Black Rage in New Orleans: Police Brutality Spawns Activism
With its French, Spanish and Creole influences, New Orleans has the oldest black urban community of any city in the country. It also has a shocking history of police brutality that is told in “Black Rage in New Orleans: Police Brutality and African American Activism from WWII to Katrina,” a new book by Leonard N. Moore, Ph.D., to be released by LSU Press in April.
Moore recounts the history of police brutality in the Crescent City along with the energetic opposition waged by blacks. Drawing on police records, records from civil rights organizations, oral histories, and newspaper accounts, he details the problems with an underpaid, understaffed and undereducated police force that had an unwritten mandate to “keep black folks in line.”
By the 1970s enough black officers had been hired that the Black Organization of Police in New Orleans was formed to begin addressing the aggressive policing tactics and to make sure black officers were treated fairly. “There was little the organization could do,” said Moore. “If officers in the organization were perceived as being radical, their career would stall.”
He explained that corruption was woven into the culture from the top ranks. Often black officers were involved in the corruption and brutalized black residents of New Orleans. “In many ways it was easier for them—they couldn’t be accused of racism,” said Moore.
What amazed Moore was the number of ordinary citizens who have protested and voiced their outrage throughout the years. From 1945-2000 he estimates that more than 30 organizations were established to deal with police brutality. Rather than remain passive, African Americans in the city formed anti-brutality organizations, staged marches, held sit-ins, waged boycotts, vocalized their concerns at city council meetings, and demanded equitable treatment. Citizen groups such as the Police Brutality Committee, Committee for Accountable Police, the Liberation League and Community Action Now mobilized and managed to hold police anti-brutality meetings where 4,000 or more people would show up.
Corruption and brutality continued unabated until the late 1980s-mid 1990s. In 1994, Washington, D.C. assistant chief of police Richard Pennington was hired to head up the New Orleans Police Department and he began a series of reforms including community policing practices, increased training, better pay and other reforms. During his tenure more than 350 police officers were indicted, fired or disciplined for misconduct. He left for Atlanta in 2002 after running for mayor and losing to Ray Nagin.
The effects of Pennington’s reform effort were not lasting. For example, there were high profile incidents such as one on Danziger Bridge, when police opened fire, killing a mentally retarded man and one other person, just days after Hurricane Katrina. Even in the past year, the Louisiana Weekly and the Times Picayune reported a coalition of community leaders, civil rights activists and ministers gathered to demand justice and answers after a fatal shooting involving plain- clothes police officers left a 22-year-old New Orleans man dead, shot 12 times.
Moore’s goal for the book: “I’m hoping that when people pick up the book, they will see how brutality has been persistent. It is an everyday fact of life for many American people.”
Moore is an associate professor of history and an assistant vice president for diversity and community engagement at The University of Texas at Austin.