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 World War II to Hurricane Katrina,” a new book by Dr. Leonard N. Moore, associate professor of history and assistant vice president for the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.
Moore’s book, which will be released by LSU Press in April, recounts the history of police brutality in the Crescent City along with the energetic opposition waged by blacks.
Although incidents of police brutality were recorded more than 50 years before WWII, Moore chose to begin his study with the war because it was a time when many African Americans moved to the city to get jobs.
Drawing on police records, records from civil rights organizations, oral histories and newspaper accounts, Moore details the problems with an underpaid, understaffed, undereducated police force that had an unwritten mandate to “keep black folks in line.”
In the early 1950s, New Orleans began hiring more African American policemen. However, Moore said these men weren’t allowed to wear uniforms or arrest white people. If an incident arose, they would have to borrow a phone and telephone a white officer to come and deal with whatever situation was at hand.
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,” Moore said. “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 have been involved in the corruption and have brutalized black residents of New Orleans. “In many ways it was easier for them — they couldn’t be accused of racism,” Moore said.
Through the years, the black newspaper, The Louisiana Weekly, steadfastly reported incidents of brutality. The Times Picayune did not report a single incident of brutality until the 1970s, according to 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. 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 to 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, as well as 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, however, as Moore discusses in the book’s epilogue, Policing Katrina.
“Although the majority of the police officers served heroically during Katrina and its aftermath, there was thuggery as well,” Moore said. The incidents post-Katrina would include several high-profile incidents such as the Danziger Bridge incident in which two civilians were shot and four more injured.
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 that 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.”