AUGUST 28, 2015
READING RONNIE GREENE’S compelling and necessary Shots on the Bridge: Police Violence and Cover-Up in the Wake of Katrina in the time of Black Lives Matter is to confront rage. Greene’s meticulously researched, compulsively readable book presents the violence done to two families, the cover-up, and their long struggle for justice that maddeningly is still unresolved.
Both families — the Bartholomews (including a doomed family friend, JJ Brissette), and brothers Lance and Ronald Madison — had barely survived Hurricane Katrina when they were cut down by a barrage of gunfire as they attempted to cross Danziger Bridge to safety on the other side. Every one of the victims is black — unarmed targets for New Orleans police officers, who were provoked into a killing rage by a call for an officer needing assistance, her life in danger, that was misheard as an officer down and possibly dying.
When Detective Jennifer Dupree was working to help rescue Katrina survivors, she heard gunshots near Danziger Bridge.
“Get Down. They’re shooting at us!” a man yelled as Dupree’s truck pulled up […]. “They’re trying to take our boats!” Dressed in full police uniform, the man said he was from a sheriff’s office upstate.
“Kick it in!” her supervisor ordered, and Dupree, a six-year NOPD veteran, did just that.
“One-o-eight!” she called into the police radio, kicking in the call for help. “Officer needs assistance. Officer’s life in danger!”
Years later in court, Dupree reported that she never said the words “Officer down.” Despite the gunfire, no officers had been struck.
Like some perverse Rube Goldberg machine, designed to produce the most suffering through the most cruelly circuitous path possible, Shots on the Bridge makes clear that the shootings, the two deaths, the maimings, and the maddening outcomes of years of trials and examples of justice delayed need to be seen not only in the context of the greater disaster of Katrina, but also as exemplary of the transcendent incompetence, corruption, and racism at every level of the government’s response. Shots on the Bridge presents the hurricane and all of its horrific majesty as the background. Bush’s FEMA, the state of Louisiana, and the city of New Orleans weren’t prepared for even a moderately significant disaster, and something like a once-in-a-generation event overwhelmed them from the get-go.
Katrina obliterated three hundred thousand homes, ten times the number lost in Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the last most catastrophic storm to strike the United States. “It was the most destructive natural disaster in America history, laying waste to 90,000 square miles of land, an area the size of the United Kingdom […],” said the Katrina Senate report.
For everyone who had decided to ride out the hurricane in the areas of New Orleans below sea level, not dying was all that mattered. The context of Katrina is everything and everywhere.
Survival madness was the default mindset for everyone in Katrina’s wake — the threadbare mitigating circumstance of the shootings. As Greene describes, the NOPD involved in the shooting aren’t simple villains to be hated; it’s not just a matter of race. Most of the NOPD behind the shooting were black, and all of them were there in the aftermath of Katrina out of professionalism, a sense of duty, and the need to save lives. The conditions during and after Katrina were equally daunting for civilian and sworn officers of the law. The best defense the NOPD could have made was that all involved just snapped under tremendous pressure, but the half-assed cover-up of blaming Lance Madison, who was arrested and charged with eight counts of attempted murder against police officers, even after having to watch his defenseless brother murdered in front of him, makes any trace of sympathy impossible.
[Lieutenant Michael] Lohman was careful not to tell his underlings precisely what to say, but, instead, to give them room to find a believable account. “Had they came back and said ‘Look, we made a mistake, we screwed up and we shot the wrong people,’ that’s the way the story would have went.”
On a personal note: I was surprised to discover that one of the shooters, Anthony Villavaso, shares my mother’s maiden name and also the name of my very law abiding cousin. I don’t know him, and no one in my family knows how we’re related to him. But how the two men differ in their response to the crisis for this reader is striking.
My cousin, Tony Villavaso, sent this email to me after Katrina hit:
Man, have I got some pictures and stories for you. Survival of the fittest. I have toured towns hit so hard throughout Mississippi and Louisiana and Washington Parish that no one has heard about because they don’t even have phone lines. I even have a friend who stood out in the storm as trees broke down all around her. Ill keep you up on our needs. Thanks for being there.
w/ Love, Cousin Tony 9-1-05
This Anthony Villavaso took a different approach:
Police officer Anthony Villavaso II, seated in the back along with Faulcon, stepped out, assault rifle at the ready. As his feet hit the pavement, he fired at least nine shots from his AK-47, rapid fire: pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. Like Faulcon, Villavaso aimed at the people — JJ, Jose, and the Bartholomews — lying unarmed on the pavement. He issued no warnings.
Shots on the Bridge takes a Kafkaesque turn after the guilty pleas have been entered and the trial phase is over. US district judge Kurt Engelhardt throws the book at all of the defendants, even those who admitted to the cover-up, but the judge somehow develops buyer’s remorse, or a hatred of federal prosecutors. He decides that online chatter about the case so tainted the legal proceedings that the defendants are entitled to a retrial, making it impossible for the victims who had suffered death, dismemberment, terror, and grief (due to no fault of their own) to seek redress in civil court. The hope of justice is thwarted for the foreseeable future, and the Rube Goldberg game of misery continues.
I asked my friend, Joel Jacobsen, who recently retired as an assistant attorney general in New Mexico and who writes about legal matters, to explain the judge’s reasoning for a retrial to me. He wrote this in response:
Looking at the case very briefly, two things seem extremely peculiar, from a legal point of view. The first is that the judge ordered a new trial without a showing of “prejudice” — a word that in the legal world means nothing more than harm or injury. It’s very unusual for a judge to grant a remedy when there’s no harm — usually, it’s no harm, no foul. That’s surely the chief grounds for the appeal.
Second, the judge seems to be very emotionally invested. He issued the very, very long order granting a new trial in September 2013, then followed up with another very long order in December, defending his decision, citing additional evidence in support of it in an apparent effort to torpedo the appeal, and going so far as to advise the defendants on actions they should take. Here’s a quote: “Nevertheless, Defendants may want to pursue their request for an evidentiary hearing with the Court of Appeal.” The specific point he’s making isn’t important — the thing is, he’s telling the defendants how they should manage their case. In my opinion, that crosses the line: he’s no longer acting as a judge, but as legal adviser to the defendants. That’s really unusual, and in my view totally improper. So the irony is pretty deep.
And, yes, this judge seems to be pretty much out of control.
Even in the aftermath of a monstrous hurricane that touched the powerful as well as the weak, I thought maybe justice was possible. After reading Shots from the Bridge, I’m resigned to the fact that for many in this country, the value of black lives is less than the cost of the bullets that shed their bodies.
Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles. He is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of the Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.