Police trapped thousands in New Orleans
By ROGERS CADENHEAD*
(Friday, 9 September 2005) -- As the situation grew steadily worse in New Orleans last week, you might have wondered why people didn't just leave on foot. The Louisiana Superdome is less than two miles from a bridge that leads over the Mississippi River out of the city.
The answer: Any crowd that tried to do so was met by suburban police, some of whom fired guns to disperse the group and seized their water.
Around 500 people stuck in downtown New Orleans after the storm banded together for self-preservation, making sure the oldest and youngest among them were taken care of before looking after their own needs.
Two San Francisco paramedics who were staying in the French Quarter for a convention have written a first-hand account that describes their appalling treatment at the hands of Louisiana police, a story confirmed today by the San Francisco Chronicle, UPI, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
When buses charted by the group to escape New Orleans never showed up, they camped out beside a police command center on Canal Street, believing it was the best place to get aid, protection, and information. They were told they could not stay there and should leave the city on foot over Highway 90, which crosses the Mississippi River from New Orleans to the suburb of Gretna, a city of 17,500 people.
Running out of food and water, they walked to the bridge, growing in number to around 800 people as word spread of a safe way out:
As we approached the bridge, armed Gretna 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. As the crowd scattered and dissipated, a few of us inched forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation. We told them of our conversation with the police commander and of the commander's assurances. The sheriffs informed us there were no buses waiting. The commander had lied to us to get us to move.
We questioned why we couldn't cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the 6-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their City.
In an interview with UPI, Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson confirmed that his department shut down the bridge to pedestrians: "If we had opened the bridge, our city would have looked like New Orleans does now: looted, burned and pillaged."
The increasingly desperate group set up camp on the New Orleans side of the bridge, where they were seen by several media outlets, until they were chased off at gunpoint by Gretna police:
Reduced to a small group of 8 people, in the dark, we sought refuge in an abandoned school bus, under the freeway on Cilo Street. We were hiding from possible criminal elements but equally and definitely, we were hiding from the police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew and shoot-to-kill policies.
The paramedics believe that race played a factor in the decision to block evacuees on foot. Gretna's population is 56 per cent white and 36 per cent black, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
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