Tracie Washington: This crime was a symptom of a wider sickness in the police

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:21

These charges have been a long time coming. I was in New Orleans throughout the floods and in the days after, and I still remember the sense that something had gone amiss when we first heard of the incident on Danziger Bridge, the way our anger grew.

Since that terrible day back in September 2005, the community – and most particularly the African American community – has been petitioning, marching, following lawsuits, begging, and pleading for justice to be done over these premeditated, murderous acts.

The community has known, through its own investigation and its own work, what happened that day. But the Bush administration did nothing. The local justice department did nothing. It wasn't until finally the administration changed and we got a new attorney general in Eric Holder that we saw any movement towards the investigation and prosecution that were so desperately needed.

But the charges alone will not make a difference. This was not a unique incident. No one had a crystal ball, but there was a clear sense that the police were not trusted. The summer before, there was a huge effort to bring the police and African American communities together – but that effort was derailed. The truth is that there is a cancer in the New Orleans Police Department that has been allowed to fester, and until the diseased tissue is removed, the cells will continue to grow.

There have been some extraordinary efforts to force the NOPD to change, trying to make them agree that any reforms should have the force of law – but there's always been a distrust of the NOPD here, and it's only grown over the years. After Hurricane Katrina the black community has just taken insult after insult, and it's been death by a thousand cuts: little by little, we've come to the sense that there will be no justice through the police – that whoever you complain to, nothing will get done.

That feeling runs through the whole community. Since our new mayor has been elected, we've had 35 murders in three months. This has gone almost unremarked in our local media, and in our community I hear people asking why this isn't being covered, why there's nothing being done about it. There's a sense of disconnection. I have a 17-year-old son, and he makes his own curfew, because he's scared of the police. Imagine that: a 17-year-old black male with his own car, and he's telling his mother that he's scared to go out.

I would love to be optimistic. But what may be hard to understand from so far away is the historic injustice against the African American community here. This is an incredibly poor community, with a history of oppression. There's that saying of Ronald Reagan's, trust but verify: we would love to trust, but we can't until we can verify that there is a real effort towards change.

Tracie Washington is a civil rights attorney and president of the Louisiana Justice Institute

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