|In Baton Rouge, a Cool Welcome|
Class Divisions Among Blacks Greet New Orleans Evacuees
By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 6, 2005; A19
BATON ROUGE, La., Sept. 5 -- When this city's mayor, Melvin "Kip" Holden, issued a stem-winding warning that he would not tolerate "lawlessness" from arriving Hurricane Katrina evacuees, it seemed a page torn from the playbook of the celebrated former governor Huey Long, exposing an us-against-them dictate.
But many blacks here -- and those arriving from New Orleans -- were suddenly wondering whether this city was about to turn into a kind of ground zero of class warfare between blacks and blacks.
Holden himself is black, which had the potency of lifting the debate above the usual black-white fault lines.
"We know we don't want that criminal element," Sheila Mosby, 40, said while sitting on her front porch on the south side of this city and recalling scenes of recent looting in New Orleans. "I can understand trying to survive. But that element coming here, well, they might try to rob stores. To tell you the truth, it's really going to be something."
While dabbing at sweat beads with a pink hand towel, Mosby, who is black, went on: "Like Mayor Holden said, if they come down here and try to break into people's houses, and stores, there's a place for them."
She -- like the mayor -- was referring to the Baton Rouge jails.
Mosby said she envisioned "shoot to kill" orders if break-ins do occur.
Orders for the police? "No! From the people who live in these homes. They will shoot to kill. They gonna let these people know, 'You ain't in New Orleans. You in Baton Rouge.' "
This city of approximately 260,000 people, which lies 90 miles northwest of New Orleans, has not had the dramatic racial narratives of many other southern cities. There were bus boycotts in the 1960s -- and those of a certain age still remember a violent confrontation that took place during that decade between local Muslims and police here, which resulted in gunfire and injury.
Holden's comments seemed to bring to the surface the reality that local resources may well be strapped; that the holding-on blacks of this community realize there is sudden competition, from other blacks, for help in escaping poverty.
All day Sunday, hundreds had lined up at the Department of Social Services office to get assistance, especially food stamps. Many were Katrina evacuees, but hardly all.
"Now my biggest concern is the schools," said Tara Willimas, 34, a medical transcriber who is black and resides in Baton Rouge. "We don't mind sharing, but there's going to be competition for jobs."
Many, including the mayor, contend this city's population could more than double in the coming days and weeks, exceeding half a million.
"I can understand these people coming here from New Orleans," said Isadore Brown, 32, who also was standing in line for food stamps. He's a crane operator, a black man who says the power at his Baton Rouge home went out, ruining food. Brown says he already has visions of criminals from New Orleans running amok. "They're coming down here from New Orleans making us fear for our lives," he said. "Some people have talked about not leaving their house."
Already, this city -- home to Louisiana State University -- has been showing signs of tension. Some stores are closing early, leaving many to wonder whether they're doing so because of those unsettling images of blacks looting in New Orleans -- or simply because stores are running out of supplies. And it has not been uncommon in recent days to hear gunshots ring out in the night.
"Why do store owners all of a sudden want to close up their stores at 10 p.m.?" wonders Tammy Ruffin, 33, also black. "Many of these stores used to be open 24 hours."
There are upwards of 30 evacuees now staying at the Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church on Eddie Robinson Sr. Drive -- named after the legendary Grambling football coach who grew up on this street. Eula Smith -- wife of Pastor Charles T. Smith -- directs volunteer efforts at the church, which serves a predominantly black congregation.
She says she immediately began to wonder about class divisions in the aftermath of Holden's comments.
"I don't know if the mayor was trying to alienate people or what," she said, seated in her office, the hallway buzzing with the sounds of New Orleans children playing tag. "He didn't say it right. Every population has this criminal element. But it sounded like he said all New Orleans people are thuggish."
Sleep has been hard to come by for Smith and her harried staff. She yelled out for someone to brew more coffee. "Now we do have to be careful," she continued, "that some of our people aren't using this situation to their benefit, getting into our shelters, and what have you. But Baton Rouge is bigger than Mayor Holden anyway. I think he said what he said for the benefit of his white voters, because he's looking to the future."
Simmering class divisions aside, the bugaboo of racism also has reared its head. Barbara Martin, 58, was a teacher in New Orleans. She and her husband, Alphonse, who are black, evacuated here. "Soon as the mayor made his statement about New Orleans," she said, "no-vacancy signs went up everywhere here on apartment complexes."
"We have sat in our car and watched whites go in these places and come out with paperwork to get apartments. The mayor is black. His head must be in the sand," she said. She goes on, her husband amen-ing her every word: "I accept what he said in terms of lawlessness. I don't believe in lawlessness myself. But what he said affected everybody. Some people were on lockdown here, as if we were going to tear up the city."
Martin says she has been made to feel "uncomfortable" in Baton Rouge. "I'm a middle-class black person, and I'm being treated by the color of my skin."
© 2005 The Washington Post Company