Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Sorry, Chief - I Just Don't Buy It


I understand why the town of Gretna and its police chief are trying to redeem themselves in the eyes of the world - what a black eye. The chief of police protested on NPR's All Things Considered,
"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?"
I will concede that it would not be an easy task to suddently have to deal with thousands of refugees fleeing a flooded city. I just wasn't aware either that a town had the right to shoot over the heads of civilians in order to prevent lawful entry, nor that the victims of a hurricane and flood deserved refuge only if city officials gave advance warning of their plight. And I just can't buy the chief's logistical arguments that, after one day in which the town shuttled 5,000 evacuees from the bridge to a FEMA site:
"I realized we couldn't continue, manpower-wise, fuel-wise," Lawson said Thursday. Armed Gretna police, helped by local sheriff's deputies and bridge police, turned hundreds of men, women and children back to New Orleans.
Let me get this straight - he was able to amass a force of his own officers, sheriff's deputies and bridge police, maintain a 24 hour watch to prevent any evacuees from crossing the bridge, justify shooting firearms over the heads of civilians, while making no provision to provide for the safety and welfare of those his actions trapped... because it would take too much manpower to keep the buses running? Because, although there was apparently plenty of fuel to carry officers to the bridge, there wasn't enough gas in town to power the buses? Admittedly, there's something more which colors my skepticism:
After someone set the local mall on fire Aug. 31, Gretna Police Chief Arthur S. Lawson Jr. proposed the blockade.

* * *

Sometime on Wednesday, Aug. 31, a fire broke out in the mall, next to the local branch of the sheriff's office, and police chased suspected looters out of the building.

Mayor Harris had had enough. He called the state police.

"I said: 'There will be bloodshed on the west bank if this continues,'" Harris recalled. " 'This is not Gretna. I am not going to give up our community!' "
This, of course, is blamed on evacuees although I have not seen any evidence to support that contention. I could speculate that the Gretna mayor and police assumed that they were evacuees, because they were darker in complection than the majority of town residents; but would that help the chief's case that closing the bridge wasn't a racially motivated decision? And if it is that easy to call the state police for backup to close the bridge, why should we presume it would have been harder for them to request additional drivers and fuel for buses (assuming a shortage actually arose)? I liked this statement as well,
An African-American officer fired at least once in the air to calm the group, Lawson said, but that was when they were still loading evacuees on buses the day after the storm. Lawson said he planned to investigate other allegations, such as excessive force.
Shooting over people's heads to calm them? And why bring up the officer's race?

The NPR piece concluded with a valid question,
"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?"
I dunno.... A week?

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