New Orleans' Police Death Squads
— an interview with Malcolm Suber
MALCOLM SUBER IS a New Orleans community activist and fighter for justice, and a former candidate for city council. Against the Current asked him to comment on the struggle around murders by police during Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing fight over police brutality.
ATC: It’s now out in the open that police death squads were operating in New Orleans during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina. What is now known about the extent of these operations and the number of victims?
Malcolm Suber: Even after the Glover trial in which three cops were found guilty and two exonerated, we don’t have a complete picture of the extent of police murder. The U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) is investigating more cases and thus far there have been 22 indictments of cops and vigilante civilians. I believe that are many more cases that have failed to surface.
What is amazing is the number of cops who went home and got their personal weapons as if on haunting safari. This is something that activists and our sympathizers will have to uncover. We must press for a completely transparent investigation.
I am working with a newly formed coalition, the Community United for Change (CUC), which held hearings all over town this past summer. We uncovered three more cases of police murder. Undoubtedly, there are more in the shadows.
ATC: How were the facts uncovered about what happened during Katrina, and what kind of cover-up was going on?
MS: The facts of most of these killings were in the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) reports. They had murdered and gotten away with murder for so long that they felt comfortable reporting these murders as “justifiable police shootings.” After protest and persistence by the Ronald Madison family, the USDOJ decided to launch an investigation. This started the ball rolling and it is now possible that we may see hundreds of cops jailed, indicted or fired.
[Ronald Madison, 40, was one of the victims of police shootings on the Danziger bridge on September 4, 2005. He was shot, then stomped and kicked by police, and died at the scene. James Brissette, 19, was also shot to death and four others were wounded — ed.]
The NOPD and local criminal justice system would never have indicted these cops for murder. I believe the cover-up rises all the way to the office of police chief.
ATC: What’s the present status of the cases and the ongoing investigation?
MS: There has been the December, 2010 first trial of five white officers for the murder of Henry Glover. He was a young Black man, an alleged looter assassinated by a police officer. When a good Samaritan tried to get help for him by taking him to a police command center, cops beat the good Samaritan and burned his car with Henry Glover’s body in it.
Officer David Warren, the shooter, was found guilty of manslaughter; Officer Greg McRae was found guilty of civil rights violations for burning the car and body. And Officer Travis McCabe was found guilty of writing a false police report. The Danziger 7 (seven officers charged in the bridge shootings) will go on trial in March of this year.
In the meantime, we are trying to get the USDOJ to adopt our people’s consent decree, which would put in place a citizens oversight committee to oversee the radical reform of NOPD operating procedures.
We would disband the notorious Police Investigation Bureau (PIB), where police investigate police, and replace it with an independent body to carry out such investigations. It would also call for every police to have audio and video recorders on their person to always monitor their interface with the public. Adoption of the people’s consent decree would be a real step forward in the fight against police terror.
ATC: We’d like to put this fight in the context of the “rebuilding” of New Orleans that’s advertised by the media. What’s the reality of the reconstruction?
MS: The reality is the rebuild is in the downtown business district. Working-class and middle-class neighborhoods are still sparsely populated as insurance companies and the government have failed to live up to their promises to help people rebuild.
ATC: What can you tell us about the current state of policing and police-community relations in New Orleans? Will the uncovering of what took place in 2005 bring substantive changes?
MS: There is a complete distrust of the NOPD. Their abuse and terror have been widely exposed. The debate now is, how can this force be reformed? Will it remain a tool of the rich or will it reflect the wishes of the broader democratic masses?
The masses of poor Blacks and working people surely need relief from NOPD terror. The problem we activists face is getting people to believe that we can bring about any substantive change.
The victory in the Glover case has helped. Yet people can’t believe that any police got off since they all admitted lying to the FBI. It is hard to believe that one section of the state apparatus, the Department of Justice, is really about reforming its local extension the NOPD — especially given the fact that the U.S. State Department orders crimes against so-called enemies of the U.S. government on a daily basis.
ATC: What is your central goal going forward?
MS: The most important struggle right now is the fight to get a just consent decree imposed on the NOPD, one that will relieve the people from police terror.
We don’t have complete unity in the anti-police terror front on the reforms needed. Some of our weaker elements don’t believe we should demand what we really want — an end to police brutality/terror. They falsely believe that the most we can get is some mild reform and more courteous behavior.
Most of us are fighting to really democratize policing in New Orleans by bring the NOPD under popular control. We truly want the police to protect and serve everyone, not just the white ruling class but the Black majority and working people as well. Putting the Citizens Oversight committee in charge would certainly help us realize that dream.
ATC 151, March-April 2011