We Always Worried This Would Happen

Spreading the poison of bigotry

BATON ROUGE, La. -- They locked down the entrance doors Thursday at the Baton Rouge hotel where I'm staying alongside hundreds of New Orleans residents driven from their homes by Hurricane Katrina.

"Because of the riots," the hotel managers explained. Armed Gunmen from New Orleans were headed this way, they had heard.

"It's the blacks," whispered one white woman in the elevator. "We always worried this would happen."

I had the misfortune to be around some bigots this week-end as I watched the footage from New Orleans. I hadn't heard some of this stuff so frankly admitted since I was a kid (when I heard it a lot.) The twisted, subterranean, politically incorrect world of racism has reared its ugly head.

This is just the latest chapter in the oldest story in America. We should be aware of it and understand it. And we should also be glad that it isn't worse because in the past it certainly was.

Ever since 1791, there have been white Americans who get very nervous when they see a large number of angry black people in one place. That was the year that Haiti's slaves rebelled and killed almost every Frenchman on the island. The fear of slave revolt --- black revolt --- entered the consciousness of the American lizard brain and has never left. From Gabriel Prosser to Nat Turner to Malcolm X to Stokely Carmichael and the long hot summers of 66 and 67, notions of barbaric vengeance being wreaked upon unsuspecting white people has lurked in our racist subconscious. During slavery it was the immoral institution itself combined with horrible inhumane treatment. After the civil war it was the knowledge of seething anger at Jim Crow. During the 60's the anger became explicit and words like "by any means necessary" reached deep into the American psyche and fueled the backlash against the civil rights movement --- and set the conditions for the Republican dominance of politics today.

Race is America's deepest psychic wound that festers in different ways over and over again. It has lost much of its original blazing pain, but it is still there, buried and waiting to come to the surface.

The memories of Nat Turner are still fresh to many for whom the Lost Cause is their defining cultural benchmark:

Starting with a trusted few fellow slaves, the insurgency ultimately numbered more than 40 slaves and free blacks, mostly on horseback. The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing all the whites they could find; men, women and children alike. In all 55 whites were killed in the revolt.

In total, 55 blacks suspected of having been involved in the uprising were killed. In the aftermath, hundreds of blacks, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were beaten, tortured and murdered by hysterical white mobs.

In the summer of 67, the cities of this country went up in flames. The rhetoric was the same as what we heard coming from the right this past week. Peggy Noonan suggested that looters be summarily shot. And, in that summer of fire, they were. In large numbers. Only, it turned out, they weren't necessarily looters or rioters --- they were just black. Ordinary people, housewives, kids were gunned down by renegade cops and national guard who were given orders to shoot to kill. Every african american killed by police that summer became a symbol of collective punishment. If you were black, you could be asked to pay with your life for the sins of other blacks. That's just the way it worked.

In Rick Perlstein's (as yet unpublished) new book, which I've had the privilege to read a bit of, this is the real crucible of the 1960's. Here is just a little bit of what happened in Newark that long hot summer after the cops took off the gloves and started doing what Peggy Noonan and Jonah Goldberg have been agitating for this past week in New Orleans:

"The press was interested in making the carnage make sense. A turkey shoot of grandparents and 10-year-olds did not make sense. The New York Daily News ran an "investigation" of the death of the Newark fire captain [killed by police] and called it "The Murder of Mike Moran." The Washington Post left his cause of death as more or less a blank. The alternative--that when law enforcement spent days spraying ... rounds of ammunition, more or less at random, even white people can get killed--seemed too horrifying for mainstream ideology to contemplate. Twelve-year-old Joey Bass, in dirty jeans and scuffed sneakers, his own blood trickling down the street, lay splayed across the cover of the July 28 Life. The feature inside constituted a sort of visual and verbal legal brief for why such accidents might have been excusable. The opening spread showed a man with a turban wrapped around his head loading a Mauser by a window with the caption, "The targets were Negro snipers, like the one above." In actual fact the photo had been staged by a blustering black nationalist by the name of Colonel Hassan, what the copy claimed was an upper-floor vantage onto the streets actually a first-floor room overlooking a trash-strewn back yard. "The whole time we were in Newark we never saw what you would call a violent black man," Life photographer Bud Lee later recalled. "The only people I saw who were violent were the police."

Here is a link to Bud Lee's famous photograph of Joey Bass.

Today the NY Times reports this about snipers:

In a city racked by violence for a week, there was yet another shootout on Sunday. Contractors for the Army Corps of Engineers came under fire as they crossed a bridge to work on a levee and police escorts shot back, killing three assailants and a fourth in a later gunfight. A fifth suspect was wounded and captured. There was no explanation for it, only the numbing facts.

Perlstein reports on this incident from Newark:

And around 4 pm a group of citizens were milling around outside front of the Scudder Homes housing project off Springfield when three police cars turned the corner. The crowd assumed the police must be firing blanks at them,until a .38 caliber bullet ripped through Virgil Harrison's right forearm.

Men took off their undershirts to wave them as white flags. The cops just kept on shooting. They said they were looking for a sniper on the upper floors of the building. But they sprayed their shots at ground level. That was how Rufus Council, 35, Oscar Hill, 50, and Virgil's father Isaac "UncleDaddy" Harrison, 72, and perhaps Robert Lee Martin, 22, and Cornelius Murray, 28, lost their lives. Oscar Hill was wearing his American Legion jacket. Robert Lee Martin's family reported that money was taken from his body. Murray's body was missing $126 and a ring.

There indeed were three snipers in Scudder Homes. But they began their shooting in response to these fusillades. They killed a police detective, Fred Toto, 33, a father of three, about on hour later, though in later testimony police claimed the order of the shootings was reversed.

I'm not saying that's what happened in New Orleans in the incident I reference above --- or any others. I don't know the facts. I am saying that's the kind of thing that tends to happen when rumor and paranoia get out of hand.

Here's the Council of Conservative Citizen's web site:

Updates! Eyewitness accounts report that at least six people have been murdered inside the superdome. One dozen or more have been raped. Most of the rape victims are very young. A seven year old girl, an eight year old boy, and numerous teenage girls. The US media is extremely reluctant to report any of this because of political correctness!

Yet this doctor who was ministering to the sick in the Superdome reports nothing like this:

Perhaps it's the stench that Dr. Kevin Stephens will remember the most.
It was a stench that was a gumbo of human waste, sweat, and despair.
For four days, Stephens, the Health Department director in New Orleans, administered to the sick in the Superdome, his primary patients being those in wheelchairs and nonambulatory. He watched conditions deteriorate from one of calmness on the eve of Hurricane Katrina crippling the city, to one of frustration by the time he was evacuated to the adjacent New Orleans Arena on Wednesday. He was taken to Baton Rouge on Thursday.


"I never felt threatened and I walked around the entire place," Stephens said. "I was talking to people, administering first aid. But people were ready to get out of there. The conditions were horrid and horrible. The stench was unbearable. If we had electricity, it would have been so much better."

Here's a report from last Friday:

“This place is going to look like Little Somalia,” Brig. Gen. Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force told Army Times Friday as hundreds of armed troops under his charge prepared to launch a massive citywide security mission from a staging area outside the Louisiana Superdome.

In Detroit during the riots there in 1967, Perlstein reports:

"I'm gonna shoot at anything that moves and that is black" an arriving National Guardsman declared.

(He also reports that the federal government and state blame game almost perfectly mirrors the current crisis. When things are hurtling out of control, politicians will dither until they figure out what the play is, I guess. Too bad about the dead bodies.)

The story to which I linked at the beginning of this post concludes with this:

By Thursday, local TV and radio stations in Baton Rouge—the only ones in the metro area still able to broadcast—were breezily passing along reports of cars being hijacked at gunpoint by New Orleans refugees, riots breaking out in the shelters set up in Baton Rouge to house the displaced, and guns and knives being seized.

Scarcely any of it was true—the police, for example, confiscated a single knife from a refugee in one Baton Rouge shelter. There were no riots in Baton Rouge. There were no armed hordes.

But all of it played directly into the darkest prejudices long held against the hundreds of thousands of impoverished blacks who live "down there," in New Orleans, that other world regarded by many white suburbanites—indeed, many people across the rest of the state—as a dangerous urban no-go area.

Now the floods were pushing tens of thousands of those inner-city residents deep into Baton Rouge and beyond. The TV pictures showed vast throngs of black people who had been trapped in downtown New Orleans disgorging out of rescue trucks and helicopters to be ushered onto buses headed west on Interstate Highway 10. The nervousness among many of the white evacuees in my hotel was palpable.

It's that last that we need to look for now. The evacuees are a diaspora all over the country. They are "infiltrating" a bunch of cities and towns in large numbers. Many whites fear blacks in large numbers, especially those from the big city, those who are desperate. Most especially, they fear those who are angry. (Why if they get it in their heads to be mad about how they were left behind to die like animals, who knows what will happen? Lock the doors!)

I don't honestly think there is any racist conspiracy at work. There doesn't need to be. All it takes is a reactivation of long held racist beliefs and attitudes --- attitudes that led the president to say that they had "secured" the convention center on Friday night --- which we all saw in that amazing FoxNews footage actually meant that the desperate survivors had been locked inside the sweltering hellhole. It was the attitude that had tourists staying at the Hyatt hotel being given special dispensation to go to the head of the lines at the Superdome. It was the attitude that made my racist companions disgusted by the "animals" at the convention center because they were living in filth fail to grasp that these people had been expecting to be rescued at any moment for more than four days.

It's that attitude that led these people to talk endlessly about rape with lurid imagery and breathless, barely contained excitement. This too is part of the American lizard brain.

I have no doubt that there was criminality on the streets of New Orleans. When the law disappears, that's what happens. But when you looks closely at our history you see that whenever large numbers of african americans are featured, this is the kind of thing that is said and thought and done. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't believe it or that criminals shouldn't be brought to justice. But our history suggests that when we hear reports of cops gunning down looters, snipers and rapists in the street, we should at least maintain a normal skepticism. Far too often in our history it has been shown later that things were not as they seemed at the time.

This, by the way, is not a neat black and white thing and never has been. Some black Americans have the same lizard brain reactions as do whites. In 1822:

Perhaps inspired by the way slaves coordinated their slave revolution in Santo Domingue (know today as the Haitian Revolution), [Denmark Vesey] planned what would have been the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history. His insurrection, which was to take place on July 14, 1822, became known by about 9,000 slaves and free blacks throughout Charleston who were to participate. The plot was leaked by slaves loyal to their white owners who overheard talks of rebellion, and 131 people were charged with conspiracy by Charleston authorities.

Nobody will be surprised to learn, I assume, that recent scholarship indicates Desmond Vesey was framed.