The Louisiana State Police never did tell White what happened to his son. He learned of their account through a news release posted online that evening, March 3, 2014. The police said that Victor White III, while detained in the back seat of a locked police car, his hands shackled behind his back, had committed suicide by shooting himself in the back with a handgun that an officer had not found during an earlier search.
New Iberia, a small city surrounded by sugar cane 100 miles west of New Orleans, is bisected by railroad tracks. North of the tracks, where residents are predominantly white, most believed that Victor White III committed suicide. In the largely black neighborhoods south of the tracks, most residents shared the Whites’ conviction that their son was executed by the cops. In the months of heartbreak and rage that followed, New Iberians tended to believe the official account of the “Houdini suicide” to the extent that they approved of the performance of Louis Ackal, the sheriff of Iberia Parish.
Ackal — who declined multiple requests for comment for this article — was the most powerful man in town and perhaps the most popular. A fourth-generation New Iberian, he was a southern Louisiana politician in the old mold: charismatic and irascible, given to country bromides and plain-spoken provocations, antagonistic to the regional press and civil-liberties groups, chummy with the political class, a friend to many and a bully to the rest. He smoked cigars and kicked his boots onto his desk during meetings. He had come to office as a reformer, pledging to bring integrity to the police force and criminals to justice — to, as he put it in a campaign speech, clean up “a terrible mess.” To the satisfaction of a plurality of voters, he had succeeded.
At Ackal’s request, the state police opened an investigation into the death. Additional investigations were later started by the F.B.I., the United States attorney’s office for the Western District of Louisiana and the Justice Department’s civil rights division. But the man best suited to investigate the strange death of Victor White III — the man with the most intimate knowledge of New Iberia, its legacy of racial conspiracy, the inner workings of the sheriff’s office — was the victim’s father. The Rev. Victor White was motivated by grief, anger and a desire for justice, but that was not all. He was also haunted by the fear that his own actions, his own history in New Iberia, might have led to his son’s death.
Victor White III, whom everyone called Little Vic, was the sixth of nine children and the Whites’ youngest son. (One of the older brothers, Victor White Jr., is known as Junior.) Little Vic inherited his father’s tall, rangy stature; his large, expressive eyes; his exuberant manner. When the brothers got in trouble — when, for instance, they were caught playing in the attic with a sword their father brought back from Korea — Little Vic always took the blame, though he was a terrible liar. He did manage to convince his parents of one thing: After attending a Baptist service and witnessing all the jumping, shouting and singing, he begged his parents to change denominations. Not only did they agree, but Victor Sr., a mental-health and substance-abuse counselor, became ordained as a Baptist minister.
The Whites are not from New Iberia but the longleaf pine region of central Louisiana. They lived in Alexandria, a somewhat larger city with a somewhat broader perspective on questions of class and race. White can trace his family line back to a plantation outside the nearby town of Cheneyville. “My grandmother,” he told me, “was a slave. She was born around 1900. She worked in the cotton field and worked domestic as well.” I took this to mean that she worked under slavelike conditions. White responded forcefully: “She was a slave.”
In late 2006, a pastor in New Iberia called White with a desperate request. The city, which had a long history of racial brutality, was in the throes of a new crisis. The source of the tension, as it had been so many times before, was the annual Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival. The festival was really two festivals: The official festival, held downtown, featured parades, a boat procession down the Bayou Teche and a fais do-do, presided over by the members of a royal court, many drawn from the ancien régime families of prominent planters. The second festival was held across the tracks in the West End, on land that once belonged to the Hopkins sugar plantation. During the Jim Crow era, this second celebration was formalized as the Brown Sugar Festival, with its own parade and a Queen Brown Sugar. In recent years, it had been a looser affair, an occasion for block parties, D.J. sets and joy riding down Hopkins Street, past the shacks with rusted tin roofs, the overgrown lots, the bodegas advertising daiquiris and Wings cigarettes.
On the final day of that year’s festival, after traffic on Hopkins Street came to a standstill, deputies of the New Iberia sheriff’s office fired grenades of tear gas into the black crowds. The sheriff, Sid Hebert, claimed his deputies gassed the revelers out of concern for their health. “It was only a matter of minutes,” he said, “before someone in the crowd would fire a weapon.” In a federal lawsuit, later dismissed, 160 West End residents claimed to have suffered injuries. The oldest claimants grew up under Jim Crow; the youngest was 8 months old.
Hebert expressed remorse about the incident and agreed to meet with local ministers to improve his department’s relationship with the West End. White, who had developed a reputation among Baptist ministers in southern Louisiana for engaging law enforcement on civil rights issues, was asked to serve as mediator. In early 2007, he moved his family to New Iberia. Little Vic was 15.
White helped to open a community center on Hopkins and ran a substance-abuse program that attracted clients from both sides of the tracks, including members of some of the most prominent white families. He began to understand the nature of power in New Iberia and the sinuous channels it pursued. He wanted to make sure his children understood too. He made a point of taking them to the Sugar Cane Festival. Almost immediately, they were stopped and questioned by the police. “It took them for a loop,” White says. “They’d never seen stuff like that in Alexandria. They said: ‘Daddy, what are they stopping us for?’ ”
The Whites rented a house just off Hopkins; there was a working sugar-cane field at the end of their block. They held barbecues and kept their doors open. They spoke about the need to establish a public-transportation system, to rebuild the local elementary school, to encourage children to develop professional ambitions. “If we could get those kids,” White says, “we could get their parents.” White felt he was making progress, particularly when it came to restoring faith in the Sheriff’s Department. He had the sheriff’s cellphone number and called it often. He says he provided leads for criminal investigations and complained when cops behaved arrogantly. But Hebert’s term was up in 2008, and a new sheriff came to town.
In downtown New Iberia, where the millionaires lived, and in the less ostentatious, leafy City Park neighborhood, north of the Bayou Teche, Louis Ackal was welcomed home in 2008 as a savior. Most New Iberians grew up knowing his family, which arrived in south Louisiana in the late 1880s, during the first wave of Lebanese immigration to the United States. For 60 years, the Ackals owned a department store and a shoe store on Main Street. A local bridge that spans the Teche is named for Elias Ackal Jr., known as Bo, who served for more than two decades in the Louisiana House of Representatives. “They were part of the old guard,” says Jarrod Alleman, an oil-field safety specialist who attended school with members of the Ackal family. “All of our elected officials came out of a pool of people who were connected, and it had been like that forever. He was part of the ruling elite.” Yet Alleman, like many on the north side, saw Ackal as a reformer. “He was worldly. He had been places, had done other things. He seemed like a professional, not just someone’s brother-in-law.”
Ackal passed for worldly in New Iberia because he left town three decades earlier to work as a state trooper, serving at one point in the governor’s office, before retiring to a small mountain town in northwest Colorado. He came out of retirement, he said, because he was disturbed by the “horror stories” he had heard about residents’ encounters with the police in his hometown. There was a sense in the community that crime rates were unusually high for a place the size of New Iberia. “I’m not a big fan of politics,” Ackal said in a campaign speech. “The reason I ran was because people told me they were scared in their own homes.” Besides, he added, he missed the “crawfish and crabs and gumbo, and Cajun music.” Ackal ran as a change candidate, pledging to strengthen the internal-affairs unit and repair the relationship between the Sheriff’s Department and residents. He vowed to hire a public-information officer to communicate regularly with the press. He promised transparency, professionalism, strength.
“A lot of people had faith in him,” Julie Comeaux, a stay-at-home mother in the City Park neighborhood, told me. “People looked to him to move us forward.” If anyone could move the community forward, it was the sheriff. Louisiana sheriffs have a staggering measure of power and few checks on it. They collect taxes, run the jails and command the police force. In the smaller cities and parishes, they often hold greater political clout than mayors, parish presidents and businessmen — a power that derives in no small part from their ability to pursue criminal investigations of mayors, parish presidents and businessmen. As Sheriff Harry Lee of Jefferson Parish once put it, when asked why he declined to run for statewide office: “Why would I want to be governor when I can be king?”
It helped that Ackal’s family was respected on both sides of town. “The Ackals I knew were just wonderful people, personable, sweet,” says Phebe Hayes, a former professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and amateur historian of African-American life in the parish. “They didn’t feel very Old South. More Old World.” Two generations earlier, when black-owned restaurants, upholstery shops and pharmacies thrived in the West End and Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald played in the nightclubs, before it fell into an eerie dilapidated vacancy, the Ackals ran a general store on Hopkins. Ackal boasted of the store while stumping for votes on the West End, White says, which made him suspicious.
“He was intimidating, very arrogant,” White says. “He walked into peoples’ yards. He’d say: ‘My grandfather owned that store. When y’all went in to go shopping, who you think it was? That was my people. We were helping y’all. Y’all owe me.’ ”
White was appalled to find that this argument was persuasive among his neighbors. They told him that he didn’t understand, because he was an outsider. “I said: ‘I do understand. This is what I’m trying to get you out of. Y’all are 40 years behind Alexandria.’ But they thought he was going to help them. That was when I became the villain.”
White met Ackal for the first time at the community center, shortly after the election. It was a brief conversation. “I’m going in a different direction,” White says Ackal told him. Ackal reassigned the West End community liaison, installed a police substation within the community center and fought to increase the size of the jail. White, refusing to concede defeat, remained in New Iberia, working as a substance-abuse counselor.
On the north side of town, many residents felt that Ackal was making good on his promises. He bought new uniforms and squad cars, to which he affixed bumper stickers reading, “In God We Trust.” When the American Civil Liberties Union complained, Ackal defended the stickers by saying that his officers had accepted God into their lives. “If there is no God,” he said, “then we don’t have a good police officer, do we?” There were rumors of police brutality, though most people on the north side didn’t know anyone who had suffered. “We figured he was corrupt,” says Jarrod Alleman. “We started hearing that things were going on. But they weren’t happening where we were. When I got pulled over for speeding, the cop took a look at my license and said: ‘You live on Oak? I grew up down the street.’ If I were someone else, maybe of a different color, and lived in the West End, I’m 100 percent positive it would have gone down differently.”
It did go down differently in the West End, where the police came to be seen as an occupying army. The jail population surged, the cells becoming so overcrowded that inmates were forced to sleep on the floor. Following Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Ackal punished prisoners by dressing them in hot pink jumpsuits and making them sleep in a pink cell he called the Flamingo Hotel. He boasted about denying ice to inmates in hot weather. “A state inspector came in and said: ‘Sheriff Ackal, you need to put ice chests, ice buckets and scoops in the cells,’ ” he told a crowd of supporters, to laughter. “I said: ‘Lady, I don’t know where you come from, but this is not the [Hotel] Monteleone. It’s the Iberia Parish Jail.’ ” At the 2011 Sugar Cane Festival, Ackal sent his officers to the West End to break up the celebration. They blasted sirens to drown out the music and, once again, fired tear gas into the crowd.
White finally gave up and moved his family back to Alexandria. Little Vic and his brother Leonard were unhappy: Each had a girlfriend from Iberia Parish who didn’t want to leave. In 2013, after the birth of his daughter, Arianna, and against his parents’ desperate warnings, Little Vic returned.
White could not believe that his son committed suicide, because every aspect of Little Vic’s life seemed oriented toward the future. Upon returning to New Iberia, he enrolled in a welding program at the local community college, planning to work on offshore rigs. He took a job at a Waffle House, often pulling double shifts. His final conversation with his father took place at 7 a.m. on the last morning of his life. Little Vic had just received a tax rebate and was eager to buy a used Chrysler from a man who fixed up broken-down cars. He had taken cash with him — $1,400 — but after a test drive, he suspected there was a problem with the transmission. White warned him to wait until the seller provided a warranty. “O.K., Dad,” said Little Vic. That was it.
Little Vic’s only previous encounter with the police after returning to New Iberia occurred about five months before, in November, when he was stopped for making an illegal U-turn. He did as his father had told him: He announced that he was the son of the Rev. Victor White and demanded the cops call his father. The officers, unmoved, arrested him. “When Little Vic knows he’s right,” says Vanessa, who speaks of her son in the present tense, “he has a way of getting under your skin.”
The officers who arrested him were named Justin Ortis and Jason Javier. The same men stopped Little Vic near the train tracks that split New Iberia at 11:31 p.m. on the night of March 2, 2014. Minutes earlier, Little Vic and an acquaintance named Isaiah Lewis were buying cigarillos at a nearby Texaco gas station when a fight broke out in the parking lot. Ortis, suspecting that White and Lewis were involved, patted them down. Nothing was found on Lewis, and he was released.
After that, in the police’s version of events, officers found a small quantity of narcotics — marijuana and cocaine — in White’s pocket, and he was detained. Because he asked to speak with narcotics detectives, the officers did not take him to the Iberia Parish Jail, where arrestees are booked, but to the patrol center downtown. When they arrived, according to police statements, White “became uncooperative and refused to exit the deputy’s patrol vehicle.” He wanted them to promise that he would not be sent to jail. When a deputy said he could not make that promise, White said to “tell his people that he loved them.” He said: “I don’t want to go to jail,” and “I’m gone.” Next, the deputies claim in the police report, they heard a gunshot.
The state police also later claimed that Leonard White volunteered to investigators that his brother was carrying a .25-caliber pistol that night that matched the description of the weapon found next to Little Vic’s body in the back seat. (White’s family denies this.)
Victor White, not trusting the police, immediately began his own investigation of the case. He uncovered a number of apparent inconsistencies in the official narrative. Among the most glaring was the assertion that Little Vic had shot himself in the back. Before making the autopsy results public, the parish coroner at the time, Carl Ditch, told White that the bullet entered his son’s chest, White says, contradicting the original news release. Ditch noted that the bullet had entered the side of his chest, beneath the right nipple, and exited under his left armpit. But Little Vic was left-handed. White was incredulous: “You’re trying to tell me that my son, while handcuffed, reached his left hand all the way around the front of his chest and shot himself from the right? I said: ‘No, sir.’ ”
There were inauspicious coincidences. The incident took place in a part of the patrol-center parking lot that had no surveillance cameras. The back-seat camera in the cruiser in which White died was turned off, as was the microphone. When White picked up his son’s possessions, Little Vic’s wallet contained only $91. But White believed that his son was carrying about $1,400. When White told the officer that there had been a mistake, she withdrew the bag and disappeared momentarily into the property room, exclaiming: “Oh! I must have missed these before.” She pulled a pair of $100 bills from the wallet. “I just looked at her,” White says. “I said: ‘Ma’am, do you really think I believe that?’ ”
After the state police cleared the Sheriff’s Department of wrongdoing, Louis Ackal released a statement. “In my opinion,” he said, “this was a tragic loss of life, and it is difficult to understand why it happened.” Ackal extended “his deepest sympathy” to the White family.
White says that he was not surprised by what he believes happened to his son. “Not at all,” he says. “Because I knew the type of person Louis Ackal was.”
White’s family filed a civil suit against Ackal and Ortis. (In court papers, Ackal and Ortis, who is no longer employed by the sheriff’s office, denied White’s allegations. A lawyer representing the defendants declined to comment.) White shared the results of his investigation with F.B.I. agents, and he said they assured him that they would follow up on his findings. But in December 2015, 21 months after his son’s death, the Justice Department announced that it had not found sufficient evidence “to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any officer fired a weapon at Mr. White.” It declined to prosecute.
When the White family’s attorney, Carol Powell Lexing, pushed for an explanation, the federal officers conceded that they had accepted the state police’s conclusions at face value. Powell Lexing found this “crazy,” because she believed that the state police had incentive to protect Ackal, their colleague for 23 years. Powell Lexing says federal officers “admitted they never saw the gun. They only saw a picture of the gun in the police report. Based on a picture, how could you link it to White?” (At the time this article went to press, the Department of Justice had declined to provide, in response to Freedom of Information Act requests filed last May, any documents that might explain its decision. Spokespeople for the F.B.I. and the Department of Justice had no comment.)
While the Justice Department investigated the White case, Powell Lexing was frequently contacted by New Iberians eager to tell of abuse suffered at the hands of the Sheriff’s Department. She forwarded these accounts to the F.B.I. White was at least the eighth person to die in custody during Sheriff Ackal’s administration. She didn’t think this was a coincidence.
Three months after declining White’s case, the Justice Department announced it was indicting Louis Ackal on charges of deprivation of rights and conspiracy against rights — in about a dozen incidents unrelated to White’s. Eight of Ackal’s officers had pleaded guilty to civil rights violations and agreed to testify in exchange for reduced sentences. The indictment described a police department that operated like an organized-crime syndicate, with Ackal as kingpin.
According to court papers, Ackal ordered deputies to beat at least five pretrial detainees inside the Iberia Parish Jail. Many of the beatings took place in the prison’s chapel — not because the officers had accepted God into their lives but, the indictment claimed, because the chapel was one of the few places in the prison without surveillance cameras. One inmate was targeted for making what the indictment described as a “lewd comment,” another for sending letters complaining of poor conditions in the jail. An inmate accused of “looking” at a guard was attacked by a police dog, a grisly episode captured on video later leaked to the press. The indictment described an incident in which three drunk off-duty cops beat up a couple of young black men for kicks, a second in which Ackal ordered the assault of a personal rival and a third in which Ackal’s former chief of staff, Lt. Col. Gerald Savoy, known as Bubba, was accused of having ordered the arrest of a man who punched him at a bar. His officers beat the man, shackled him to a bench and ordered him to lick his own blood off the wall.
The judge stripped Ackal of his gun, but he continued to serve as sheriff — even after, according to court papers, he was recorded threatening to shoot a federal attorney prosecuting his case, Mark Blumberg, “right between your [expletive] Jewish-eyes-look-like-opossum bastard.” Last May, after White helped to organize a protest demanding he leave office, Ackal released a one-sentence statement: “It’ll be a cold day in hell when I resign.”
On a hot day last July, White joined a fledgling effort to recall Ackal. He needed to collect the signatures of 16,000 registered voters — about a third of the population of Iberia Parish — by the end of the year to put the measure on a ballot. It was a long shot, and not only because of Louisiana’s high thresholds for political recalls: Though Ackal’s popularity had declined, he had still managed in 2015 to win a runoff election to his third consecutive term as sheriff. White did not care. He drove each weekend to New Iberia and set up a table with voter-registration forms and signature sheets in a West End parking lot. He wore a T-shirt bearing an oversize photograph of his son across his chest.
The parking lot, opposite a red-brick public housing development and framed by abandoned storefronts, belonged to Kevin Broussard, a barbershop owner and school-bus driver who served as the unofficial mayor of his corner of the neighborhood. “So many people are afraid,” Broussard said. “They don’t know their rights.” He had voted for Ackal twice, though he grew suspicious on the night of the sheriff’s first re-election. “It was like a dream. He drove by in a limo, sticking a cigar out the window like Lex Luthor. I said: ‘This dude has too much paper.’ You get to be king, you don’t think no one can stop you.”
Many passing through the lot spoke of regular raids by the narcotics unit, which functioned as a kind of paramilitary force within the sheriff’s office. “They called it ‘Jump-Out Boys Days,’ ” Broussard said. “In other words, jump out on the black boys. They’d say: ‘How much money you made this week? You made enough for me to hit you up?’ That’s how bold they were.” He said narcotics officers barged into homes without warrants, stealing most of the cash they found.
“They’d kick in your door, tear your house up,” said a large man named Whitney Lee. “They would come back here with assault rifles and bulletproof vests in their little Desert Storm outfits like they’re coming to war.” He gave the rueful laugh that tended to accompany discussions of the police in the West End. “I ain’t going to lie, I was scared of them. Because I know they could just as soon kill me.”
Lee has filed a civil suit against Ackal and two of his deputies, one of 30 or so that have been filed since he took office; at least 10 have been settled, for a cumulative sum of about $1.1 million. Lee’s suit involved an episode that occurred while he was serving time. He was taken to the recreation yard while prison officials searched his cell for contraband, and he was told to lie on the ground and put “your ass in the air for your girlfriend.” Lee, citing his asthma, complained that he couldn’t breathe and was beaten. (In court papers, the defendants’ lawyer denied the charges.)
Broussard waved a laminated paper with a photograph of Victor White III and other men who had died in custody, surrounded by photographs of the indicted officers. He had titled the page “Organized Crime.” Beside the officers’ heads, he had written nicknames for them. Byron Benjamin Lassalle, who pleaded guilty to forcing an inmate to fellate a baton, was Crazy Boy. Ackal was the Don. There was little known publicly about the inner workings of the sheriff’s office, but everyone in New Iberia was connected to everyone else; everyone had secret stories. Since his son’s death, White had received periodic text messages from an anonymous phone number with tips from within the Sheriff’s Department. Oneal Davis, an officer who had recently retired from Ackal’s department, told me the most corrupt, violent cops were the ones Ackal chose for promotion, a system that encouraged ever-increasing levels of brutality, a pyramid scheme of violence.
(In court papers, Ackal has denied that he failed to properly supervise the sheriff’s office. The public-information officer for the sheriff’s office wrote, in emailed statements: “If there is a question of possible wrongdoing by members of our agency, Sheriff Ackal will welcome an independent investigation from an outside law-enforcement agency. Sheriff Ackal does not condone any illegal activities by his employees and will not hesitate to have an employee arrested if it is proved that they are involved in illegal activities.” The officer added that “Sheriff Ackal strives for all of his deputies to be as professional as possible and expects them to treat every citizen within his jurisdiction equally.”)
Also pictured on Broussard’s sheet was Michael Jones, a mentally ill inmate who, according to court papers, died after an outburst in which he ran from his cell naked and screaming. Two former officers, Wesley and Jesse Hayes, along with a former warden, slammed him to the floor, beat him, handcuffed him, put him in a chokehold and sat on top of him until he died. The Hayes brothers had a side career as Da Bayou Boys, a tag-team wrestling duo; after victories, they stuffed their opponents’ mouths with boudin sausage. A judge awarded Jones’s family $61,000 in a wrongful-death suit. In Ackal’s federal case, the Hayes brothers pleaded guilty to other incidents of excessive force; Wesley filed a whistle-blower suit claiming that he was fired for reporting misconduct.
One of the petition organizers working with White, Khadijah Rashad, has for more than 20 years kept in a roller suitcase, locked in a secret compartment of her bedroom closet, an archive of racial violence in the parish. Ackal is the third consecutive sheriff to be taken to court on alleged civil rights violations. Before Hebert’s stunt at the 2006 Sugar Cane Festival, his predecessor, Errol Romero, settled a lawsuit in which he and his jail warden were indicted on charges related to their forcing prisoners to sit in restraint chairs for weeks at a time, and hogtying prisoners with their mouths taped and football helmets placed backward over their heads.
After five hours, White was still leaping through traffic, hailing passers-by, collecting signatures. The recall event had expanded into a more general protest — a protest of parish history, Louisiana history, national history. “You got these ignorant people in positions of power, and they’re abusing it,” Whitney Lee said.
“They call it corruption,” Rashad said. “I call it racism.”
Though neither the Iberia parish president nor the mayor of New Iberia called for Ackal’s removal from office, the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival replaced his department on the security detail for last year’s festival with officers from Youngsville, a small town 15 miles northwest. Ackal, by then, had bigger problems. He had asked the judge to reconsider the decision to confiscate his gun “in view of what’s happening across the country,” referring to the recent shootings of police officers; two months earlier, Louisiana passed a Blue Lives Matter law, the first in the nation, which gave the police hate-crime protections. The judge was unsympathetic to Ackal’s argument. A week before the festival, federal prosecutors added additional details to the indictment, charging that Ackal had ordered the destruction of the department’s internal-affairs files and routinely instructed his officers to falsify police reports.
As the parades marched downtown, the West End was in a circumspect mood. A few blocks from Kevin Broussard’s parking lot, three women sat in a field next to two homes and a beauty salon that had flooded to a height of four feet during the major Louisiana rain event a month earlier. The homes and the salon belonged to twin sisters named Wonderful and Wonderlynn Galentine. Repairs to the properties were funded by the West End Council of Neighborhoods Association, a nonprofit organization that serves the West End. It formed in 2008, when Ackal took office. “Wecna is here to do those things that government is not doing,” said Eva Lewis, the association’s president, who was checking on the progress to Wonderful’s home. She was joined by Robby Carrier-Bethel, a Wecna member and second-generation activist — her mother, Clara Lee DeGay Carrier, a member of the school board, was the first African-American elected to office in the parish. “There is a huge breakdown in the West End,” Carrier-Bethel said. “Everybody who lives in Iberia Parish has to bear some shame. We have to ask ourselves: How could anyone know anything and turn a blind eye?”
Carrier-Bethel is pursuing a criminal-justice degree; the previous night, she stayed up late to finish a paper about Kantian moral philosophy. “In order to get justice, you need to have truth.” she said. “Children should not have to live in fear of law enforcement. That is the worst thing that could ever happen to a community.” She began to cry. “You have to watch what you say and who you say it to. You have to swallow it. And you know that, as hard as you try, things are not getting better.”
The women hadn’t attended the Sugar Cane Festival for years. “What they’re celebrating is not very respectful to what African-Americans experienced in this parish,” Carrier-Bethel said, measuring her words. As recently as the late 1960s, some sugar-plantation workers were paid in scrip that could be exchanged only at plantation-owned stores. “The history is not the scary part. It’s the ignorance of the history. You hope that things change, but when you go to a parade and you see a sea of whiteness, it reminds you that there’s still a lack of respect for who you are as a person. Until we begin to be brutally honest about what is happening in our parish — what is happening in America — it will always be a sea of whiteness.”
Across town, following the 4-H Live Stock Show and Sale and the Blessing of the Crops, the 75th annual Sugar Cane Festival reached its culmination with the coronation of Queen Sugar. The pageant was held at the festival’s own theater in City Park, which quickly filled to capacity. The men wore oxford shirts in shades of violet, gray and white, with ties and without jackets; the women wore pearls, floral-patterned gowns, bouffant hair. Some had brooches identifying them as “Former Queen Sugar.” The atmosphere was galvanized, giddy. It seemed that everyone knew nearly everyone else. It seemed that every single person was white.
The curtain opened on the Sugar Lumps, a troupe of middle-aged women dressed in black spandex and emerald sequin vests performing a synchronized dance to Pitbull’s “Celebrate.” On the stage behind them, stands of sugar cane were set against silver draping. In the center stood a throne for King Sucrose and Queen Sugar, who magnanimously waved their scepters.
There followed a procession of visiting queens: Miss Cajun Hot Sauce Queen, Miss Creole Gumbo Queen, Miss Crawfish Queen, Miss Gonzales Jambalaya Queen. After the entrance of the three judges, each a representative of the sugar industry, the contestants for Queen Sugar introduced themselves:
“Where the sugar cane grows in all directions, and our two mills process it in sweet confections, the cane may be much taller than me, but I can promise you that I’m just as sweet. Proudly representing Assumption Parish, I am —”
“We’re going to make your life sooo sweet, when you shake it on down to sugar town. Feel free to stomp your feet to that good old Cajun beat. Proudly representing Terrebonne Parish, I am —”
The daughters of the old planter families held elaborate curtsies while announcers read their biographical statements. When asked whom they would most like to meet, three contestants chose Jean Étienne de Boré, who made sugar cane commercially viable in Louisiana in 1795.
At last the M.C. requested the envelope. The contestants smiled bravely. The audience quivered in anticipation. The winner was announced: Caroline Marcello of Lafourche Parish. She was handed a bouquet of roses, a silver tiara with bejeweled sugar-cane stalks, a cape embroidered with glittering white petals. The audience stood as one. In the back row, an ecstatic woman tried to get the attention of an elderly man beside her. He was confused; he had not heard the result.
“She won!” the woman shouted, putting her arms around the man’s neck. “She won! We won!”
In late October, five days before the trial was set to begin, Bubba Savoy pleaded guilty to striking an inmate in the testicles with his baton, leaving only Ackal to stand trial. During his officers’ testimony, Ackal sat passively, spitting tobacco into a foam cup. Narcotics officers testified that Ackal encouraged them to terrorize the West End, lie in depositions to cover up excessive use of force and beat whomever they liked. “He wanted to take the streets back from the [expletive],” said the former narcotics officer Marion Borel. “They were animals,” explained a former deputy, Jason Comeaux, “and they needed to be treated like animals.” He recalled an interrogation in which a supervising officer pointed at a discoloration on the floor and told the suspect: “You see that stain there? That’s from the last [expletive] I shot.” When asked how it felt, beating up black people, a former officer named Jacob Huckaby called it “liberating, I guess, to have a little extra power on somebody.” One federal prosecutor estimated that hundreds of victims had been beaten on Ackal’s watch.
The deputies testified for four days. On the fifth day, Ackal’s lawyer, John McLindon, argued that the narcotics unit was a rogue division within the department, operating without Ackal’s knowledge. He said that no one ever claimed that Ackal himself beat an inmate.
After four hours of deliberation, the jury found Ackal not guilty on all counts. “God bless it,” Ackal said, after court was adjourned. “Our judicial system worked today.”
Carol Powell Lexing was poleaxed. “You’ve got the most corrupt Sheriff’s Department in the state of Louisiana, probably in the country, and you have the deputies testify about all the corruption — and he still gets off. It’s totally incredible.” She denied that she was discouraged about her own case, which is scheduled for trial in August. “I feel encouraged, more than ever. Because now you have the deputies’ testimony about the culture of corruption and violence in the department.”
White was stunned. “I don’t understand how the jury could have acquitted,” he said. “It was like they weren’t paying attention.”
The effort to recall Ackal failed to secure enough signatures by the deadline. As White awaits the civil trial, he continues to organize protests against Ackal through an organization he has formed to fight police brutality. It’s called Justice for Victor White. I asked whether he thought justice for his son was possible. “True justice,” he said, “would be to bring my son’s life back.”
Ackal, meanwhile, was triumphant. He spoke of cleaning house, of greater transparency. He emphasized the need for better relations between the police and the West End. “We’re losing our black children,” he told a reporter.
Then he returned to the sheriff’s office, where he was given back his gun.
Correction: February 10, 2017
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article carried a credit that misspelled the given name of the photographer. The picture of Sheriff Louis Ackal was taken by Dwayne Fatherree, not Duane.