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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.

| Mon Jul. 16, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

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."

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