The federal trial of seven New Orleans police officers began on June 27 and continues as we go to press with this article. The accused officers were involved in the Danziger Bridge massacre, where police opened fire on six unarmed African American survivors of Hurricane Katrina, killing two and maiming the other four.
The original charges against the police for the racist shooting and subsequent cover-up were dismissed in August 2008 , after District Judge Raymond Bigelow accused the prosecution of misconduct with the grand jury.
The two victims killed by the cops were Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, and James Brissette, 17. Madison died when he was shot in the back and then stomped repeatedly by NOPD officer Robert Faulcon. Brissette died from shots at the hands of three officers: Robert Gisevius, Kenneth Bowen and Anthony Villavaso. Five of the officers on trial are white.
Danziger Bridge:The horror of police terrorism
Former officer Michael Hunter, who has already pleaded guilty, stated that the officers received a radio call claiming that officers were und er fire and injured in a gun battle on the bridge. After commandeering a Budget rental truck, Hunter and the other officers drove to the bridge, where they found people whose only crime was walking down the street about a week after fleeing their flooded homes. The police opened fire using assault rifles, pistols and a shotgun.
Susan Bartholomew lost her arm in the shooting and had to be sworn in with her left hand. She testified that an officer found her hiding behind a barricade, clinging to another shooting victim. Both women were crying. An officer then leaned over the barricade and opened fire on them with an assault rifle in a sweeping motion.
After Susan Bartholomew was shot, the police demanded she raise her hands. “I couldn’t do it, because my arm was shot off. I raised the only hand I had,” she said softly.
The youngest victim was her 14-year-old son, Leonard Bartholomew IV, who was shot before being kicked and arrested by former officer Kevin Bryan Sr. He was then dropped off at a makeshift police station without money or shoes while his parents were hospitalized. He spent a week and a half living with a sympathetic stranger who blogged about Leonard’s situation until he was reunited with an uncle who had seen the woman’s blog posts.
The civilians on the bridge that day were unarmed. At no point did they engage in any behavior that would indicate they were hostile to the officers or that they possessed a weapon.
Jackie Madison Brown, the sister of Ronald Madison, took the witness stand on July 7. “My brother Rommel called and told me Ronald had been killed,” Brown emotionally recalled under questioning .
Ronald Madison was shot in the back by a hail of gunfire. His disability prevented him from forming full sentences and he had the mental capacity of a 7-year-old. His family had always been protective of him.
Brown’s testimony came after that of former NOPD crime scene technician Tracy Haas. Haas testified that the department waited seven weeks to send a crime scene tech to the Danziger Bridge.
Haas collected 30 spent shell casings in the grassy area next to the Danziger Bridge. She testified that she was not even told a homicide had taken place; however, Sgt. Gerard Dugue did take time to point out a spot in the grass where he said a gun had lain after the shooting. Despite no evidence that any of the victims had guns, Haas took a picture of the spot and labeled it “possible gun location.”
After photographing the area, Haas made her way to the top of the bridge and started to head towards the Friendly Inn Motel, where Ronald Madison was shot and killed. But Haas told the jury that she was stopped by officers: “They told me they had an incident in that area but no evidence was found.”
A racist system through and through
The world looked on with horror at the racist government response in the aftermath of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina that killed 1,836 people—most of whom perished in the floods after the hurricane hit New Orleans on August 29.
The Danziger Bridge massacre took place a week after the hurricane while many survivors were still trapped in New Orleans, which was 80 percent underwater.
Only a system that functions on the most violent and repulsive racism could produce such an event where people struggling to survive in the aftermath of a natural disaster are shot down in the street.
But the masses in Louisiana know all too well that Danziger is part of a system where terrorism against African American people is commonplace, from lynchings after the Reconstruction period to naming the largest prison in the United States, Angola Prison, built on the site of a slave plantation, after the place where the slaves were taken from in Africa.
Five defendants have pleaded guilty to charges of hindering a federal investigation into the shooting by conspiring to cover up facts, lying to federal officials and lying about the actual felony itself, which was an attack on unarmed civilians in which the officers neither identified themselves nor assessed whether the civilians posed a threat.
The defense argues that Katrina was a mitigating factor in the shooting, and that officers were responding to a radio call stating that officers had been fired on at the bridge and were injured, prompting the seven involved to speed to the scene.
One tactic the defense is using is to show the involvement of many others in the NOPD, such as the officer who rewrote Faulcon’s statements. What is not being said, of course, is that the police responded in this racist, violent manner simply because this is the role of the police under capitalism.
As V.I. Lenin explains in State and Revolution,” the role of the police or the special bodies of armed men is to maintain the social order in the face of class antagonisms.
However, officers conspired to cover up the shooting—which began as soon as they drove to the bridge, and before engaging any of the people present—by claiming that guns were found at the scene but were “kicked off the bridge,” according to Hunter, who drove the Budget rental truck to the scene.
A first step for justice would be not only to jail the killer cops involved in the Danziger Bridge shootings, but indict all those who organized the racist terror against the African American survivors in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. A united, multi-national people’s movement is needed to assure that outcome.