Katrina Time

Greg Grandin

  • Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
    Penguin, 368 pp, £8.99, ISBN 0 14 104681 3

In early September 2005, a week after Hurricane Katrina, the police and National Guard arrested Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant who worked in New Orleans as a building contractor and landlord. Zeitoun was seized on his own property; the unidentified officers refused to tell him why he’d been arrested. They took him to Union Terminal, a train and bus station that had been hastily converted into a mini supermax jail, where he was processed in the passenger lobby, below a neglected cubist fresco, a four-wall epic that gives a concentrated version in violent oranges and reds of Louisiana’s history, including the Spanish conquest of the Mississippi Valley, the torture of Native Americans, the chattel slavery that built New Orleans, the nightriders of the Ku Klux Klan, oil rigs, wars and mass graves. The final panel, painted by Conrad Albrizio in 1954, depicts commerce, science and law freeing Louisiana from its past, with reason and order coming to reign. Below the fresco, Zeitoun was strip-searched and accused by heavily armed soldiers of being a member of al-Qaida and the Taliban. He was then put in a cage in the parking lot. Transferred to an isolated prison and placed in a wing filled with those arrested in the aftermath of Katrina, Zeitoun was eventually told that he was being charged with petty larceny. A judge set bail at $75,000, about a hundred times more than the standard for such an infraction, but Zeitoun still wasn’t allowed to make a phone call. ‘Why set bail when I can’t tell anyone I’m in prison?’ he asked. It was nearly a month after Katrina before his wife, Kathy, who had fled the storm with their four children, found out that he was alive. Her husband was finally granted a public hearing, but when she asked where it would be held, a court official told her this was ‘privileged information’. The hearing was then cancelled, Zeitoun was freed on bail and the case eventually dropped.

Prisoners who went through similar ordeals coined the phrase ‘Katrina Time’ to describe the period after the flood when due process went the way of the levees. The brigadier general in charge of Louisiana’s National Guard described his mission in martial, racial terms: New Orleans, he said, was ‘going to look like Little Somalia. We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.’ The police and the military, as well as some civilian politicians, began to call the mostly poor and black stay-behinds ‘insurgents’, murderously over-reacting to false or vague reports of officers being ‘under fire’. Among those gunned down was a severely mentally disabled man called Ronald Madison: police shot the unarmed African-American in the back, kicking him as he died. The police also killed 17-year-old James Brissette and wounded four of his companions as they crossed a bridge looking for food. They too were black and were not carrying weapons. As many as 8000 people were arrested, including a Houston sanitation worker who was there to help with the clean-up and a local fireman: both were arrested for looting, the first when walking from his hotel to his truck, in uniform, carrying the keys to the truck and identification; the second in his own yard. Thousands were corralled for days in an open-air football stadium, forced to scramble for sandwiches thrown over the fence and to sleep on the marshy grass. When one man arrived at Union Terminal to protest about a beating he had received from police who had broken into his home, he was arrested. Zeitoun was released after 22 days but others languished for nearly a year.

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