I harbor and advise skepticism when the suffering of Black people becomes grist for White authors. The ten-year “anniversary” of the levee failure and the 2005 deluge of New Orleans was accompanied by the latest hemorrhage of Katrina literature, primed to commemorate and cash in.
On the final Tuesday in August, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronnie Greene was in Washington, D.C. to discuss the freshly published Shots On The Bridge: Police Violence and Cover-Up in the Wake of Katrina. The book deconstructs the Danziger Bridge Shooting – where New Orleans police officers gunned down a pair of unarmed Black families, leaving two dead, four savagely maimed – and a decade of court wrangling.
Greene shared one sentence with his D.C. audience that confirmed my suspicions and nearly decimated my willingness to read his book: “I really tried to put this shooting in context of what [the officers] were going through, what the department was going through.”
In his discussion and the text, Greene describes the officers as Katrina’s “hostages,” laboring in the wake of unimaginable ruin and bedlam. Police leadership was flagrantly inept. Local officials and global news outlets insisted looting hooligans might overrun Louisiana. The officers, like many, had failures in the city’s bleakest hour.
This position is tenable if the carnage on Danziger Bridge is a singular example of NOPD misbehavior.
It is not.
Greene documents decades of pre-Katrina, during Katrina, and post-Katrina police delinquency and abuse of New Orleans’ Black citizens. He cites the 2011 Department of Justice findings, which concluded, “NOPD’s mishandling of officer-involved shooting investigations was so blatant and egregious that it appeared intentional in some respects.” Even hinting that a natural or manmade disaster should mitigate our assessment of this slaughter and the years of fraud concealing it, minimizes the barbarism of the involved officers and devalues the Black lives terminated and mangled. As Greene meticulously documents, much of the Danziger conspiracy took place well after New Orleans was dry.
In spite of my concerns, I had to read Greene’s offering. While sharing his motives for writing this grisly account, he remarked that Katrina created “so many horrors you couldn’t keep track.” Shots On The Bridge provides an abundance of detail about the NOPD ambush and cover-up that could have easily been debris in the wreckage. But most importantly, it emphasizes that an atrocity was perpetrated against innocent, loving families. These grieving relatives’ unwavering pursuit of justice may be the greatest - and least cited - example of NOLA “resilience.”
The police fraudulently cast the Madison brothers as a band of armed ruffians who “had been looting and terrorizing people since the storm.” In truth, Ronald Madison was a mentally challenged 40-year-old with the mind of a six-year-old; he cried at the thought of abandoning Bobbi and Sushi, the family dachshunds, and rejected the chance to evacuate before the storm. His protective brother Lance comforted and shepherded him as they struggled to survive an inundated city.
While crossing the bridge, officers shot Ronald in the back twice. He asked his brother Lance to, “Tell Mom I love her.” Ronald was shot in the back five additional times, stomped, and handcuffed after his death.
Lance Madison survived, only to be shackled at gunpoint, arrested, charged with eight counts of attempted murder, and crammed into a temporary jail at “Camp Greyhound.” “He was held in a cage with a portable toilet. German shepherds circled the cage.” Lance’s love for his brother demanded that he recite witnesses’ names and remember critical facts of the Danziger carnage for the twenty-five days of his confinement.
The Madison family received reports of Ronald’s death and Lance’s arrest early. “For more than nine months, Sherrel Johnson did not know where her son JJ was.” Her son, James Brissette Jr., accompanied the Bartholomew family across the Danziger. Greene informs us that floodwaters claimed all but one of Johnson’s photographs of her 17-year-old son. If JJ were alive, she could take more pictures.
“Bullet after bullet shredded JJ’s body from the heel of his foot to the top of his head; the teen now lay dead on the pavement. Seven gunshot wounds and even more pellet wounds, fired from multiple weapons, tore into JJ’s right leg, right buttock, and right elbow; pierced his left arm and shredded his neck; and lodged in his brain. His wiry body was left unrecognizable.”
JJ and Ronald Madison were the only casualties that day, but NOPD brutes littered the bridge with bullet-riddled black bodies. The horror is presented in excruciating clarity: “Screams mixed with gunfire. The mother, father, and daughter, Lesha, cried out, bloodied and in pain. A bullet grazed Big Leonard Bartholomew’s head. Another tore into Lesha’s stomach. More gunfire ripped into Susan Bartholomew’s right arm, nearly severing it from her shoulder, her limb held together by skin. Lesha, at seventeen years old, one inch shorter than Susan, lay atop her mother, trying to shield her as bullets tore through the concrete barrier.”
Shots On The Bridge skillfully blends court transcripts and police reports with crushing anecdotes from bereaved and wounded victims. Jose Holmes, who was blasted repeatedly, was thought “too far gone” and nearly left for dead. His recovery is all the more astounding because some of the hospital staff accepted the NOPD lies and “told Jose he needed to get healthy because, once he was released, he would be arrested on attempted murder charges.”
Little Leonard Bartholomew was fourteen-years-old and a hulking eighty-five pounds at the time of the shooting. His family was reduced to bleeding carcasses clinging to life. He was shot at – not hit, slapped by a white patrolman, and handcuffed. Given the day’s events, he was fortunate.
Greene rightly encourages readers to reflect on Little Leonard’s tearful apology upon reuniting with his dismembered family members.
“I should have been shot, too. It isn’t right that I got off like that but everybody else has to go through all of this pain. And I’m just walking around, I’m fine. I don’t have to worry about injuries. It just isn’t right.”
There’s an immense depravity about a Black teen suffering PTSD and survivor’s guilt not from Hurricane Katrina, but from crossing paths with the New Orleans Police Department.
Readers can juxtapose the families’ suffering against the online comments that erased the 2011 federal convictions.
Shots On The Bridge is an important reminder that Katrina and the cataclysmic levee fiasco are not the only horrors from 10 years ago.