a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Gretna, LA officials really are wanted for questioning

Posted by Thomas Nephew on August 7th, 2006

One of the Hurricane Katrina stories I thought was the “Kitty Genovese story of our times” isn’t going away. On Saturday, the Washington Post published an AP story about the repercussions of a September 1, 2005 incident on the bridge from New Orleans to Gretna, Louisiana. From La. Police Who Turned Away Katrina Victims Face Inquiry:

A grand jury will investigate last year’s blockade of a Mississippi River bridge by armed police officers who turned back Hurricane Katrina evacuees trying to flee New Orleans.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan declined to reveal any details of the investigation on Thursday.

The grand jury will not begin the investigation next week, but it will start soon, said Leatrice Dupre, spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office.

Good. No: excellent. And “turned back” isn’t quite the word for it. Lorrie Beth Slonsky — a paramedic from the Bay Area in New Orleans for a convention when the hurricane hit — recounted what happened to “This American Life” last year*:

SLONSKY: So we are going through town and people *saw* us and thought, “Hm, you know, here come some folks, they must know something,” so our numbers doubled, from probably about 200 and then doubled again, so we were probably about 800 to a thousand people, marching up to the bridge. When we got to the bridge, there was the armed Gretna sherriffs, and they had formed a line at the foot of the bridge–


SLONSKY: –so even before we could *explain* what we wanted or what we had heard, that’s when they began firing the weapons. Gretna police *shot* at us and said, “Get away, get away, you *cannot* come on the bridge.” […]

SLONSKY: And when we approached and had them in conversation, the sherriff informed us that there *were* no buses, that the police commander had lied to us, and when — Larry questioned, it’s like “Can we just ask you *why* we can’t cross the bridge?” because there was *no* traffic, very little traffic on this six-lane highway, and they said that — [sighs] “You are *not* crossing this bridge. We are *not* turning the West Bank into another Superdome.” [fierce] And to *us*, when they said that, that was *absolutely* these were code words for, “If you’re poor, and you’re black, you are *not* getting out of New Orleans, you are *not* coming to our territory.”

Last year, I titled a blog post about the Gretna incident “Louisiana mayor, sheriff, police chief wanted for questioning,” adding “By me, anyway.” It’s nice to see a district attorney agrees.

In late July, the United Nations Human Rights Committee noted both the Gretna incident and another one (U.N. Panel takes U.S. to task over Katrina, AP, Bradley Klapper):

The U.N. panel said it wants to be informed of the results of inquiries into the alleged failure to evacuate inmates from a prison, and into allegations that authorities did not allow New Orleans residents to cross a bridge into Gretna, La.

I’m guessing the prison is the Orleans Parish Templeman III facility; Human Rights Watch reported that hundreds of prisoners there were abandoned to the rising flood waters after the levees broke. I hope that sheriff and prison warden are held accountable as well.

* Transcript by “bellatrys.”

UPDATES, 8/9: In comments, eRobin reminds me that Gretna police turning away the refugees wasn’t the end of it. The group formed a small community down the freeway, scavenging supplies and improvising shelter. Then:

Just as dusk set in, a Gretna Sheriff showed up, jumped out of his patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at our faces, screaming, “Get off the fucking freeway”. A helicopter arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow away our flimsy structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck with our food and water.

Via our joint blog, “Recording Katrina,” which we’ve kept updated with fresh non-mainstream media news about the disaster’s aftermath.

Also, the New Republic has an excellent article by David Morton (“Empire Falls“) on the Templeman III incident, and the background and future of the Orleans Parish jails as the engine for a New Orleans political machine. The issue’s lead editorial, “Lost City,” is also eloquent and on target: “If Katrina suggested a rot in American society–a decrepit federal government, a blunted sense of social solidarity, the entrenchment of poverty–the aftermath has confirmed it.”

5 Responses to “Gretna, LA officials really are wanted for questioning”

  1. Gary Farber Says:

    “Kitty Genovese story of our times”
    Seems to me it was one heck of a lot worse than Kitty Genovese’s story, by a factor of several hundred.
    The equivalent would have had to have been that instead of neighbors not calling the police when they heard Genovese’s cries, variously because they assumed someone else would help, or they didn’t want to get involved, or whathaveyou, the whole mob of them had gone down, and lined up and prevented Genovese from escaping her attacker, while shooting over her head.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    There’s that. I meant the Gretnans ignoring the need of those people fleeing New Orleans, and the shock and soul-searching among (many) Americans who learned about the incident.

  3. eRobin Says:

    That story you quote was one of the ones that has stayed with me the longest. It goes on to talk about how when they gathered on the bridge and managed to set up some kind of camp with food and water they had rescued after it fell from the back of a truck, a helicopter came and blew the whole thing apart. The cops then confiscated the food and water. With the supplies gone, the group fell apart. It was very sad.

  4. eRobin Says:

    Here’s the part of the story I was remembering via Recording Katrina:
    Our small group retreated back down Highway 90 to seek shelter from the rain under an overpass. We debated our options and in the end decided to build an encampment in the middle of the Ponchartrain Expressway on the center divide, between the O’Keefe and Tchoupitoulas exits. We reasoned we would be visible to everyone, we would have some security being on an elevated freeway and we could wait and watch for the arrival of the yet to be seen buses.
    All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups make the same trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge, only to be turned away. Some chased away with gunfire, others simply told no, others to be verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleaners were prevented and prohibited from self-evacuating the City on foot. Meanwhile, the only two City shelters sank further into squalor and disrepair. The only way across the bridge was by vehicle. We saw workers stealing trucks, buses, moving vans, semi-trucks and any car that could be hotwired. All were packed with people trying to escape the misery New Orleans had become.
    Our little encampment began to blossom. Someone stole a water delivery truck and brought it up to us. Let’s hear it for looting! A mile or so down the freeway, an army truck lost a couple of pallets of C-rations on a tight turn. We ferried the food back to our camp in shopping carts. Now secure with the two necessities, food and water; cooperation, community, and creativity flowered. We organized a clean up and hung garbage bags from the rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and cardboard. We designated a storm drain as the bathroom and the kids built an elaborate enclosure for privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas, and other scraps. We even organized a food recycling system where individuals could swap out parts of C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for kids!).
    This was a process we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina. When individuals had to fight to find food or water, it meant looking out for yourself only. You had to do whatever it took to find water for your kids or food for your parents. When these basic needs were met, people began to look out for each other, working together and constructing a community.
    If the relief organizations had saturated the City with food and water in the first 2 or 3 days, the desperation, the frustration and the ugliness would not have set in.
    Flush with the necessities, we offered food and water to passing families and individuals. Many decided to stay and join us. Our encampment grew to 80 or 90 people.
    From a woman with a battery powered radio we learned that the media was talking about us. Up in full view on the freeway, every relief and news organizations saw us on their way into the City. Officials were being asked what they were going to do about all those families living up on the freeway? The officials responded they were going to take care of us. Some of us got a sinking feeling. “Taking care of us” had an ominous tone to it.
    Unfortunately, our sinking feeling (along with the sinking City) was correct. Just as dusk set in, a Gretna Sheriff showed up, jumped out of his patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at our faces, screaming, “Get off the fucking freeway”. A helicopter arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow away our flimsy structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck with our food and water.
    Once again, at gunpoint, we were forced off the freeway. All the law enforcement agencies appeared threatened when we congregated or congealed into groups of 20 or more. In every congregation of “victims” they saw “mob” or “riot”. We felt safety in numbers. Our “we must stay together” was impossible because the agencies would force us into small atomized groups.
    In the pandemonium of having our camp raided and destroyed, we scattered once again. Reduced to a small group of 8 people, in the dark, we sought refuge in an abandoned school bus, under the freeway on Cilo Street. We were hiding from possible criminal elements but equally and definitely, we were hiding from the police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew and shoot-to-kill policies.

  5. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks for locating that link, eRobin, and for mentioning “Recording Katrina.” Sometimes I’m not good at promoting our own stuff; “Recording Katrina” really is a good resource.

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