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Post-Katrina 'vigilante' violence: rumor or fact?

The US Attorney's Office and the FBI are looking into allegations of roaming 'people hunters' targeting blacks in the floods and chaos of four years ago.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 2, 2009



Atlanta

Looters, rogue cops, rifle-toting vigilante militias, and homes protected by jerry-rigged alarm systems made of empty strung-together beer cans.

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New Orleans in the immediate wake of Katrina was a surreal, dismal, and sometimes deadly place.

Four years after the flood waters receded, it remains a city inundated by doubt about those days of chaos.

Did vigilante bands of roaming "people hunters" from a white neighborhood pass among the flood waters, shooting 11 black men, as one victim has alleged? A burnt car with a bullet-ridden body inside was found on the West Bank near the 4th District Police Station in the storm's aftermath. Police fired on civilians on the Danziger Bridge, thinking them looters, killing two.

What actually happened and who is culpable in these incidents is now the focus of probes by the US Attorney's Office and the FBI. Asked why investigations like these are just now being launched, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin recently explained, "We had a little event called Katrina."

Some New Orleanians believe the allegations point to "a broader pattern of violence ... that should reframe our understanding of the catastrophe," writes A.C. Thompson, a reporter with ProPublica, a nonprofit journalism venture.

In an article published in The Nation, a weekly news magazine, he claims that incidents of white-on-black violence "have gone unpunished."

But teasing the facts out of a flood of rumor and grains of truth will be daunting. It is a "morally treacherous" gambit to measure the actions of stressed people in the virtually lawless state of post-Katrina New Orleans by typical standards, says Peter Scharf, a criminologist at Tulane University. The outcome, he worries, could impact the willingness of first responders – police, doctors and nurses – to stay behind during a major natural emergency for fear of later repercussions.

The United States District Attorney and the FBI are "entering this incredibly gray, confusing period," says Mr. Scharf. "It's like investigating the Battle of the Bulge where everyone is lost in middle of the Ardennes Forest. There's ambiguity in the fog of war."

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