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Protesters Make a Stand on Bridge That Was Blocked

Three days after Katrina pounded New Orleans, police in nearby Gretna refused to let evacuees enter. Marchers say it was an act of racism.

November 08, 2005|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — About 100 protesters marched across a Mississippi River bridge Monday to denounce law enforcement officials who had stopped hundreds of New Orleans residents from fleeing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

The demonstrators, including Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney (D-Ga.) and several civil rights activists, said their aim was to ensure that such an injustice would not be ignored.

"This is a matter of human rights and civil rights," McKinney said. "We want the people who want a better America to take a stand, and stand with us."

Three days after Katrina battered New Orleans and the city had flooded, officials told residents who had taken refuge at the convention center and other shelters to evacuate across a bridge to the city's West Bank.

But after a 2.5-mile walk in sweltering heat, the mostly black evacuees were turned back by armed police from Gretna -- a predominately white, blue-collar city in Jefferson Parish.

The Mississippi River bridge is a nonpedestrian toll crossing that connects Gretna to New Orleans.

"It was racism, and we have to call it that," said Malik Rahim, a West Bank resident who said he witnessed the bridge incident.

Activists said the march was the first in a series of civil actions aimed at ensuring the rights and dignity of New Orleans residents, many of whom are homeless and unemployed.

"This is just the first step in a very long journey," said the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president of the Hip Hop Caucus, a Washington-based social and political group. "We can change America. We are going to start here."

In an interview, Gretna Mayor Ronnie C. Harris said that the city stood by its decision to block the bridge.

"We were concerned about life and property," Harris said. "It was quite evident that a criminal element was contained in a crowd of probably mainly decent people."

Gretna Police Chief Arthur S. Lawson Jr. proposed the blockade after someone set the local mall on fire Aug. 31, two days after Katrina struck.

"It certainly wasn't a matter of racism. It was a matter of public safety," Lawson told a local radio show Monday.

The New Orleans Police Department initially told the protesters that they could face arrest if they attempted to cross the bridge Monday.

"The law is very specific concerning pedestrian traffic on the bridge," New Orleans Police Capt. Harry Mendoza said.

But minutes before the start of the march, word came that rally participants would be allowed to cross.

Westbound traffic was temporarily stopped, and some motorists heading in the opposite direction honked their horns and gave protesters a thumbs-up.

Under police escort, the marchers walked behind a 10-foot-long banner that read: "Hip Hop Taking Back America One Step at a Time." They sang civil rights-era songs such as "We Shall Overcome."

Yearwood stopped the procession at the point on the bridge where the evacuees had been turned back.

Last week, McKinney introduced legislation seeking to deny federal assistance to the Gretna Police Department, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office and the Crescent City Connection Division Police Department -- which has jurisdiction over the bridge -- "for their maltreatment of individuals seeking aid during the Hurricane Katrina crisis."

Harris, Gretna's mayor, said the only injustice committed was by those who failed to get relief supplies to desperate New Orleans residents. He said that Katrina had ravaged his city, leaving many without shelter, food or water.

"As far as the people who organized the march, they were under some impression that there was some salvation to be found in Gretna, and there was none," Harris said.

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