02/11/2009 02:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Lessons of Algiers Point

In 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, "It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important." Dr. King was referring, of course, to the need for federal intervention to protect the lives of African Americans from mob violence in the South.

Less than a half-century later, this idea has been turned on its head by the gun lobby. The National Rifle Association (NRA) wants us to believe that all gun owners are super-citizens--"law-abiding" folks that will rise up in time of need to protect themselves and their fellow Americans from the excesses of an overbearing or "tyrannical" federal government. Gun owners, however, are just men and women like you and me. Some are outstanding citizens with great judgment, and others, well, not so much. The NRA may not want to acknowledge this, but there is no guarantee that members of an "unorganized militia" will be more Minuteman than Vigilante. In fact, while our Founding Fathers considered service in a "well regulated" state militia a prerequisite to solid citizenship, they regarded private militias as nothing more than dangerous mobs.

A recent article by journalist A.C. Thompson in The Nation shows how unorganized militias can work against the interests of freedom and democracy. The article, "Katrina's Hidden Race War," describes events that occurred in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane. During this period, Algiers Point, a predominantly white neighborhood in New Orleans that remained relatively dry and undamaged, served as an official evacuation site for refugees from the flooded sections of the city. Rather than organizing to assist the refugees, however, the residents of Algiers Point had different ideas. As Thompson describes it, "They stockpiled handguns, assault rifles, shotguns and at least one Uzi and began patrolling the streets in pickup trucks and SUVs. The newly formed militia, a loose band of about fifteen to thirty residents, most of them men, all of them white, was looking for thieves, outlaws or, as one member put it, anyone who simply 'didn't belong.'"

Among their victims was Donnell Herrington, a 32-year-old African American man; his cousin, 17 year-old Marcel Alexander; and their friend, 18 year-old Chris Collins. The three were walking to the Algiers Point ferry terminal on September 1, 2005, when Herrington was shot in the throat with a shotgun. Herrington's two companions took off running and hid in a nearby shed, where members of the militia discovered them, put pistols in their faces and yelled, "We got you niggers! We got you niggers!" The boys were interrogated and then sent back the way they had come with a stern warning. Meanwhile, Herrington barely managed to run back to a friend's house. He was sped to a hospital, where he survived after emergency surgery to repair a hole in his jugular vein.

Herrington, Alexander, and Collins were not the only ones attacked in or around Algiers Point. Evidence obtained from interviews with vigilantes, residents, surgeons and coroners indicates that at least eleven people were victimized in this fashion in the neighborhood. In each case, the targets were African-American men, while the shooters were white. To date, no charges have been filed against the perpetrators of any of these crimes, nor have they been so much as questioned by authorities.

It's certainly not for lack of evidence. The vigilantes themselves have spoken openly and with pride about their actions. One militia member, Vinnie Pervel, described the tactics the group would use when a stranger entered the neighborhood: "We would yell, 'we're going to count to three and if you don't identify yourself, we're going to start shooting.'" He recalled in detail one gun battle where 25 rounds were fired.

Another militiaman, Wayne Janak, told A.C. Thompson: "Three people got shot in just one day! Three of them got hit right here in [an intersection outside his home] with a riot gun." He is equally candid in a video clip from the Dutch film "Welcome to New Orleans," smiling as he tells the camera, "It was great! It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it." Janak even kept the bloody shirt of a shooting victim as a trophy. He explained the militia's actions to Thompson by stating that "Algiers Point is not a pussy community."

I have no doubt that there were legitimate instances where guns were used in defense of life and property in post-Katrina New Orleans, but the Algiers Point example demonstrates clearly the limits and dangers of individuals taking the law into their own hands. From Shay's Rebellion in 1786 to the current Mexican drug wars, private militias have been destabilizing to democracy and an affront to Constitutional principles (Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution states that one of the purposes of state militias is to "suppress insurrections"). The next time the NRA rants about the need to balance an overbearing government with private arms, we should take a deep breath and remember the lessons of Algiers Point. In truth, these self-appointed militia members were exactly the type of men that Dr. King believed could benefit from a healthy dose of federal oversight.