Even though I am late commenting on this story in The Nation, I am not late hearing about it. I first caught wind of “the militia” the week after the Flood. This was the time of depictions of the city in chaos and mass looting. I admit I was glad someone was watching over the neighborhood after the virtual collapse of city, state and federal governments. Come to find out though, the militia never made it to my side of Opelousas, the “muddy” side talked about in the article.
When I arrived back in town there were lots of stories going around about what occurred but no one mentioned specifics about the shootings. People were mostly bragging. They were proud of themselves. I never doubted that some shootings occurred, but most of us were concerned with getting the city (and our lives) together. In the weeks following the Flood, there were so many horrendous stories going around and so much fabrication and sensational hyperbole that I resigned myself to the fact that it would almost be impossible to piece it all together. And I don’t think A.C. Thompson does a very good job with the small slice he was tasked with.
First things first, I believe Donnell Herrington’s story. Reason being: the shooters have not stepped up and stated their side. Therefore the only information available is Herrington’s and he has a scar and hospital reports to back it up. He was shot and the person who shot him hasn’t stated clearly the reasons why he or she did so. Until this person does, Herrington’s story must be accepted as truth. Also, it doesn’t sound far-fetched considering the fact that several Algiers Point residents stated similar events did indeed occur, some with fatal results. In fact, Herrington himself could have easily died and if he had this event wouldn’t have seen the light of day. It takes a brave person to be shot and then to speak out against his would-be killers. If the people who did the shooting are as brave, they need to state their side of the story. I fully encourage them to do so. If they were indeed guilty of a crime, they should be prosecuted. If it was some sort of self defense, they need to be cleared. As it stands, Herrington and his friends are the victims in this story and thanks to Thompson for bringing their story to light.
As a resident of Algiers Point, I only want the truth. Unfortunately, truth is not something that will ever emerge from those days after the Flood. As time goes by folks are going to meld the entire incident to their own prejudices. Racists on both side of the spectrum are going to cite the Flood as proof of their own twisted, segregated ideas. The critical thinkers in the middle will be left to sort it all out and of course it will never be totally.
As it relates to my neighborhood, we took a beating in the article and it certainly looks like no attempt was made to portray us as a place that struggles with issues of race like any other spot in the country, like Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati and Los Angeles have in the last few years. It seems at no point was a person whose aim was racial harmony given a quote in the article and I think just about everyone I know who lives here indeed wants it. The problem is, these people were hundreds of miles away when the events of the article took place.
But when American government collapses (and the Flood and the L.A. Riots are the only two times I have seen it do so in my lifetime with Katrina being a much wider and far-reaching collapse) then folks take matters into their own hands. The looters looking for goods, the desperate looking for food and the fearful looking for protection all have to rely on their own decisions. Never in Thompson’s article is it stated (as a well-rounded article might) how residents of Algiers Point were supposed to react in light of the crimes happening around them with no law enforcement available. It is suggested that they help people getting off the ferries and offer food and water but the sheer logistics and realities of this aren’t explored. What position was the community in to provide relief? What were they supposed to do if someone they were trying to help tried to harm them? The article incompetently avoids the very real fact that these people’s lives were threatened and some of them made very bad choices when put under this pressure. The threats these men were facing is downplayed and the insane reactions of a handful of them are accentuated.
Algiers Point is a neighborhood that only three years ago had a string of four murders in a few weeks time, including a young Vietnamese girl working in her family’s store killed for a thrill. Then a NOPD officer was shot and paralyzed in front of the same store the next year. Folks are fed up with crime here. Perhaps other cities don’t struggle with the problem so openly and under as much scrutiny because other cities are segregated by class and race. New Orleans (and Algiers Point) largely isn’t. So we fight our battles in the open rather than behind closed doors. But never think for a moment that these incidents don’t exist elsewhere. New Orleans is a special case indeed. It’s special because it is exposed.
Still, people in other cities need someone to point at and say, “Those are the bad guys.” Whether it is the racist perpetrators of the acts depicted in this article or the out-of-control crime or the corrupt politicians, folks of all sorts need New Orleans to exist so they can feel better about themselves. They need to come down here and do reports that stir things up. They need to post hateful messages on the Internet. They need to convince themselves that the place they live is so much better.
Perhaps A.C. Thompson is thinking he is helping out and he has certainly enlightened many to the events. However, calling the events in Algiers Point a “race war” is damned irresponsible. It seems as likely to incite violence as it does to bring justice to our neighborhood. And why should A.C. Thompson or the editors at The Nation care? They only need to observe it and comment from afar and maybe even be astonished at the mess they have created. Then after the fact, they can do more stories and interviews and put themselves in positions where they can be considered experts and sit in on interviews. Essentially, creating the supply and the demand for talk show appearances.
But it is the story’s bias and more so, its vagueness, that damages its important message. Consider the following direct quotes from the article that use utterly ambiguous terms to describe events: “says one local,” “a loose band of about fifteen to thirty residents,” “while the shooters, it appears, were all white” and “some of whom may have died.”
Thompson also relies on anonymous quotes generously, something that always raises questions and unequivocally affects the potential veracity of the statements. Late in the article, he quotes a woman whose cousins and uncle were involved in shootings. She doesn’t give her name because she fears her family members may be prosecuted for their crimes. At this point, why use the direct quotes? Perhaps because they are particularly incendiary? Maybe they are true, maybe they aren’t. We don’t know because we are forced to take Thompson’s word for it. That is, “I know somebody who knows somebody who said they read an e-mail that…” He also uses the anonymous account of an EMT with video of the incidents but either didn’t or wasn’t able to obtain permission to use their name. It’s questionable whether these people, who were so quick to talk to a reporter, will be so cooperative in an investigation by law enforcement or even under oath? If they spoke to a reporter, will they speak to police? Why not?
Thompson’s use of anonymous sources also makes me question his motives. Does he seek justice for the men shot in the storm? If so, wouldn’t his anonymous sources be witnesses? Or does he simply want the glory of the story? This is a question Thompson, who isn’t simply a crime reporter any longer, needs to ask himself.
In this smarmy interview Thompson and Alternet Writer Liliana Segura discuss why individuals place so much value on property over human life even though Vinnie Pervel clearly states in Thompson’s own article that he feared for his and his elderly mother’s lives. Why wasn’t this stated? Probably because this was a friendly interview, where both sides have the same bias.
But who needs real witnesses to speak up when you’ve got a drunken witness spouting off with a beer in his hand right? If Donnel Herrington is the victim in this story, its clear Wayne Janek is its impotent monster. Though he states he never shot anyone in the story, he certainly doesn’t mind indicting his neighbors with his exuberant, intoxicated boasting on video. This is a man who doesn’t have a very swell reputation in our neighborhood and has more enemies than friends. He is the one who is truly “tolerated” around our neighborhood. To many, he is the drunken village idiot. So it hurts that he is being held up as an avatar for Algiers Point when he is clearly the opposite. Those men who were involved in the very serious, very painful events in Algiers Point following the Flood should be furious at Wayne Janek or anyone else treating it like it was something frivolous. Anytime I have talked to police officers or soldiers who have killed someone, they treat the act with respect and they generally regret that it happened. That Janek or others don’t have this respect shows that, regardless of their motives, they are indeed monsters.
But of course, Janek says he never really did anything. In fact, he says he even had a chance to and didn’t. His decision with a little booze in him to brag about it in front of a camera speaks to his character and integrity.
Simply based on the facts stated in the article, the most concrete and obvious case of which there is substantial evidence of unprovoked activity is the shooting of Herrington and Marcel Alexander and Chris Collins. I think this case should be investigated and the people who did so prosecuted if the events described by them are true. I may have neighbors who disagree with me and think those who shot these men did what they had to do. To them I say when you put yourself into the position of a law enforcement officer you should be held to the same scrutiny that peace keepers are. If the police shot these men for walking down the street then they should be prosecuted. I wouldn’t want the local cops making an example out of me. These men shouldn’t have been shot.
In the end, we all suffer for prejudice. The African American men in the neighborhood suffered because racist whites lumped them together with looters. Myself and my neighbors are now suffering because folks will lump us together with these men. Does Malik Rahim believe I “tolerate” my African American next door neighbors? Do these folks in the Point look at my neighbors like they are going to rob them? It’s a damned mess.
Hopefully, this article will help sooth the anger of Donnell Herrington and bring light to the crime perpetrated against him. It’s unfortunate that it was written in such a way that didn’t paint the incident against the much broader landscape of what occurred in the days after the storm. In which events as horrific as these were taking place all over the city.
It is also unfortunate that ten times as many young African Americans are killed in the city and their deaths rarely see the attention this story has seen simply due to the fact that their killers weren’t white. The double standard is blatant.
Also, instead of focusing on the very real, very tangible account of Herrington and pursuing that, A.C. Thompson muddies the water by writing about the very troubling and often-struggled with issue of racism and drops it into the middle of a very confusing and unaccounted-for moment in American history with a seeming disregard for truth and a possible desire for chaos. Doing this and not keeping to the facts will turn Herrington’s case into a symbol of something larger and more complicated and hurt his chance at justice.
* If you don’t get a name, don’t use the quote.
Reactions to The Nation story abound: