NEW ORLEANS EVACUEES RECALL THEIR FEAR WHEN
POLICE FIRED GUNS TO STOP THEM FROM CROSSING
THE BRIDGE INTO GRETNA -- "60 MINUTES" SUNDAY
Gretna Mayor Explains and Defends the Action Evacuees See as Racist
Members of a crowd of hundreds of mostly black people fleeing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina who were barred from Gretna, La. by police firing shotguns in the air tell Ed Bradley they feared for their lives. They also say the officers' actions were racist. But the Mayor of Gretna says stopping them on the bridge to Gretna -- then the only way out of New Orleans -- was justified, because the city couldn't absorb any more evacuees. The shotgun blasts, he says, were necessary to uphold order. Bradley's report will be broadcast on 60 MINUTES, Sunday Dec. 18 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
"I was scared at first. I've heard gunshots before, because I live in an inner-city area, but not a shotgun, and I was concerned about my safety and those who were with me," recalls Cathey Golden, who is black. Larry Bradshaw, who is white, says he thinks the explanation the officers gave for turning them back seemed racist. "The only two explanations we ever received was, one, 'We're not going to have any Superdomes over here,' and 'This is not New Orleans,'" he remembers. Shauron Holloman, a black man who was also on the bridge, agrees. "A group of people trying to leave a city that's predominantly African-American and you have the officers, who were white -- that's the way it appears," Holloman says. "[We were stopped] I think because the group was 95 percent African-American."
Holloman says that when the crowd sat down and attempted to stay on the bridge, an officer became aggressive. "He sped down in his cruiser and over the loudspeaker he just continuously said, 'Get the f--- off the bridge,' and would point his gun at some people," he tells Bradley.
"We're not a predominantly white, racist community that some people may assume," says Ronnie Harris, the mayor of Gretna, whose residents are 35 percent African-American. Harris says Gretna had already helped to evacuate thousands of people fleeing New Orleans but at that moment could not accept more for lack of food, water and buses. "The city of Gretna was completely on its own. Our entire services were disrupted -- no city services, no electricity. We had no shelter. We had no medical services. We were hit by a category four hurricane. What were people expecting us to do?," asks Harris.
Harris does say that another reason for sealing off his town was to protect his citizens from looting and chaos reported in New Orleans that some in the large crowd, which included women and children, could have taken part in. He says the shotgun blasts were warranted. "When law enforcement is present, order is expected. Without it, terror and mayhem can ensue," he tells Bradley. "The crowd was desperate�.had gone through some unbelievable sights and sounds�.They were looking for safety and security -- something that I could not provide. It was as simple as that."
The Louisiana attorney general is investigating whether civil rights were violated or if any laws were broken. Oliver Thomas, the president of the New Orleans City Council, thinks Gretna could have handled the situation better. "Your politics cannot be bigger than your humanity, and in this case, we didn't need politics. We needed humanity."