Outlaw Culture

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

In thinking about Stand Your Ground, I also believe we shouldn't lose sight of basic human nature. When you think about Joe Horn and how much support he aroused from his community, it's worth thinking about the appeal of such a character. None of us are immune to the rush that comes from the employment of righteous justice. There are whole Hollywood genres about this sort of thing. But when whole groups are branded by the wider society as outlaws, the notion of righteous justice expands. 


In this context, Dan Baum's coverage of the after-affects of Katrina deserves a second look:

It was the city's bad luck that, in addition to relentlessly hot weather, there was a new moon that week, and the nights were utterly dark. I gave a ride home late one evening to a man named Jimmy Delery, a black-sheep member of a founding New Orleans family. We drove slowly among fallen oaks and downed power lines cluttering St. Charles Avenue, and as we got out of the car at his house we heard the double click of a shotgun. 

Two ripply-fit blond men walked toward us in the gloom, shirtless and gleaming with sweat, wearing bandoliers across their chests and holstered sidearms on their hips. The muzzles of their shotguns looked like the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. "Look, guys," Delery said. "I know you're all up on your testosterone, but, please, stay home. Don't be walking around with the guns. You're just going to get people agitated." 

The men lowered their guns. "It's not testosterone, Jimmy," one of them said. "It's self-preservation." I noticed that their shotguns were not hunting weapons pressed into emergency service but stainless-steel combat guns with racks of extra shells mounted on the stocks. At some point, these guys had each spent at least eight hundred dollars to be prepared for an occasion like this. "Yeah, well, whatever it is, I want you, please, to stay near your houses," Jimmy said. "You don't need to be out here, patrolling around." 

After they left, he said, "They're looking to pop somebody so they can brag, 'I shot a nigger looter in New Orleans.' " 

Bob Rue, the rug merchant, described stepping outside with his .38, ready to shoot someone lurking by his neighbor's Porsche. "It's not about the car," he said. "It's about chaos. If you let them get started, there's no telling where it will end."

Of all the white people I met that week who had chosen to remain in the city, only two were unarmed. Jimmy had a .45 automatic in his fanny pack. The hearse-driving doctor had a Bulgarian Army pistol in his armrest. The motherly barkeeper kept an automatic shotgun beside the door and a revolver in her back pocket. The blackout, the crowds of evacuees straggling through their neighborhoods--and, above all, the rumors--persuaded some citizens that an apocalyptic race riot was imminent. But, even in the absence of police, the unspeakable didn't come to pass. 

For the poor, without resources, the disappearance of authority was genuinely terrifying. Many had never left the city, or southern Louisiana, in all their lives. They faced a terrible choice: turn themselves in to face evacuation or tough it out. If we stay, how long will it be before the power and the water come back on and the grocery stores open? If we go, go where? To the Superdome, where babies are being raped and murdered? To the Convention Center, to get on a bus? A bus to where? (The rumor that evacuees weren't being told their destination before boarding buses turned out to be true.)  With no reliable authority to issue information, the holdouts were paralyzed. 

National Guard units from as far away as Puerto Rico showed up in force the weekend after the storm. For the most part, they brought no tools other than M-16s--no chain saws or bulldozers, no grappling hooks, generators, or field hospitals. They were not equipped to clear debris, repair power lines, or deliver mass medical care. Like the city's armed residents, they had prepared for an uprising, and stood on street corners nervously fingering their weapons. Kevin Shaughnessy, a courtly, gray-haired sergeant first class of the California National Guard, stopped me on St. Charles Avenue to demand I.D., and, after letting me pass, called me back. "Say, you don't have a map of New Orleans you can spare, do you?" he asked. 

As those of us who followed the federal case against the New Orleans police know, the mentality Baum highlights here had deadly implications. 

Sometimes when I read this sort of stuff, I have the feeling that we are almost baiting the Apocalypse, that we are hungry for end-times and a climatic battle. Weirdly enough it reminds me of all that hip-hop coming out circa 1998 asserting that 2000 would bring in the New World Order, micro-chip forced into babies, and barb-wired camps. I always loved Jadakiss's dispassionate reply:

Niggers running round talking that Y2k shit
Crackheads still going want that grey shit.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/04/outlaw-culture/255842/