Newark to New Orleans: The Myth of the Black Sniper

Forty years have passed since the Newark riots, but not much has changed when it comes to black suffering and white fear.

Last week was the 40th anniversary of the Newark riots ("rebellion" is the term preferred by some), which began when reports spread that a black cab driver beaten by white police had died. The cab driver lived, but five nights of rioting and looting followed in the city's African American core, which had suffered for decades from poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, "urban renewal," police brutality, and the political exclusion of blacks from city government. Soon, reports began coming in of scores of black snipers roaming the city, and terrorists with dynamite and arms heading towards Newark with supplies for the uprising. After a white fire captain was shot, then Governor Richard Hughes said, "This is a criminal insurrection by people who say they hate the white man but who really hate America." Hughes had already sent in State Troopers and National Guard units, some of them equipped with automatic weapons, who joined local police in opening fire on civilians. In the end, 26 people were killed and some 700 were wounded.

What makes the Newark riots anything but a remote historical event, to be "commemorated" from the safe vantage point of time, is not only the continuing existence of black urban poverty and despair. It is also the reality that played out, with eerie familiarity, thirty-eight years later, in another American city. Amidst the chaos of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, reports of rampaging black snipers again circulated through law enforcement and the media. In response, the New Orleans police and the Louisiana National Guard grounded rescue helicopters, lest they be shot down; prevented doctors, nurses, and other rescue workers access to the desperate population; and blocked escape routes, trapping fleeing residents in a disastrous chaos, which led to still unknown numbers of dead.

Among the many things that these two events have in common is one simple fact: There were no black snipers.

In the summer of 1967, after the riots in Newark, Detroit, and 125 other cities, President Lyndon Johnson convened an advisory commission to look into what happened and why. The report of the Kerner Commission, which warned of a nation moving toward a "system of apartheid" in its cities, concluded that the so-called snipers in Newark were actually members of the police, Troopers, and Guard, who, lacking any reliable communications and possessed by fear of the specter of armed black men, often ended up shooting at each other. Here is how the reportdescribed one of many incidents:

[Director of Police Dominick] Spina received a report of snipers in a housing project. When he arrived he saw approximately 100 National Guardsmen and police officers crouching behind vehicles, hiding in corners and lying on the ground around the edge of the courtyard.

Since everything appeared quiet and it was broad daylight, Spina walked directly down the middle of the street. Nothing happened. As he came to the last building of the complex, he heard a shot. All around him the troopers jumped, believing themselves to be under sniper fire. A moment later a young Guardsman ran from behind a building. [Spina] went over and asked him if he had fired the shot. The soldier said yes, he had fired to scare a man away from a window; that his orders were to keep everyone away from windows....

A short time later more "gunshots" were heard. Investigating, Spina came upon a Puerto Rican sitting on a wall. In reply to a question as to whether he knew "where the firing is coming from?" the man said: "That's no firing. That's fireworks. If you look up to the fourth floor, you will see the people who are throwing down these cherry bombs."

By this time four truckloads of National Guardsmen had arrived and troopers and policemen were again crouched everywhere looking for a sniper. The Director of Police remained at the scene for three hours, and the only shot fired was the one by the Guardsmen.

Nevertheless, at six o'clock that evening two columns of National Guardsmen and state troopers were directing mass fire at the Hayes Housing Project in response to what they believed were snipers. . . .

Historians, including those interviewed for the recent documentary Revolution '67, have also generally concluded that all of the shooting deaths—including the two white deaths, of the fire chief and a police detective—were likely caused by bullets from the guns of law enforcement officers. In its retrospective on the riots, the Newark Star Ledger described a few of these deaths:

Eddie Moss was a passenger in a car when a stray bullet from a National Guard checkpoint hit him behind the right ear. He was 10.

Eloise Spellman was leaning out her 10th-story window in Hayes Homes when an unknown National Guardsman mistook her for a sniper and fatally shot her in the neck. She left behind 11 children.

In New Orleans in 2005, the media, along with officials on the ground, likewise seemed all too willing to purvey the vision of the mostly poor, mostly African American hurricane victims as increasingly violent and lawless. Reports told of numerous rapes and murders at the Superdome and at the city's convention center, and of gangs roaming the streets, preying citizens and shooting at police and military personnel. In fact, the New Orleans Times-Picayune would later conclude, in an article called "Reports of Deaths Greatly Exaggerated," that there were only four violent deaths during the worst of the flood—consistent with New Orleans' normal homicide rate.

However, as the New York Times documented, these false reports had real consequences: "In the days after Hurricane Katrina, terror from crimes seen and unseen, real and rumored, gripped New Orleans. The fears changed troop deployments, delayed medical evacuations, drove police officers to quit, grounded helicopters."

A team of paramedics was barred from entering Slidell, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, for nearly 10 hours based on a state trooper's report that a mob of armed, marauding people had commandeered boats. It turned out to be two men escaping from their flooded streets, said Farol Champlin, a paramedic with the Acadian Ambulance Company.

On another occasion, the company's ambulances were locked down after word came that a firehouse in Covington had been looted by armed robbers of all its water—a report that proved totally untrue, said Aaron Labatt, another paramedic.

A contingent of National Guard troops was sent to rescue a St. Bernard Parish deputy sheriff who radioed for help, saying he was pinned down by a sniper. Accompanied by a SWAT team, the troops surrounded the area. The shots turned out to be the relief valve on a gas tank that popped open every few minutes, said Maj. Gen. Ron Mason of the 35th Infantry Division of the Kansas National Guard.

Racially tinged fears, fueled by rumor, may also have influenced suburban police to cut off one of the only escape routes from New Orleans to higher ground. A group of evacuees who had walked to a bridge leading from the city to the town of Gretna, where they had been told buses were waiting to take them to safety, instead, met a line of Gretna police armed with shotguns. One member of the group said: "We walked, probably 200 people, about a two-hour trek. We got to the top of the bridge. They stopped us with shotguns. We had people in wheelchairs, we had people in strollers, people on crutches, so we were a slow-moving group. And we didn't think anything when we saw the deputies there. Then all of a sudden we heard shooting." The mayor of Gretna later told 60 Minutes that the evacuees were turned away because Gretna lacked all services, and "you have to take care of your own population first." But he also admitted that he was affected by reports of crime and chaos in New Orleans. "So this environment of police officers being shot, citizens lying dead in the street, images of looting going on in the city of New Orleans made me realize that our community was in a crisis of far greater proportion than just of the hurricane."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, apparently believing that his city was descending into lawless chaos, redirected virtually the entire police force from rescue operations to law enforcement. "They are starting to get closer to heavily populated areas—hotels, hospitals and we're going to stop it right now," Nagin said. The National Guard went considerably further, according to a report in the Army Times:

"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. "We're going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control."

Jones said the military first needs to establish security throughout the city. Military and police officials have said there are several large areas of the city are in a full state of anarchy.

Dozens of military trucks and up-armored Humvees left the staging area just after 11 a.m. Friday, while hundreds more troops arrived at the same staging area in the city via Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters….

The amphibious assault ship Bataan… kept its helicopters at sea Thursday night after several military helicopters reported being shot at from the ground.

Numerous soldiers also told Army Times that they have been shot at by armed civilians in New Orleans....

Bob Hennelley, who has reported extensively on the legacy of the Newark riots for WNYC public radio, says: "The 1967 phantom 'negro snipers' that was used to justify dozens of civilian homicides by law enforcement 40 years ago appears to have been the rhetorical equivalent of our 'weapons of mass destruction.'" Back in 2005, the Army Times conjured that same phantom, actually referring to the chaos in New Orleans—the supposed rebellion among people who have been abandoned by the thousands to suffer and die—as "the insurgency."