What Happened and Why at the Gretna Bridge

We expect journalists to get both sides of a story. Usually, that means going beyond the official explanation. But in rare cases it is those officials themselves who are overlooked, with their account drowned out by the clamor surrounding an explosive piece of news.

NPR explored one such case yesterday, with an insightful report on “Morning Edition.” John Burnett probed the controversial decision by leaders in Gretna, La. (population 17,500) to block the path of New Orleans evacuees attempting to flee into the small city via the Connection City Bridge. By examining in depth the point of view of overwhelmed Gretna officials, Burnett produced the most measured, lucid, and concise explanation of the bridge incident thus far.

But first, some background:

On September 6, out-of-town EMS workers Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky broke the story in the Socialist Worker with an account of how they and hundreds of others had attempted to escape New Orleans, believing that if they crossed to the south side of the Mississippi, buses waiting there would be able to take them out of the city. But as they approached the bridge, Bradshaw and Slonsky wrote, “[A]rmed sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various directions.”

When they managed to approach officers on the bridge, Bradshaw and Slonsky said, they were told “that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans, and there would be no Superdomes in their city.” Their conclusion? “[I]f you are poor and Black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River, and you are not getting out of New Orleans.”

From there, the story bounced around via email and the Internet, but the national press, perhaps wary of its source, was slow to pick it up. The next week, Washington City Paper chided the print media for their hesitancy to report on the incident. The press had “largely ignored the most compelling” story to come out of Katrina, according to City Paper: “Almost in unison, newspaper editors across the country pooh-poohed the news value of cops’ firing toward black people on a bridge in the deep South.”

In its review of coverage, City Paper did not, however, concern itself with the possible explanation from the other side — why police officials felt they should keep back the New Orleans evacuees. (Earlier, on Sept. 10, the New York Times quoted Gretna police chief Arthur Lawson briefly, but its story was largely told through Bradshaw’s account of events.)

In print reports in recent days, two major papers did better. Last Friday, the Los Angeles Times gave an extensive, paraphrased narrative of Gretna officials’ reasoning, and a St. Petersburg Times article Saturday also quoted Lawson directly. But in both cases, those explanations were obscured by powerful images of racial conflict leading off each story. The mostly white suburb of Gretna, said the Los Angeles Times, had become “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 …”

Leave it to NPR, then, two weeks after the news first broke, to explain clearly and concisely what Lawson and his compatriots were thinking when they turned the desperate people of New Orleans back. “City officials emphatically defend themselves and ask that their side be heard,” Burnett reported. He then quoted Lawson:

“I’m very pissed off … I am, because I’ve been painted as a racist and this community’s good reputation has been blemished because of something that we did because the city of New Orleans was ill-prepared to handle the situation that they had and expected us to evacuate their city without any preparation, without any notice, without any contact …

“We were not contacted by anybody in the city of New Orleans, police or city officials, prior to, during, or since the storm. No one called us and said, can you handle these people? Can you help?”

The chief’s decision to seal the bridge “prompted accusations of racial prejudice,” Burnett went on, “But Lawson explains that initially Gretna police commandeered buses and used them to ferry more than 5,000 evacuees to a rescue site. But more and more kept coming, and after a day of this shuttling, he says, his small police force became overwhelmed.”

Added Harry Lee, the sheriff of Jefferson Parish: “FEMA didn’t have any food for those people in Gretna. They didn’t give me any food. I didn’t have any water. My obligations are to the people of Jefferson Parish.”

Concluding the explanatory narrative, Burnett reported that Gretna officials had already been put on edge the day before by a mall fire set by “hooligans from New Orleans,” leading to their decision to shut down the bridge to all pedestrian traffic.

Burnett did report the full story, but by doing something basic — focusing on Lawson and Lee’s point of view — he illuminated a crucial aspect of a convoluted, touchy incident. Perhaps the easy answer of race — or racism — is not the only viable explanation. Perhaps Gretna officials, already having taken in thousands and fearing that things were getting out of control, felt they simply had no other choice.

At report’s end Burnett asked, “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?”

The debate will go on. But thanks to Burnett, the public has a fuller view of what happened, and why, on the City Connection Bridge on September 1.

Edward B. Colby

Correction: The above has been changed to reflect that it was “Morning Edition” that ran the report.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.