by Darwin Bond-Graham
“Fuck the po-po’s … Gotta make sure any nigga ready for combat, / And pick up where the Black Panthers stopped at.” – “Freedomland” by The Show
The veil of authority and legitimacy shielding most urban police forces against popular suspicion and distrust simply doesn’t exist in New Orleans. Hardly anyone likes or trusts the po-po.
Rather than being a matter of mutual dislike solely between the city’s working class communities of color and the boys in blue, wariness with the police force crosses many class and race boundaries. Sure, there’s your typical correlation set between income level, whiteness, residential address and the likelihood that one “trusts” the police, but unlike other major metropolitan areas where the vast majority of whites and the vast majority of middle class residents identify with the badge of authority, in the Greater New Orleans region this isn’t the case at all.
Why? It’s a long story that I can’t delve into here entirely, but here’s an attempt. It has a lot to do with the takeover of city government, including the police department, by Black elites in the 1980s; subsequent white flight into the burbs – Jefferson, St. Bernard, St. Tammany parishes; the redrawing of patronage and corruption networks that cut many formerly enfranchised white elites out of the game; empowerment of a new cohort of white and Black “businessmen”; and of course the maintenance of the city’s (now majority) Black working class as a super-exploited and hyper-marginalized pool of reserve labor.
By the 1980s the city’s white elite, still in control of the banks, factories, real estate and other significant pools of capital, were being forced to work with the new Black comprador regime in City Hall. This arrangement would ultimately produce a bureaucratic corps of Black middle class civil servants and a small but politically potent group of Black capitalists and political operatives. And of course it would pave the way for massive profits and accumulation of power among the white business elites willing to play by the new post-Apartheid rules.
Meanwhile the white middle class, long having a monopoly on the city’s white collar jobs, badges of authority and official titles, was feeling threatened by the sudden darkening of the police force – one symbol among many that stoked their fears of losing privilege and power in all public spheres. In this way many whites and many middle class citizens came to distrust the NOPD, even though they lost nothing in the end except their direct control over the public purse and state apparatus.
After much internal strife and Civil Rights Movement agitation, the NOPD was transformed from a highly corrupt, all-white force, to a still highly-corrupt and newly “diverse” force of Black and white men who, in the formulation of Max Weber, claimed a monopoly on the “legitimate use of violence within a given territory.” This claim of legitimacy would never stick so well in New Orleans though.
After all, it was in the 1980s that some officers would also claim a major share of the city’s drug trade and other vice crimes, at levels exceeding any past examples of the force’s corruption. It was precisely this racial transition to a police force with Black officers, commanders and chiefs that produced the now complex and unpredictable lines of distrust between the NOPD and the citizenry at large. Ok, enough said, ‘cause this history is far too complex to fully interrogate here.
The actual point of this piece is to reflect a little on the war currently raging between the people of New Orleans and the NOPD.
With a legendary record of corruption and violence, one that escalated against working class Blacks in the 1980s and 1990s, it would be difficult to argue that the NOPD hasn’t been at war with the city’s impoverished Black communities. Murders, set ups, drug rings, arms and drug dealing, prostitution, protection rackets, assaults, trumped charges, false imprisonment … the NOPD has done it all around public housing and throughout the heavily Black and low income 9th Ward and Central City.
In addition to participating in organized crime, it has been the department’s penchant for treating all working class Black New Orleanians as “thugs” to be roughed up and disrespected that has engendered so much suspicion and built up so much resistance against the force. So it’s no surprise the vast majority of people don’t trust the po-po and steer clear of them when possible.
In Uptown, where the city is majority white and middle class, the story’s different. The NOPD are never seen beating and pillaging off of St. Charles Avenue or around the University – unless it’s a “thug” or other suspicious pedestrian who happened to wander too far down around Audubon.
And up there, citizen’s distrust of the police is manifested differently, for very different reasons. It ain’t “fuck the po-leece!” Rather, it’s the fondness for privatized security that reveals the white middle class’s turn away from the NOPD. It’s not that these enfranchised citizens fear or despise the police for the violence the department directs at some race and class segments of the population – for the NOPD don’t beat up on white Uptowners or allow cocaine to be sold to their children.
Rather, it’s a proprietary thing: Uptowners distrust the police precisely because the force is so deeply embedded in the city’s vast and dark underworld of drugs, vice and violence. And can such a corrupt force really be relied on to protect, during those times of crisis, the wealth of the propertied class?
That said, it’s still not uncommon to see off-duty NOPD being hired to guard posh Uptown social events, and it can hardly be said that the main directive of the NOPD, when they’re not brutalizing the poor for kicks or profits of their own, is to maintain a social order that sanctifies and defends the accumulation of private property and wealth in those Uptown mansions. (It might be necessary here to note too that some of that Uptown wealth constitutes the foundation of the city’s vast dark underworld of drugs, vice and violence. After all, is it not true that, as Balzac has been paraphrased, “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime!”)
This war between New Orleanians and their police department is being waged on several fronts right now. The most active front concerns the police murders and shootings that took place in the days following Hurricane Katrina.
The feds have been investigating the slayings of Ronald Madison, James Brissette, Henry Glover and Matthew McDonald – several among many shot by the police during Katrina’s aftermath. In the case of Madison and Brissette – both of whom were killed by the NOPD on Sept. 4 on the Danziger Bridge in a hail of bullets from a team of officers that wounded four additional citizens –former Lt. Michael Lohman has pled guilty in federal court to a count of conspiring to obstruct justice.
Lohman’s plea comes after the seven officers who shot Madison and Brissette were exonerated by a state court in 2008, in a trial that was widely perceived in New Orleans to be a formality of injustice, a kind of modern day Emmet Till affair. Indeed, when the officers arrived in 2007 to Central Lockup, on charges of murder and assault brought against them by a grand jury, they were rallied around by hundreds of fellow NOPD officers who fraternally sent a message across the entire town: “Don’t fuck with the force” and “We look after our own.”
It was a chilling display for anyone who thought Madison’s and Brissette’s families had been wronged. Indeed, it was a chilling display for anyone ever wronged by the NOPD, and that’s a very long list.
Lohman’s plea reopens the possibility of indictments that will lead to convictions of the officers who actually pulled the trigger on Madison and Brissette and who may have perpetrated other crimes during those hot and sweaty days after Katrina. Those were days in which cops were encouraged by their commanding officers and partners not to write up incident reports, instead merely to state “miscellaneous” and “NAT” (necessary action taken), according to “Former NOPD supervisor admits Katrina cover-up” in the Feb. 25 Times-Picayune.
NOPD Chief Warren Riley reacted to Lohman’s plea by calling it “a shock to me and the entire department.” The city’s traditionally police-friendly newspaper, the Times-Picayune, rightly judged the significance of the plea with a headline on Feb. 25 reading, “Retired officer’s guilty plea in Danziger Bridge case a blow to a struggling NOPD.”
This and other “blows” against the NOPD come after years of popular agitation for federal intervention and stepped up local resistance against police brutality and corruption, much of it stemming from the wild abuses that were so apparent in the aftermath of Katrina. Among the most instrumental in pressing for justice have been the victim’s families who have tenaciously hung on and pushed forward even while internal NOPD investigations and local and state courts dismiss their claims of civil rights violations.
Beyond the Katrina murders in which family and friends have braved out intimidation and obfuscation by local authorities, families of those murdered and brutalized after the chaos of 2005 have put more pressure on the department. The family of Adolph Grimes III, for example, continues to support an ongoing federal probe into his slaying at the hands of nine plain clothes officers in early 2009.
Another means by which New Orleanians have been fighting back against police brutality and impunity has been through artistic subversion. After Katrina, a slew of songs were dished out by rappers like Lil’ Wayne and Juvenile, through the 2 Cent project featuring Mack Maine, The Show, Dee-1, K. Gates, Young A, Nutt tha Kid and Dizzy, through Dizzy’s own solo projects, the 504 Boyz and many others, in which the NOPD’s brutal attacks on storm survivors were recalled and condemned.
Admonitions of police abuses such as Lil’ Wayne’s resonated with popular experiences during the storm and affirmed ongoing forms of resistance to NOPD predation: “nigga shot dead in the middle of the street, / I ain’t no thief, / I’m just tryin’ to eat, / man fuck the po-lice, / and President Georgia (Bush)!”
As the feds were just beginning to look into Madison’s slaying, Dee-1 rapped on “Freedomland”: “Maybe I’ll go to jail if I say this, / But the po-lice is crooked like teeth without braces, / Racist, hypocritical, and I ain’t too political, / But dawg, this is pitiful.”
On the same track Mack Maine lamented: “They even shot one of my people that was innocent, / That said he wasn’t have’n it, / Look what they did to Ronald Madison, / Rest in peace to Ronald Madison.”
It should come as no surprise that the police state has struck back against many an emcee. Just yesterday Juvenile was busted by the St. Bernard Sheriff’s Department for possession of marijuana. The cops, according to news reports, turned up at a house that served as a recording studio for Juvie and his friends after a neighbor smelled the smoke and called in.
Juvie and crew were subsequently searched and arrested by a narcotics squad. Never mind that Juvenile is a major economic provider for New Orleans, being one of its most high profile artists, and that possession of marijuana is a victimless crime. The cops found a few buds as sufficient cause to put him in cuffs and parade him off to jail. It brings to my mind a triplet rhyme off his 1999 album “Tha G Code”: “It’s niggas like you that be givin’ niggas like me up / I’m tryin’ ta figure if you work for tha police or what / You plobly hangin’ ‘round a nigga ‘cause you need a buck.”
That album’s title and cover was telling. The cover featured Juvenile crouching in a driveway of the Magnolia, one of New Orleans’ public housing developments torn down after Katrina in the name of “poverty de-concentration.” Evidence markers litter the ground. An NOPD SWAT vehicle is parked nearby and a horse-mounted NOPD officer looks on.
“Tha G Code” alluded to across the album’s tracks refers to a gangsta code of norms and honor, which includes not talking to or dealing with the police, who are not just depicted as the enemy of local outlaws, but as persecutors of the entire community. The po-lice appear on Juvenile’s albums as just another powerful gang presence terrorizing the streets.
Lil’ Wayne is already in prison, of course, having surrendered himself on Feb. 9 after being convicted on gun possession charges stemming back several years. As rap’s most prolific motormouth, Mr. Carter has an amazing body of work that includes more than a few references to the corruption and brutality of the police.
Right up there with Juvie, he’s one of New Orleans’ most popular bards. His croon can be heard just about everywhere in the N.O., for just as dis-like of the police crosses many racial and class boundaries, so does appreciation of Weezie F. His unflinching treatment of the NOPD in many songs again reflects popular sentiments and resistance to the force, especially among his Black working class fans.
“Free Lil’ Wayne” mixtapes are a hot commodity these days in rap’s vast bootleg submarkets. There was even a “Reclaim the Streets” party in the French Quarter in November last year at which revelers hung banners demanding Weezie’s liberation, as well as the freedom of Baton Rouge rapper Lil’ Boosie, who has been imprisoned on marijuana charges.
The partygoers posted this explanation on their blog, “New Orleans Reclaim the Streets,” afterwards: “This was a lively rolling New Orleans street party highlighting the imprisonment of hometown hero Lil Wayne and Baton Rouge’s Lil Boosie as examples of how the police and prison industrial complex do not work. There are a thousand reasons to love the best rapper alive; besides inspiring and keeping a much-needed focus on New Orleans, Lil Wayne (along with Atlanta’s Gorilla Zoe) was also instrumental in breaking Goblin Awareness into the hip-hop mainstream. He and Boosie have brought happiness, hope and strength through music to people around the world. Think about it: how does putting them in prison make anyone safer? Furthermore, why is marijuana illegal? Why do we allow people to tell us what is or isn’t permitted? And Weezie’s arrest was bullshit … ‘attempted weapons possession?’ What does that even mean? … Where was the NRA or other mainstream so-called ‘rights’ groups to stick up for him?”
All of this is occurring in the context of a major struggle over the shape and powers of the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor. The NOPD and the powerful Fraternal Order of Police have been waging war against this office which they fear could bring more than a few of their own to justice.
This war against even the concept of an independent police investigative watch dog has been so effective as to delay the establishment of the office for seven years since it was approved by voters in 2001. So far they and other powerful conservative authoritarian forces have managed to de-fang the position of Independent Police Monitor, so much so that the office’s powers are limited to merely reviewing completed investigations carried out by the NOPD’s own Public Integrity Bureau.
Darwin Bond-Graham, a writer, historian and ethnographer with a special interest in racist economic policies related to housing, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his blog, http://darwinbondgraham.blogspot.com/.