2006Public Service

If someone is sinking, offer a helping hand

Jarvis DeBerry
November 25, 2005

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My uncle tells a story about being at his grandmother's house in the late 1950s when some white people walked into the yard.

This was Mississippi. The arrival of white people could mean trouble. For many black people it had meant death. As it turns out, though, these particular people were hungry. They asked if my great- grandmother would give them food.

My uncle was still a boy. But in 1955 a boy slightly older than he had been lynched. His name was Emmett Till. For the alleged crime of whistling at a white woman, he'd been beaten and shot in the head. His attackers then fastened his body to a large metal weight and threw it into the Tallahatchie River.

Maybe it was simmering anger over what had happened to Emmett and the understanding that he was just as vulnerable that prompted my uncle to tell his grandmother that she ought not give those "crackers" any food. Martha Ellen McEwen saw her grandson's angry outburst as a teaching opportunity. When people are hungry, she told the young Roy DeBerry Jr., feed them. She didn't care if they looked like those terrorizing her people.

There are always excuses not to help. If you want to justify letting people starve, die of thirst or fall victim to certain violence, you can create a long list of reasons. The justifications become especially easy if those needing rescue belong to a group you despise or fear. Still, there ought to be some floor to our humanity below which we refuse to descend. We ought never let our fear or our xenophobia drag us down to such a point that we're unrecognizable as humans.

At this point, though, it's difficult to recognize the Gretna Police Department and the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's Office as anything other than two cruelly racist and mean-spirited law enforcement agencies. After Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans appeared destined to collapse into anarchy, officers from Gretna and Plaquemines turned away those overwhelmingly black crowds trying to flee to safety.

Gretna police fired shots over the heads of pedestrians who were walking away from New Orleans on the Crescent City Connection. Deputies from Plaquemines brandished shotguns and pistols to turn away school buses filled with people trying to flee a city that was simultaneously burning and flooding.

Apparently their consciences allow for that.

Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson and Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle insist that they and their subordinates aren't heartless bigots. They were simply overwhelmed by the number of people seeking refuge. Lawson told a reporter that those leaving New Orleans the days after the storm "actually would have been better off where they were, because we didn't have anything for them."

In fact, they had plenty. They had an area that was safer than the city across the bridge. They had the opportunity to see the people on the bridge as victims, to embrace them as human beings. Yet they saw them only as potential plunderers of their town or as a drain on their meager resources. Hingle said he stopped the buses headed to the Naval Air Station for the same reason: "All they were going to end up doing was destroying my community."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency failed the entire region, so I don't doubt that the jurisdictions on the West Bank were struggling to maintain provisions for their own residents. But this isn't about limited resources. It's about racism. It's about a comment Lorrie Beth Slonsky told National Public Radio she heard from Gretna officers. "You are not crossing the bridge. We are not turning the West Bank into another Superdome," Slonsky reported.

She said she and her husband, Larry Bradshaw, both paramedics from San Francisco and both white, recognized the code language. Everyone else trying to cross the bridge with them was black.

Did Lawson, Hingle and their officers stop to consider that the people crossing the parish lines were fleeing the madness of the Superdome? No. They assumed the people were bringing the Superdome with them.

Now matter how much they defend their refusal to help as necessary to maintain law and order, the truth is they acted immorally. They saw people fleeing danger and sent them back into harm's way.

Public Service 2006