One among many unsettling aspects of life in the new New Orleans is the abundance of uniformed and heavily armed men, not all of whom are soldiers or police. In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck, the Nation reported on the presence of hundreds of private security companies, including the infamous Blackwater, “the most comprehensive professional military, law enforcement, security, peacekeeping, and stability operations company in the world.”
Blackwater currently has mercenaries in Afghanistan and Iraq, where four were killed and mutilated last May in Fallujah. In New Orleans they are under contract with the Department of Homeland Security. Some of the gunmen told Jeremy Scahill of the Nation that they were there to “secure neighborhoods” and “confront criminals.” He also reported that Blackwater spokesperson Anne Duke said company employees are authorized by the state to carry loaded weapons.
A Blackwater spokesperson on Monday said she was out of the country and wouldn’t be able to comment
Among other things, Blackwater’s men with big guns can be found guarding the Jewish Community Center on lovely St. Charles Avenue in Uptown New Orleans, a FEMA recovery center in one of the most recovered neighborhoods in the city, where the gym is open for business and the Salvation Army is giving out hot meals. It is not an area where anyone normally shoots to kill.
“You’re not taking a picture of me, are you?” asks a middle-aged man with a military tattoo, a Blackwater hat, and two pistols, who is immediately joined by an even beefier and younger colleague. When asked who they’re working for, the older man says, “The federal government. We’re providing security.”
“Guarding the supplies they’re giving out here?”
“No, security.” Full stop.
Naomi Archer, an activist working with Native American communities devastated by the storm in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, ran into two uniformed Blackwater guards at a Red Cross distribution point in Algiers, just across the river from the French Quarter, on September 28. “Organizations have a right to feel secure, but I’m concerned about Blackwater’s reputation,” she says. “It was very surprising that they’d have mercenaries guarding a distribution center. It reinforces the idea that people who have been victims of a disaster are somehow criminal.”
Marty Moran, the Red Cross safety and security manager for Disaster Relief Operation 865 in Louisiana, says the Blackwater guards in Algiers were there not for the Red Cross but to guard a FEMA post at the same spot. However, the Red Cross has been using another private contractor, Wackenhut, to provide security at distribution points and shelters, under an arrangement with the Department of Homeland Security. “The number of guards [at distribution points] varies,” he says. “If you have a large crowd, there will be more during the day, and less at night.”
Archer was among the first responders to the Houma area, before any official relief organization, and she scoffs at the idea that relief workers would need armed protection. “In all my work, not once have I ever felt that I was in any sort of dangerous situation. Even in the bayou, where people were pretty desperate for basic supplies, it was like, ‘Hey, everybody, relax.'”