A few years ago I cold-called (or email) Dan after my wife realized that we were going to be in New Orleans with them and, more impressively, Dan and his wife just happen to be our doppelgangers. Dan and I shared a love for 1) writing books about ending the drug war, 2) food, 3) bicycles, and 4) literate women who edit extremely well. (Our mutual fondness for hats and hat stores is just, as they say down there, lagniappe.)
Dan is no dummy (though I'd never say that to his face). At our very first dinner, while discussion corporal punished in schools, Dan coined the title for my upcoming book, In Defense of Flogging.
Dan is also a very good writer. (He also loves guns and I look forward to his next book about America and guns.)
In the days after we met, Dan and his wife were kind enough to waste some time with us, so we [queue montage music] biked around, got a food tour of the city, danced in a second line, ate too much, drank just right, and heard some great music.
So naturally I'm very curious about Dan's thoughts on the famously f*cked New Orleans Police Department. But honestly, except for the police officers in his book, I had no idea what we thought about any of the many issues plaguing the NOPD. The officer who left? The officers who staying? The behavior during the flood? I couldn't get a straight answer! And it wasn't for lack of trying.
My queries were generally returned with what can only be described as minor apoplectic fits. There was this one: "didn't i ask you not to get me started about the NOPD during katrina? didn't i?" And then this one, "This is total, unreconstructed bullshit, and the kind of toxic rumor that made the disaster immeasurably worse when it was going on. christ almighty."
But stubborn I am. So I sent him the latest on the police killing and cover-up of unarmed civilians on the Danziger bridge and politely wrote, "If you could be so kind to help me out, would you mind calmly and briefly (15 sentences or less) telling me your thoughts on police behavior during and after the flood, and the criminal proceedings that have followed." Perhaps Dan is a sucker for uncharacteristic formality, but it worked. And that he did not stick to the length limit is but our gain.
I decided early in my Katrina reporting to believe nothing I didn't see with my own eyes. New Orleans, as I constantly told the New Yorker's fact-checkers, is not a fact-rich environment, and the bullshit that flies around that city is beyond belief.
What I saw of the police during the storm were heroic officers operating with no leadership or resources whatsoever. The cops I was with were protecting and serving under incredibly trying conditions, and doing so with professionalism and compassion. That they were cut adrift from any command or support was obvious; Eddie Compass (and Ray Nagin) were not only criminally incompetent, they made everything immeasurably worse by all their talk about babies being raped in the Superdome and roving bands of marauders.
I also saw no violence or predation whatsover. Everyplace I was, people were taking care of each other with unbelievable tenderness. Even the gold-toothed young men in the Convention Center were bringing water to the old folks, protecting a play area for the toddlers, and so on. I never once saw a black man with a gun who was not in uniform. My editor kept asking me about the violence -- because he was listening to the reporters who were repeating the wild-ass assertions of the city's so-called leadership -- and I kept saying, "there is none." I saw looting, but what I saw was people going into supermarkets and drug stores to take what they needed. Invariably, the liquor shelves were completely intact. The French Quarter is full of stores full of valuable art and antiques and no burglar cages over the windows. They were untouched. (Yes, smash-and-grab artists tend to go after electronics, but still, a lot of very valuable stuff was left unmolested.)
I say all this because for the NOPD to say, "we had to do what we did because the city was in chaos" is patent bullshit and disgraces the majority of officers, who did their jobs without any support at all. There was no chaos. The structure of government disappeared, and the people behaved themselves admirably. The police abuses are prime examples of what Rebecca Solnit, in her excellent book, "A Paradise Built in Hell," calls "elite panic." Officials, cops especially, are terrified of mass chaos and therefore react to it whether it exists or not. On some level, it creeps them out that the people really don't need them at all. Left alone, they behave just fine.
We now are learning about some of the things bad cops did. And it's certainly true that a small number of civilians did bad things during Katrina. But the vast majority, cop and civilian alike, behaved exactly as we would hope they would.