when they are employed to criminalize one another. When they have evidence of misdeeds by powerful organizations and individuals, poor people tend to be ignored. And in this case, when an organization led by people of color convened what was the single most important fact-finding inquest into state crimes during and after Katrina, the media simply didn't come and report, and the FBI sent no representatives.
So now we have this fairy tale of justice in the works whereby the great white knight of the FBI has come riding into town to save the impoverished masses from a few bad apple cops, and all of New Orleans is supposed to thank The Nation?
Both The Nation and Propublica, and the journalists leading the charge on their behalf are undoubtedly motivated to expose the truth and help obtain justice for the families who lost their sons, husbands, and fathers. But in their haste to claim this story as their own their other motives peek through: Propublica is probably interested in riding this story to a large foundation grant. The Nation surely sees its role as the news maker here as a lucrative one that will increase its readership. Neither motivation is bad per se. However, in the context of the Katrina murders and this ongoing dynamic that silences certain voices while privileging others, the journalists here who have done so much good work to amplify grassroots knowledge and demands should pay some credit where it's due, starting with PHRF. Furthermore, The Nation and Propublica don't so much deserve a pat on the back as the Times Picayune and other local media shapers deserve a kick in the ass for ignoring and suppressing this story from early on.