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Hiding from bandits, and from the cops

As the disaster of Hurricane Katrina recedes into the past, most of the vivid stories we've been hearing from the survivors will slowly be distilled in our minds into just a few parables. We'll forget the exact details of what may have happened, but we'll remember the lessons of the events. That's why it's so important to listen closely to all the stories now, before "Katrina" and "New Orleans" have solidified into a shorthand for simple maxims that may or may not be helpful.

For example, the lessons we'll draw from the violence of some of the refugees depends upon what we're hearing about that violence right now. Apparently, much of the national media have described a situation where most law-abiding victims of the flood were at constant risk from their fellow refugees who couldn't resist shooting, raping, and stealing as they waited for rescue. This may just be one side of the story.

A reader sends me this story from two visitors to New Orleans who were among the thousands of refugees stranded in the city after the flood. They endured far more threatening behavior from officials worried about looters and bandits than from actual looters and bandits.

Unfortunately, our sinking feeling
(along with the sinking city) was accurate. Just as dusk set in, a
sheriff showed up, jumped out of his patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at
our faces and screamed, "Get off the fucking freeway." A helicopter
arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow away our flimsy
structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck with our
food and water.

Once again, at gunpoint, we were
forced off the freeway. All the law enforcement agencies appeared
threatened when we congregated into groups of 20 or more. In every
congregation of "victims," they saw "mob" or "riot." We felt safety in
numbers. Our "we must stay together" attitude was impossible because
the agencies would force us into small atomized groups.

In the pandemonium of having our camp
raided and destroyed, we scattered once again. Reduced to a small group
of eight people, in the dark, we sought refuge in an abandoned school
bus, under the freeway on Clio Street. We were hiding from possible
criminal elements, but equally and definitely, we were hiding from the
police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew and shoot-to-kill

I don't know what we'll learn from this disaster about the likelihood of poor black people to resort to criminal violence when a natural disaster cripples the local police force, but I hope we won't go jumping to any premature conclusions.

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