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The confrontation at the bridge
How Katrina unleashed a storm of racism

October 14, 2005 | Pages 8 and 9

ERIC RUDER reports on a confrontation at a bridge out of flooded New Orleans--between armed police and people trying to get out of the devastated city.

THE HUNDREDS of people--a mixture of New Orleans residents and tourists--finally felt hopeful after days stranded in flooded New Orleans without adequate supplies of food and water. A police commander had instructed them to walk to a highway bridge that would take them across the Mississippi River to the West Bank, where buses were waiting to evacuate them from the flood zone.

But as they reached the foot of the bridge, armed deputies blocked their way. Before the group could even approach the bridge, the police fired their weapons in the air.

The crowd dispersed, returning to an uncertain fate in New Orleans rather than risk being shot. But a few people refused to go away without an explanation.

"As the crowd scattered and dissipated, a few of us inched forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation," wrote Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, two San Francisco Emergency Medical Services workers who were trapped in the city after a paramedics convention. "The sheriffs informed us that there were no buses waiting. We questioned why we couldn't cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the six-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans, and there would be no Superdomes in their city.

"These were code words for: if you are poor and Black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River, and you are not getting out of New Orleans."

Larry and Lorrie Beth's account of this confrontation, first published in Socialist Worker, made its way around the world via the Internet--and eventually was reported by the mainstream press, which corroborated the details.

Their story showed in shocking detail how race and class condemned thousands of New Orleans residents to a nightmarish ordeal in the aftermath of Katrina. But follow-up reports about the showdown between desperate people trying to evacuate New Orleans and the police of Gretna--the town that lies at the other end of the bridge people were trying to cross--demonstrate a deeper reality about racism in America.

As even mainstream media outlets eventually admitted, what took place at the bridge over the Mississippi wasn't a misunderstanding or even a regrettable mistake.

"Little over a week after this mostly white suburb became a symbol of callousness for using armed officers to seal one of the last escape routes from New Orleans--trapping thousands of mostly Black evacuees in the flooded city--the Gretna City Council passed a resolution supporting the police chief's move," reported the Los Angeles Times on September 16.

"This wasn't just one man's decision," said Mayor Ronnie Harris. "The whole community backs it."

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GRETNA POLICE Chief Arthur Lawson claimed that he had little choice but to shut down the bridge. He says that his officers used buses to evacuate some 5,000 people who had walked across the bridge in the first days after New Orleans' levees broke--and that it was only after looters and arsonists had set fire to nine stores in a Gretna mall that he decided to shut down the bridge.

National Public Radio reporter John Burnett summed up Lawson's explanation this way: "Chief Lawson would like to know without communication, food, water, enough buses and gasoline, how long would it take another American city to reach the limits of its compassion?"

But the Gretna cops aren't the selfless humanitarians their chief makes them out to be. Vermont National Guard troops stationed in Gretna after Katrina told reporters from the Rutland (Vt.) Herald that the cops were making incursions into Black neighborhoods looking for confrontations.

When the Gretna deputies asked several Vermont soldiers how things were going and were told that their duty was "boring," one of the deputies said, "I guess we'll go make a run through there to see if we can stir some [stuff] up." "They said they went back in there, and kicked everybody's door in," said Vermont guardsman Sgt. Francis Estey.

Staff Sgt. Eric Crammond said the officers took a much harsher attitude toward residents than the Vermont soldiers. "They're talking the way we used to talk when we were in theater," said Crammond, who recently returned from Iraq with the rest of the unit. "They were in there the better part of an hour. [The residents] are pretty intimidated."

What's more, Chief Lawson shut the bridge to foot traffic, but allowed people in vehicles to cross--meaning that the ticket to escape New Orleans was an automobile to take you there.

"If you look at the chief's early comments, before he started trying to clean up his act, his whole concern was that when he looked and saw people trying to get out of New Orleans, he didn't see human beings in need, or neighbors who needed help," Larry told Socialist Worker. "He saw 'criminals'--that is, African American people--and that seemed to be his primary concern.

"The chief has also said repeatedly as his justification that he didn't have any food, water or shelter, so he was stopping us for our own good. But we never at any point asked them for food, water or shelter. Our goal was purely to extricate ourselves from the scene of a major disaster. And we were prepared to walk as long and far as necessary to do that. If they offered us food, water and shelter, we wouldn't have turned it down. But there was never an expectation that Gretna was going to provide that for us.

"We're worried that the politicians of Gretna are engaged in this language of division, discord and drawing lines, and by sanctioning the chief's actions, they're defining themselves as an 'us,' and everyone else as a 'them.'"

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GRETNA POLICE weren't the only ones stoking fears about senseless violence committed by the marauding residents of New Orleans.

"Five weeks after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, some local, state and federal officials have come to believe that exaggerations of mayhem by officials and rumors repeated uncritically in the news media helped slow the response to the disaster and tarnish the image of many of its victims," reported the Washington Post. "There turned out to be little evidence to support CNN host Paula Zahn speaking of 'reports' of 'bands of rapists, going block to block,' or New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin on national television, describing the scene as 'animalistic.'"

Former New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass appeared with Nagin on The Oprah Winfrey Show to claim that "babies" were being raped in the Superdome--a story he later recanted. And despite Sen. Mary Landrieu's (D-La.) report of injured and killed deputies, only one law enforcement official was shot--and the wound to his leg was the self-inflicted result of a struggle.

Major Ed Bush of the Louisiana National Guard was dismayed that the residents of New Orleans were depicted so cruelly. "I certainly saw fights, but I saw worse fights at a Cubs game in Chicago," he said. "The people never turned into these animals. They have been cheated out of being thought of as people who looked out for each other. We had more babies born [in the Superdome] than we had deaths."

Worse, the racist panic--unleashed by elected officials, police and the media spreading unsubstantiated rumors--undoubtedly hampered relief efforts and led to needless death and suffering.

"One of the nightmares of white America is the idea of a mob of Black people," reads an editorial in the Montpelier (Vt.) Times-Argus. "It is a nightmare born of deep fears that go back to the days of slavery. Nothing was more threatening to white America back then than the idea of a slave revolt and the ravishment of white womanhood...

"[T]he stories of rampaging Blacks might well have become exaggerated because they played perfectly into white fears. Those are the fears that led law enforcement officials, not to help, but to turn people away when they were fleeing a flooded city. They are the fears that gave white police officers license to terrorize Black neighborhoods."

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LORRIE BETH says that the media interest in their story has been "awe-inspiring." Nearly six weeks since Katrina, Larry and Lorrie Beth are still behind in getting back to 30 or 40 reporters, and their answering machine regularly fills up within a few hours.

"There are a number of mainstream reporters who saw the racism firsthand, and they felt like they couldn't say it themselves, so they bring us on television or the radio for us to say it, because they want to get that message out," Larry says. "But their own prejudice comes out, in the sense that they think that because we're white and middle-aged and 'professionals,' we're legitimate. It's bizarrely ironic that Lorrie Beth and I, who are white, are being called upon to tell this story of racism."

Nevertheless, the features of this story reflect the powerful role played by race and class in the U.S. today.

"We don't see our run-in with the Gretna police force as an individual case of mistreatment, but it's the issue of racism and brutality that exists throughout the relief effort and is endemic throughout our country," says Lorrie Beth. "One-third of Black children in this country are growing up in poverty, infant mortality is on the rise among Blacks, Black children are twice as likely to die before their first birthday as white children. The list goes on. Racism plays a huge role in this country, politically and economically."

Larry agrees. "It's important to put this in a context. A million more people became poor last year. And for the last 20 years, we've had both Democrats and Republicans withdrawing public services from poor and working families, and we've seen the results of that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina."

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