Gretna, a working class community connected to New Orleans by a bridge across the Mississippi, briefly caught the attention of the media and blogosphere last week. Now, Chris Matthews is back with it, but we have also found a conflicting eye-witness version.
In the story as told by two San Francisco paramedics visiting New Orleans for a convention and picked up by the UPI and the San Francisco Chronicle, racist suburban cops blocked the bridge and prevented them from leaving New Orleans:
So late Wednesday afternoon, the group set out for a bridge called the Crescent City Connection, where they would find the help they so desperately needed. But when they arrived atop the highway, the paramedics said, they were met by more police officers, this time from neighboring Gretna, La., who weren't letting anyone pass.
"If I weren't there, and hadn't witnessed it for myself, I don't think I would have ever believed this," Bradshaw said.
The officers fired warning shots into the air and then leveled their weapons at members of the crowd, Bradshaw said. He approached, hands in the air, displaying his paramedic's badge.
"They told us that there would be no Superdomes in their city,'' the couple wrote. "These were code words that if you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River -- and you weren't getting out of New Orleans.''
The NY Times dropped the racial angle from their reporting, perhaps because the paramedics were white. Evidence? In addition to the name of one of the paramedics (Lorrie Beth Slonsky), we find this excerpt quoted by the San Fran Chronicle from their original account, as they describe the scene near the Monteleone Hotel:
"At that point, we had not seen any of the TV coverage or looked at a newspaper, but we guessed there were no video images of European and white tourists, like us, looting the Walgreens in the French Quarter...''
Emphasis added - the phrase "like us" does not appear in their version of the story at the Socialist Worker website running the story.
[Or, even more convincing evidence is just in - the MSNBC video has just popped up on Google News to reveal the grim white faces of Ms. Slonsky and Mr. Bradshaw insisting to Chris Matthews that the incident was racially motivated. So much for my two-cent sleuthing, and the Socialist air-brushing.]
The St. Louis Dispatch also has a first-person account of what is almost certainly the same incident, as described by a St. Louis lawyer and his wife. His version:
A group of about 200 Monteleone guests decided to try to walk out of the city to the east, and got to the on-ramp at the Crescent Connection bridge, where they were met by Gretna, La., police with shotguns. "They told us the bridge was closed to foot traffic," Scheer said. "Some locals had joined us and became extremely unruly, threatening to rush the officers. They fired their shotguns into the air."
A sidebar - the two timelines create a puzzle, but not a contradiction - the lawyer says that they planned to walk out on Wednesday, but decided to wait for chartered buses; the paramedics say the incident occurred on Thursday. OK - maybe the lawyer decided to wait a day for buses. Or maybe people set out from the hotel in two different groups. But by this account, the crowd got unruly before shots were fired.
Missing from the story so far - on whose authority was Police Chief Lawson acting? Per the Times, police from three jurisdictions were involved:
Arthur Lawson, chief of the Gretna, La., Police Department, confirmed that his officers, along with those from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office and the Crescent City Connection Police, sealed the bridge.
By Wednesday the New Orleans police effort had switched from rescue efforts to a crackdown on looting; by Thursday evening, Governor Blanco had made her famous comment that National Guard troops were on the way, "locked and loaded", and trained to "shoot to kill". Although I doubt that anyone from the Governor's office will rush forward now to claim responsibility for blocking the bridge, it may be that Lawson and the other district cops were simply following someone's idea of a crowd control plan.
In any case, Chief Lawson looks well positioned for his re-election run (as a Democrat), if these comments of this school board member from neighboring Jefferson Parish are any indication:
Mark Morgan, a member of the Jefferson Parish School Board in Louisiana, fled to Memphis from the New Orleans area with more than a dozen relatives when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.
He has since returned to Louisiana, but several of his family members remain in Memphis.
...Morgan, elected to the parish school board in March 2004, responded to questions from The Commercial Appeal by e-mail early last week after returning home.
Q: As we speak (on Monday), what is the state of conditions in your immediate area?
A: The City of Gretna is closed to the public and had been set up as a command post for the National Guard, FBI and other regional law enforcement offices, as well as local government. We have power, water, and have had food shipped into the compound.
Our police chief, Arthur Lawson, is the only reason we are secure and have supplies. He used personal contacts to secure our security and well-being.
Outside the compound there is water (not drinkable), gas and some electricity. The city is secure and has suffered almost no looting. We had to restrict access to the city, sometimes with the use of firearms, because looters from New Orleans were trying to cross into Gretna.
Q: What are your views about how federal and Louisiana officials responded to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?
Evacuation was first class. We had had prior traffic problems because we are surrounded by water and the routes out are limited.
The scale of the tragedy was unprecedented, so it is difficult to compare the response to other tragedies.
Having said that, the federal response was unacceptable to me personally and I have yet to hear an explanation.
The looting spun out of control and (responsibility for) that falls squarely on the slow response of the feds. Federal troops should have been here no later than 24 hours after the storm to maintain order. It took more than six days and they are still not here in full force. No National Guard are in my area yet, even today. No Red Cross yet.
FEMA has actually prevented local agencies from getting supplies in. They have canceled shipment that local authorities arranged.
If not for our police chief, we would have almost nothing -- no fuel, no food.
Local FBI and DEA are using a small-town police force, Gretna police, to run operations because there is no support from the federal government yet....
Q: Do you think race has been a factor in the response to this tragedy? If so, how?
No. I really think it was a function of the military being spread too thin in this country as a result of the war in Iraq.
Q: What do you see as the future of New Orleans? Can it ever recover?
It will recover and be an even better city.
Mr. Morgan sounds like a good Democrat - all the problems are due to Bush, the Feds, and the war. But not to race. And what about Chief Lawson - racist rogue, or just following orders? Who will report, so we can deride? MORE ON CROWD CONTROL: Another first person account of the flight of the Monteleone guests - two Canadians essentially missed the action on the bridge:
Mr. Morgan sounds like a good Democrat - all the problems are due to Bush, the Feds, and the war. But not to race.
And what about Chief Lawson - racist rogue, or just following orders? Who will report, so we can deride?
MORE ON CROWD CONTROL: Another first person account of the flight of the Monteleone guests - two Canadians essentially missed the action on the bridge:
Two Saskatchewan tourists stranded in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina joined a group of 100 visitors trudging to a highway in hopes of catching a ride away from a city thrust into chaos by water and wind.
Larry Mitzel of Saskatoon and his friend, Jill Johnson of La Ronge, on what had become a holiday in hell, walked 10 kilometres in a torrential downpour carrying all the belongings they could manage. When shots rang out, police told the group to turn back -- they wouldn't find a route to safety there.
The crowd estimate is different, the timing of the rain is different, and these two weren't clear who was shooting - I blame Canada.
That said, they provide a useful peek at police strategy in the French Quarter:
When all hotels were ordered to evacuate, they appealed to National Guard personnel for help in getting out.
"The first four days were spent trying to contain us, to herd us," Johnson said. "There was no thought given to evacuation. It was all police and National Guard, and it was all, contain, contain, contain. Focus on the looters. Shoot to kill anybody after dark. Get everybody together under one roof so we can control them. We didn't need that. We needed out of town."
The police held people at the Superdome as well, per the WaPo:
At the Superdome, designated by Nagin as one of 10 refuges of last resort for people who were unable to evacuate, National Guard troops allowed dozens of refugees to sleep on the walkway surrounding the huge building as conditions inside deteriorated, but authorities refused to let them leave.