The sixth season of the insanely popular The Walking Dead debuted Sunday night, and it shows no signs of stopping its momentum. TWD, as it’s known, has actually grown in audience size each year since its debut in 2010 [‘The Walking Dead’ Ratings Hit Season Finale High With 15.8M Viewers, by Dominic Patton, Deadline, March 30, 2015]. This graphic tale of zombie survival even spawned a spin-off show (Fear the Walking Dead or FTWD) which garnered the largest audience for its first season in cable history [AMC’s ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ Has the Highest-Rated First Season in Cable History, by Rick Kissell, Variety, October 9, 2015] What attracts people to TWD? There can be no doubt two of the strongest white male characters in all of television—Rick Grimes and Daryl Dixon, played respectively by Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus—are part of the appeal. But there’s something far deeper at work. TWD allows the viewer to live vicariously in a world where civilization is replaced with barbarism. The shocking violence implicitly asks the viewer if he could survive in the absence of the state. It’s a question that may not always be theoretical. TWD creator Robert Kirkman recently opened up about the newer show, which chronicles the opening stages of civilization’s collapse, saying:
Well I don’t want to be overly pessimistic about how the government would handle a crisis, but I feel like if something as all-encompassing as a zombie apocalypse were to ever happen…what we tried to show with Fear the Walking Dead was this is something that would happen really rapidly and it was happening all over the country, all over the world at the exact same time. It’s an uncontained phenomenon that would very quickly overwhelm any system, any government. I think it’s only natural to see a government not handle a situation of that magnitude very well. I saw [the National Guardsmen] as one faction of the military that definitely had some chain of command and some communication but probably not full communication and full chain of command. I think some people saw our military portrayal as somewhat negative. Like, “Oh, they’re bad guys.” But our intention was [to show] that they’re very overwhelmed, very outside of their element. It is, to a certain extent, them scrambling to make sense of the world around them. ['The Walking Dead’ Creator Spills the Brains: ‘This World Makes Us Soft’, by Melissa Leon, The Daily Beast, October 9, 2015]
To some extent, it’s already happened. Ten years ago, in the city of New Orleans, we saw civilization consumed overnight and the failure of the government to maintain order. And the perpetrators weren’t zombies—but our supposed fellow countrymen. The descent of a once-great American city is now a part of American legend. “American Sniper” Chris Kyle famously claimed to have been dispatched to the city to shoot rioters. There are also reports that Blackwater and other private security firms were called in to restore order [Blackwater Down, by Jeremy Scahill, Nation, September 21, 2005] Yet reports from those on the scene suggest that, if anything, the descent of New Orleans into TWD-style anarchy was actually understated at the time. For instance, Sally Forman, communications director for the city of New Orleans when Katrina hit, reported in her book Eye of the Storm: Inside City Hall During Katrina that police were
…screaming over the radio that they’re running out of ammunition. [Deputy Chief Warren Riley] said, “That’s the first time in my 25 years on the force that I’ve even heard of a police officer saying he’s getting ready to run out of ammo in a gunfight.” I began to feel as if we were living in the Wild West.
Forman also wrote how Mayor Ray Nagin urgently requested “400 M-4’s with 25,000 5.56 caliber rounds” from the federal government. [p.127] Who on earth were the police fighting in New Orleans? It wasn’t zombies:
[Reporter Jeremy] Scahill spoke to Michael Montgomery, the chief of security for one wealthy businessman who said his men came under fire from "black gangbangers" near the Ninth Ward. Armed with AR-15s and Glocks, Montgomery and his men "unleashed a barrage of bullets in the general direction of the alleged shooters on the overpass. 'After that, all I heard was moaning and screaming, and the shooting stopped. That was it. Enough said.'" [The Secret History of Hurricane Katrina, by James Ridgeway, Mother Jones August 28, 2009]
According to Ridgeway’s report, military officials referred to events in the city as an “insurgency” and compared it to “Little Somalia.” One incredible anecdote from Mayor Ray Nagin’s book Katrina's Secrets: Storms after the Storm, shows such comparisons were not overstated. On August 31, 2005, there was an attempted coup by the mostly black population staying in the Superdome:
Back at the Superdome, things had descended to being on the verge of blowing into a full-scale riot. Our director health and his top assistant, who were administering medical help to the sick, were tipped off by several patients that a plot had been developed to overpower the National Guardsmen and take their weapons. From there they planned to take hostages, gain full control of the Superdome, and then storm the Hyatt Hotel (the New Orleans city government set up a temporary base of operations there). They wanted control of their own destinies. These conspirators also mistakenly thought that that were in fact more buses already in the city that were first evacuating other areas, in the affluent parts of town…
With only 300 National Guard troops at the Superdome and a handful of police officers, a coup d’état could be successful as the sheer number of people in the Superdome gave them an overwhelming advantage. It our limited security force was defeated, then a simple push through the barricades on the crosswalk form the Superdome through a set of doors would give them access to the third floor of the Hyatt hotel. From there, our command center was only one flight of stairs up, on the fourth floor.
All of a sudden, without warning, a gunshot went off in a lower parking lot area of the Superdome. We had been alerted that a diversion of some sort would start everything and as everyone was distracted then the overpowering of the National Guardsmen would occur. Chief [Eddie] Compass immediately ran into the command center and yell, “Mr. Mayor, there has been an incident at the Superdome, and we have to leave right now!”
Since the elevators were not working, we all ran up 23 flights of stairs to the 27th floor where our rooms were. Everyone moved instinctively as we had no time to think about anything but getting out of danger. As I sat on the sofa catching my breath and rubbing my swollen knee, Chief Compass gave me the latest on the rebel plan.
A National Guard member had been shot in the leg, and there was still a struggle to get the situation under control. We would later learn that the attempted takeover failed as our National Guardsmen and NOPD officers were able to protect each other from being overpowered. The tips we had gotten probably allowed us to save lives and maintain control.
Leftist reporters like The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill have tried to raise a scandal about the presence of private military firms in New Orleans after Katrina, but without success. And the reason is simple. To ordinary Americans, Blackwater patrolling American streets is far less terrifying than rule by the largely black urban underclass. Better to bury these reports then have ordinary Americans start asking the wrong questions. After all, in a story largely reported only in foreign media, European and Australian tourists banded together with white Americans to survive the violent attacks by blacks inside the Superdome—sounding exactly like Night of the Living Dead. [EXCLUSIVE: BRITS' HELL INSIDE THE TERROR DOME, Daily Mirror, September 2, 2005]
And this may be why TWD is so strangely subversive, despite the window dressing of its multicultural cast. As they said in Fear the Walking Dead, “When civilization ends, it ends fast.” We saw just that with Hurricane Katrina. And the illusions of egalitarianism fade just as quickly. It’s the oldest lesson of any zombie film: It’s not the dead you must fear, but the living. And America’s current obsession with fictitious walking corpses reflects a deep and widely shared unease about the savagery in our midst—the terrible violence our rulers are either powerless to stop, or eager to allow.
Paul Kersey[Email him] is the author of the blog SBPDL, and has published the books SBPDL Year One, Hollywood in Blackface and Escape From Detroit, Opiate of America: College Football in Black and White and Second City Confidential: The Black Experience in Chicagoland. His latest book is The Tragic City: Birmingham 1963-2013.