Carnival is and has always been a playground for thieves of both goods and lives. A century ago New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras of 1921: one of many seasons with great detriment to the public good. Crime at this time was borderline uncontrollable. With a police force driven by skepticism and hysteria over criminality, arrests ensnared many who simply “looked the part.” No one suffered more from the brunt of this misplaced power than the black community.
The way that newspapers reported crimes tell us a lot about the prevailing attitudes about crime and criminality among the city’s white subscribers. Newspapers were the primary source of media at the time, therefore it was the only way for the general to keep tabs on what was happening within their communities. The language used reflected attitudes of the time. It was a common occurrence for African Americans to be referred to as “negroes”. Take this excerpt from a column, for example. “Two Negroes, alleged to have assaulted and robbed a white man…”. The prevalence of race within these news articles show that people were most often identified by race. Not only were criminals judged by their actions, but more prominently by the color of their skin. Writers also used dramatic language in order to draw out a pathological response from readers. A clear example of this would be when the assailants “struck him with their fists”. Proceeding this, the white man “screamed for help.” Although there would be a more dispassionate way to journal these events, over dramatization was a powerful tool used frequently to capture readers’ attention.1
New Orleans policemen in 1921 also seem to have also been in the habit of arresting people despite having little hard evidence of criminal intent. Their lack of standards landed hundreds upon hundreds of people in jail cells in anticipation for the upcoming Carnival season. This is known as a “clean-up”, a popular occurrence in the early twentieth century in the days leading up to Carnival used as an attempt to remove petty criminals from the street. The basis of apprehending these ‘criminals’ was solely due to the fact that they ‘acted suspiciously.’ On February 8th 1921, the Superintendent of Police Molony apprehended “117 more men to the already large number of suspicious characters.” These men were apprehended on the basis of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Policemen, regardless of platoon, were all commanded to search places of “dubious reputation” in order to arrest individuals who spent their time there. Captain Healy’s attempt of ‘Clean-Up’ before the 1921 Mardi Gras season consisted of arresting a total of forty-eight ‘negroes’, three of which were arrested for being ‘dangerous and suspicious’ and the other forty-five for loitering.2 Let it be known that all of these individuals were residing in a pool room, a public space with the intended purpose of playing games of billiards.3
Police officers of 1921 could use the excuse of ‘crime control’ all they wanted. The truth is that the majority of their actions were based on racial discrimination and that alone. This is a lesson that has yet to be learned. This can be seen with the current Black Lives Matter and ACAB movements, which are devised to promote racial equality and limit police brutality. Police power is meant to be granted to those who act for the public good. It is a sad reality, but we have yet to reach this simple goal.
1 “Police Capture Alleged Bandits,” Times-Picayune, April 17, 1921, Access World News – Historical and Current.
2 “48 Negroes Arrested in Police ‘Clean-Up’ Drive.” New Orleans Item. February 7, 1921. America’s News – Historical and Current.
3 “Make City Safe During Carnival Is Molony’s Plan Police Arrest 117 More Suspects–Householders Are,” Times-Picayune, February 8, 1921, Access World News – Historical and Current; “48 Negroes Arrested in Police ‘Clean-Up’ Drive,” New Orleans Item, February 7, 1921, America’s News – Historical and Current.