Workers Vanguard No. 959

21 May 2010


Katrina: Danziger Bridge Cover-Up Exposed

Homicidal New Orleans Cops

The notorious New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) has been so flagrantly kill-crazy since Hurricane Katrina that newly elected mayor Mitch Landrieu called in the federal Justice Department earlier this month to help “clean up” the NOPD. Last year, the Feds raided the NOPD’s homicide department as part of investigations into killings by the cops on New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge, six days after the hurricane, as well as their subsequent cover-up and other atrocities that had been exposed in the national media. Almost five years after the events, with the statute of limitations set to expire, four former police officers pleaded guilty in federal court to charges relating to the shootings on Danziger Bridge. But these federal investigations are not about “justice”; they are a con game to rehabilitate the NOPD and “help repair the enormous breach in public trust the department now faces,” in the words of an editorial in the New Orleans Times-Picayune (25 February). It’s all so the NOPD can better do its job of terrorizing working people, the black poor and just about everyone else.

Hurricane Katrina threw a spotlight on the reality of black oppression in the U.S. and exposed the venality, class arrogance and utter ineptitude of the capitalist government at all levels, from the mayor on up to the White House. In the hurricane’s wake, the raw violence at the core of the capitalist state was stripped of its democratic facade as a tidal wave of police and white vigilante terror was unleashed against black New Orleans residents. National television broadcasts of thousands of desperate survivors trapped in the Convention Center evoked the horrors of the Middle Passage. Barely a day after the flooding, the government and its media mouthpieces made the victims out as “criminals,” spreading vile tales of black looters and rapists (while white residents resourcefully “found” food and water and cops helped themselves to Cadillacs from a local dealership).

Fanning this racist hysteria, Ray Nagin, then the black Democratic mayor, ranted, “Anybody who is caught looting in the city of New Orleans will go directly to Angola,” one of the U.S.’s most notorious prisons. “God bless you if you are there,” he warned. The authorities wasted no time in constructing a prison camp in the parking lot of the Greyhound bus station—the notorious “Camp Greyhound”—using Angola prison labor. The warden from Angola prison declared that this was the first step in the rebuilding of New Orleans: “You can’t have the security until you have the jail” (see “Notes on New Orleans” by Joe Vetter, WV No. 955, 26 March).

Introducing its investigative series “Law and Disorder: Police Shootings in the Week After Hurricane Katrina,” the Times-Picayune (12 December 2009) wrote, “New Orleans police shot 10 civilians, at least four of whom died, according to interviews and internal police documents.... In the week after Katrina, New Orleans police killed and wounded as many people as they do in a typical year.” At least eleven black men were hunted down by white “militia” patrolling the Algiers district with the support of the NOPD. The 2006 Danish documentary Welcome to New Orleans shows one vigilante gloating, “It was great! It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it.” These killings are only the ones that have been documented. With the massive police and state cover-up, the extent of the deadly racist frenzy probably will never be known.

Most notorious are the shootings at Danziger Bridge, where, according to the New York Times (5 May), police accounts describe “the strafing of unarmed civilians.” The Times-Picayune (18 February 2007) recounted:

“Shooting victims and police agree on only a few points: that about 9 a.m. on Sept. 4, 2005, six people were shot by police, five of them on the eastern side of the Danziger Bridge. The Bartholomew family—Leonard Bartholomew III, his wife, Susan, and their teenage daughter, Lesha—jumped behind a concrete barrier with a relative, Jose Holmes, and his friend, Brissette. The four survivors were repeatedly hit by police bullets: Susan’s right arm was partially blasted off, Lesha had four wounds, while Leonard was shot in the head, back and left heel.”

James Brissette died on the spot. He was 19 years old and, according to the police report, he had seven gunshot wounds to his arms, neck, buttocks and leg. The family had been trying to get to a Winn-Dixie grocery store on the other side of the bridge. Also heading east were two brothers, Lance and Ronald Madison. They ran over the bridge to flee the shooting; Ronald was shot and killed by a cop in the driveway of the former Friendly Inn Motel at the foot of the bridge. He was 40 years old and, according to his family, mentally disabled. Lance Madison was arrested on trumped-up charges of attempted murder.

Police lieutenant Michael Lohman arrived at the bridge shortly after the killings, along with a host of other police, and instantly began to orchestrate the cover-up, including making sure that the gun cops planted at the scene was not traceable (the victims were all unarmed) and rewriting the official report to be more plausible. In the Times-Picayune (7 March), reporter James Gill described how Lohman played an instrumental role in protecting the cops from murder charges in 2008 related to the Danziger Bridge shootings. Lohman claimed he was shown secret grand jury testimony by an assistant district attorney, leading the judge to dismiss the case. Gill noted that the other assistant DA working the case, who was at the meeting where Lohman was allegedly shown the transcript, “says it just didn’t happen. It was just a ploy to get Lohman’s men off the hook.” Later, Lohman became the first cop to plead guilty to the federal charges over the shootings.

Three other cop shootings the week after Katrina were investigated in depth in the Times-Picayune series. Police shot Danny Brumfield Sr., a black 45-year-old grandfather, in the back outside the Convention Center and left him to die. Matthew McDonald, a white man, was also fatally shot in the back by a cop with an AR-15 assault rifle; cops told McDonald’s relatives that an unknown murderer had done it. Keenon McCann, a black man standing by a bottled water truck, was shot multiple times. Police claimed he had a gun, though it was never found. He survived his injuries; when he was released from the hospital, police sought to jail him for aggravated assault. The Times-Picayune (12 December 2009) reported that, in the period immediately following Hurricane Katrina, the NOPD superintendent “instructed police on the scenes of officer-involved shootings to write up only a brief report and mark the incident as ‘NAT,’ the police code for ‘necessary action taken’.”

The Feds are also looking at the death of 31-year-old Henry Glover, a case first brought to light by the Nation in December 2008. Glover was shot by an unknown person four days after the hurricane. When a helpful passer-by, William Tanner, drove him to a nearby school commandeered by the NOPD, Tanner was handcuffed and beaten by the cops, who confiscated the car with Glover in it, still alive. Weeks later, Tanner found his car, burnt out with Glover’s charred remains still inside, behind a district police station.

The New Orleans Police Department has a long, sordid record of brutal racist murder and cover-up. This is not a matter of “rogue cops”; any illusion that the NOPD, or any other arm of the capitalist state, can be reformed is dangerously misguided. The police street thugs are a force of organized violence to protect the capitalists’ class rule and private property. As for the Feds, look at their history of setting up civil rights activists for murder, from Viola Liuzzo in Alabama in 1965 to the Greensboro, North Carolina, massacre of leftist anti-Klan demonstrators in 1979. In the U.S., a country founded on chattel slavery, the ruling class depends on the forcible segregation of the overwhelming majority of the black population at the bottom of society, inflaming racial divisions to keep the working class divided and misled. It will take a socialist revolution to end the savage exploitation and brutal racial oppression of capitalist class rule and the barbarism through which it is enforced. Our purpose is to build the workers party necessary to lead the proletariat in that struggle.