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Greg Grandin writes:
In early September 2005, a week after Hurricane Katrina, the police and National Guard arrested Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant who worked in New Orleans as a building contractor and landlord. Zeitoun was seized on his own property; the unidentified officers refused to tell him why he’d been arrested. They took him to Union Terminal, a train and bus station that had been hastily converted into a mini supermax jail, where he was processed in the passenger lobby, below a neglected cubist fresco, a four-wall epic that gives a concentrated version in violent oranges and reds of Louisiana’s history, including the Spanish conquest of the Mississippi Valley, the torture of Native Americans, the chattel slavery that built New Orleans, the nightriders of the Ku Klux Klan, oil rigs, wars and mass graves. The final panel, painted by Conrad Albrizio in 1954, depicts commerce, science and law freeing Louisiana from its past, with reason and order coming to reign. Below the fresco, Zeitoun was strip-searched and accused by heavily armed soldiers of being a member of al-Qaida and the Taliban. He was then put in a cage in the parking lot. Transferred to an isolated prison and placed in a wing filled with those arrested in the aftermath of Katrina, Zeitoun was eventually told that he was being charged with petty larceny. A judge set bail at \$75,000, about a hundred times more than the standard for such an infraction, but Zeitoun still wasn’t allowed to make a phone call. ‘Why set bail when I can’t tell anyone I’m in prison?’ he asked. It was nearly a month after Katrina before his wife, Kathy, who had fled the storm with their four children, found out that he was alive. Her husband was finally granted a public hearing, but when she asked where it would be held, a court official told her this was ‘privileged information’. The hearing was then cancelled, Zeitoun was freed on bail and the case eventually dropped.