Words of Others: Shots On The Bridge

Shots on the Bridge: Police Violence and Cover-up in the Wake of Katrina by Ronnie Greene

 

 

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria landed and left devastation both human and material in their wake. This reminded many of us of what happened during Hurricane Katrina and during other similar natural catastrophes over the years. We all remember images of people stranded on roofs for days, packed into the Superdome with no access to basic necessities, bodies floating in the flooded streets… Many of those who survived Katrina and had to relocate headed to Texas, to Houston, more precisely, and I could not help but think about them as Hurricane Harvey hit that area. Can you imagine what it felt like?

I saw a tweet from a reporter from the Houston area bragging about how he and his crew had just alerted authorities of the presence of “looters”. The police responded with helicopters and armed forces. Some felt that these reporters were simply doing their jobs while also protecting people’s property but for many of us that tweet was triggering on many levels. Who were the looters he was referring to? Were they looting or simply trying to survive as was the case for hundreds of thousands of people? And why this need to snitch and broadcast it?

One of the first things that came to my mind was the book ‘Shots on the Bridge”, which chronicles a tragedy largely ignored by the media in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I read it when it came out on the 10th anniversary of the storm and its stayed with me.

 

Evacuating in time of crisis should be a right but if history and reality have taught us anything about what actually happens in these dire situations is that it is a luxury and a privilege not afforded to all. When authorities declare a state of emergency and make evacuation mandatory, those who are left behind are the poorest and the least able, physically and/or financially, among us. Yes, you have people who choose to ride the hurricane because they don’t think it is going to be as bad as anticipated and/or because they just want to experience it but the vast majority of those who do not evacuate don’t because they cannot. Imagine not being able to save your life or that of your family! If that sounds horrible it is because it truly is. This is what being poor and marginalized means for too many, and natural disasters like hurricanes expose the depth of this reality. Lessons have been learned from Hurricane Katrina and states are better prepared now than they were at that time and we are all thankful for that, but let’s not ever forget how badly Katrina was handled at every level of the government, before, during and after, and how many lives were lost and/or changed forever because of decisions that were made, not made or made too late, by people whose sense of urgency and humanity will forever be in question for a lot of us.

When a hurricane hits, there are two big phases for those who stay: remaining safe while the storm ravages and devastated everything around them and then surviving once the storm has passed and until they can be rescued by authorities. That second phase can last hours, days or weeks depending on the situation. It is during that phase that the tragedy documented in this book takes place.

 

Two families, the Madisons – brothers Lance and Ronald – and the Bartholomews – mother Susan, father Big Leonard, sons Little Leonard and Brandon, daughter Lesha, nephew Jose Holmes, and Jose’s friend J.J. Brissette – survived the storm and as they ventured out days later to find supplies necessary for their survival, as fate had it, they met on the Danziger Bridge.

Lance, who turned 49 days after Katrina landed, a former football player who even made it to the NFL, had worked for FedEx for the previous 25 years, initially planned to leave with the rest of the family. However, as his little brother, Ronald, 40 at the time, described as “an adult with the mental development of a six-year-old”, categorically refused to leave the two family dogs, Bobbi and Sushi, behind, Lance, who had always treated Ronald more like a son than a brother, decided to stay with them. The two brothers and the dogs took refuge at Lance’s two-story New Orleans condo.

Susan Bartholomew and her family thought about leaving but their lone vehicle could not accommodate the 11 of them gathered at the family house, which included her diabetic mother, two nephews, and two nieces. She made the decision that if they could not all go they would all stay.

When the water forced the two brothers onto the rooftop of the condo and after failing to get the attention of rescue crews, they fled the condo and swam their way to their brother Romell’s dental office, near the Danziger Bridge.

The water took over the Bartholomews’ home as well and the family was eventually rescued by and taken to drier ground by a boat navigated by New Orleans Police Department officers. They found refuge in a hotel with no power and no water, near the Danziger Bridge.

J.J. was left behind with his mother at a family friend’s home. He ventured out at one point and was also rescued by boat and taken to the area near the Danziger Bridge. He saw his friend Jose and his family and joined them at the hotel.

In the days following the storm, the Madison brothers left the powerless dental office in search of a better refuge. They thought about the family home but they were not able to access it. On the way back to the dental office, they picked up an empty cart and a shovel to clean up the debris. That’s when they encountered J.J. and five of the Bartholomews who were trying to take advantage of the calmer weather to go find cleaning supplies for the hotel room as well as a nutritional drink for diabetics for Susan’s mother.

They were all on a mission for survival. They did not know each other. They did not exchange a word. They would suffer similar fates on the bridge.

Nearby, Detective Jennifer Dupree was out looking for people to rescue and keeping an eye out for people to arrest when gunshots were heard. A man, in full police uniform, reportedly from a sheriff’s department upstate, approached them and told Dupree’s supervisor that people were shooting at them and were trying to steal their boat. The supervisor instructed Dupree to call for backup, which she did, via the police radio, using the code “108” for “officer in danger”, which led to more officers, in civilian clothes, piling up into a Budget rental truck, some carrying personal firearms, and rushing to the scene prepared for whatever. Chaos ensued. Officers started shooting at people on the bridge even before the truck came to a complete stop. They chased the unarmed civilians and kept shooting. They thought they were saving a fellow officer from an armed attack. The civilians on the bridge thought they were being ambushed by a large group that appeared out of nowhere.

Once the shots stopped, the smoke cleared and the chaos quieted down, Ronald Madison and J.J. Brissette were dead. Susan Bartholomew’s arm had been shot off and she had been hit in the left thigh. Big Leonard had been shot in the head, back and left foot. Lesha Bartholomew had been shot in the stomach, in the back and twice in the buttocks. Jose Holmes had been shot in the left hand and elbow, right elbow, neck, and stomach. No injury was reported on the side of the officers. No officer had been in danger.

 

A tragedy. At first glance and considering the dire circumstances in which they all were, including the officers, this could very well have been a big mistake. A tragic one but a mistake nonetheless. After all, the officers were under a lot of pressure themselves on the home front. Most had to send their families away and did not always know whether they were safe. The conditions were extreme at work as well, with a very disorganized response to the hurricane and to the potential danger in its aftermath. They were also gripped by fear after one of their own had been shot in the head days earlier. That day, they responded to an emergency call from a colleague, they expected to find an officer down and anticipated a gunfight. Maybe, when they saw this group of black folks running away, all those thoughts crossed their minds, the adrenaline and fear pumping through their bodies got them confused, and they ended up shooting the wrong people? Plausible? Yes. Acceptable? Maybe. True? Partially. And only for a few seconds.

Before the dust had completely settled, an elaborate cover-up was underway. The officers at the scene and their supervisors created a new narrative, planted evidence, invented witnesses and made up false testimonies. If that were not bad enough, Lance Madison, whose brother had been shot in the back and subsequently killed, and Jose Holmes, who was one of the most seriously injured victims, were both charged with 8 counts of attempted murder against police officers.

 

That elusive thing called justice has still only been partially served over a decade after the facts and maybe that’s the most justice they and we will ever get. The only reason why the truth even came out was that there were survivors and they decided to fight back. The machine they were going after was huge, powerful and corrupt. With lives to rebuild, the Bartholomews and the Madisons, who had suffered tremendous losses and trauma, physically and mentally, could have decided to make peace with what happened and to move on with their existence but they did not. It was their word against that of law enforcement officers held as heroes following a hurricane the likes of which had never been seen and experienced before in the country. Yes, they stayed and put their lives on the line to serve and protect their devastated community and the people in it. What they did that day, however, the shooting and the cover-up, is a crime. A crime against the Bartholomews, the Madisons, and J.J. Brissette, but also against the oath they all took and swore to uphold when they chose that profession. A crime, both horrible and indefensible, but unfortunately not rare. Things like this happen more often than we would like to admit and accept, and way more often than the numbers might show.

Instances of police violence are often discounted as isolated incidents and the officers considered “a few bad apples”. I have never bought that argument, not because I think that all officers are bad – I don’t – but because it is more complicated than that. It starts at the top and trickles down to the foot soldiers. It starts with the origin of policing. The entire system is problematic. A system in which it is not even safe for good cops to call out the bad ones, and in which the interest of a few trump the interest of the community as a whole, cannot be considered healthy. To me, the so-called bad apples are fruits of a poisonous tree that is rotten at the root. Beyond the tragedy that took place on the Danziger Bridge and the devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, “Shots On The Bridge” exposes the many ways in which incompetence, racism, corruption, malice, and self-preservation can wreak havoc on the lives of so many of us, especially the most vulnerable.

 

“Shots on the Bridge” is tough to read, infuriating and sad. At times my brain, to protect itself, had to pretend that it was a work of fiction. It is also a must-read.

 

Excerpts:

“Nearly one hundred thousand city residents could not or would not flee New Orleans. For many, escaping to a hotel was financially out of reach,a  sudden one-thousand-dollar expense to evacuate, lodge, and feed a family for days. “For the poor of neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the city’s lowest-lying areas, this was an impossible sum, though they had an alternative in the Superdome, the city’s ‘refuge of last resort’”, a federal report noted. Yet the city had no plan to evacuate the stragglers, and by the time of Katrina’s landfall, the Louisiana Transportation Department had taken no concrete action. Federal officials had no pan in place.”

 

“More than anything, he (Sergeant John F. Deshotel) said, the chaos, the exhaustion, and the stress pointed up the need for counseling. Without it, police officers are torches poised to ignite. ‘Some officers who should have been decommissioned and sent for counseling were given rifles instead and allowed to continue working while choosing their own assignments’.”

 

“The police story then began to emerge in black and white was more like an airbrushed Hollywood screenplay than an official recounting of that devastating morning, filled with jolts of creativity, invented witnesses and evidence, phony names, and fabricated facts. And like a screenplay going up the line in the studio for notes, the police reports went up the line to supervisors, who sent back comments, wrote through confusing passages, and strove to craft a Hollywood ending. At times, like the director and stars hovering over the film editor’s final cut, the whole NOPD crew – from the officers themselves to their supervisors – stood together over a computer terminal, looking to strike just the right key. In their story, the police were unquestioned heroes, standing tall amid nature’s fury to save their city from looters and shooters.”

 

“In 2007, in a city where 60 percent of residents were black, 57 percent of the force was black. Forty percent of NOPD’s officers were white. But the bond between officers was based on the color of their uniform, not their skin.”

About the author: Ronnie Greene is an investigative journalist for the Associated Press who teaches graduate writing at Johns Hopkins University. Before joining AP, he edited a 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation for the Center for Public Integrity. Greene spent much of his career at the Miami Herald, and he is the author of Night Fire: Big Oil, Poison Air, and Margie Richard’s Fight to Save Her Town. Shots on the Bridge is his second book.

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