After Hurricane Katrina hit and the levees failed, approximately 80% of New Orleans was under water. Sewage was everywhere, swollen dead bodies floated in the water and lined the streets, the heat was stifling, and after a few days it became clear that help was in no hurry to get there. Out of desperation to find food, water, medicine, and sanitary conditions, some people like Malvina, Zane, and Tru in Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick decided to walk over the bridges and cross the Mississippi River into areas that seemed safer.
Before they reached higher ground, however, many discovered that armed police had created blockades and were not allowing anyone to cross over.
In the days just after Katrina, hundreds upon hundreds were turned away and threatened with physical force. In one, now highly publicized incident that took place six days after Katrina hit on September, known as the Danziger Bridge incident, police fired on a group of people attempting to cross the Danziger Bridge to get to safety. Four people were injured in the shooting, and two were killed, including a mentally handicapped man. Police said they were acting in self-defense.
According to coverage of the incident by NPR's John Burnett on September 13, 2006, "At 9 a.m. on Sunday September 4 police received a Signal 108: Two officers down, under the concrete lift bridge that spans the Industrial Canal. Seven officers rushed to the scene. Police say when they arrived, at least four people were shooting at them from the base of the bridge. Officers took positions and returned fire. The official police report identifies two sets of gunmen going up the east side of the half-mile-long bridge. The investigation hinges on whether these people were the shooters, as the police maintain, or whether they were innocent civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the lawsuits claim."
One of the suspects, Lance Madison a 49-year-old with no prior criminal record was arrested on eight counts of attempted murder. The man with him was his younger, mentally handicapped brother, 40-year-old Ronald Madison, who was described by Lance as "the sunshine of our family." According to NPR, Lance "says that when the police arrived, they never identified themselves before opening fire. Police say an officer saw Lance toss a handgun into the canal. Lance says neither he nor Ronald were armed. The police report says that when the pair reached the other side of the bridge, an officer approached Ronald. At that point, the report continues, Ronald reached toward his waist and turned toward the officer, who shot him dead with one shot. Autopsy findings refute the police assertion. The pathologist found that Ronald Madison had seven gunshot wounds five of them in his back."
In the same incident, police said that six other people fired at them, who they identified as the Bartholomew family. Susan Bartholomew, one of the accused, said that the police fired without any warning. Five of the people in her group were hit. "When I look, we're all on the ground and all you can see is blood. Everywhere. My right arm was on the ground lying next to me. The only thing that was attached to it was a piece of skin. It had been shot off."
Bartholomew's nephew, Jose Holmes, had a similar story. "[A police officer] leaned over the cement block, he put the rifle to my stomach and shot me twice." He now lives with a colostomy bag and only has partial use of his right hand. Holmes' friend, James Brissette only 17 years old was also killed that day.
In January 2007, the seven officers involved were taken into custody and charged with various counts of murder and attempted murder. However, in August 2008, the indictments were dismissed due to "prosecutorial misconduct." The prosecutors purportedly misused grand jury testimony and divulged the information to a witness in the case. Soon thereafter, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI took over the case, and in 2010 some of the officers began pleading guilty to participating in a conspiracy to cover-up what actually happened at the shootings (including planted evidence) and struck plea bargains.
In August 2011, five of the officers were found guilty on numerous counts of different charges including "deprivation of civil rights," "obstruction of justice," and "conspiracy," and later in April 2012 they were collectively sentenced to 189 years in prison. Only one month later, they appealed the rulings, claiming that prosecutors waged a negative PR campaign against them, inappropriately posting comments about the defendants on NOLA.com and the website for The Times-Picayune, using Internet pseudonyms. As recently as September 2013, after more than a year of investigation, their convictions were dismissed, again due to "prosecutorial misconduct," and a new trial was ordered. The former officers have filed motions asking for release pending trial, meanwhile, in November 2013, the Justice Department appealed the order granting a new trial. (See article in The Times-Picayune.)
If you're interested in a highly informative documentary about Hurricane Katrina, watch Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke (note: it's 4 hours long, but well worth it.)
Parts I & II
Parts III & IV
Image of the Danziger Bridge, courtesy of thepipe26.
This article was originally published in March 2014, and has been updated for the
July 2015 paperback release.
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