Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath served as a proverbial “call to arms” for me as and activist. As Alice Walker reminds us, to be an activist is to pay rent for living on this planet. I have never felt so close or responded with such emotion to an historical event. I was more than outraged at the rumors of a city I love dearly, and one that holds such historic and cultural significance for African Americans, being purposely allowed to wash away. As the flood waters swept through the city that much of my family called home, as lives and houses and memories were lost, I realized, like many came to realize with the Trayvon Martin case, that Black lives do not appear to hold the same currency as the lives of other citizens in this country.
Evidence of the lack of value given to Black life and livelihood was apparent with so many New Orleanians being ignored and denied help during and after the storm; with government officials’ lack of haste when responding to the disaster; with thousands who had built their lives, and thus the city of New Orleans, being called refugees while standing on the soil of their homeland; and with a sort of mute response from fellow citizens.
And then there were the shootings on Danzinger Bridge.
Six days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city of New Orleans and other cities along the gulf coast, the Bartholomew family and friends were traveling up the Danzinger Bridge in hopes of finding food and supplies at a local grocery store. There are differing accounts of what happened next, but at some point the police were notified of apparent gunplay and officers rushed to the scene and opened fire.
When the smoke and shooting cleared, two lay dead and four lay wounded. Not one person attacked by police was proven to be carrying a weapon. One of the deceased, a man-child who was the same age as Trayvon Martin when he was killed, is named James Brissette. The other deceased victim was a developmentally disabled man named Ronald Madison- who was reportedly pursued up the bridge as he fled gunfire with his brother Lance, was shot in the back and stomped by police before he succumbed to his gunshot wounds. Lance Robinson, after watching his brother be killed by police officers, was arrested for attempted murder- again despite being visibly unarmed.
When I look at you, my pain becomes unbearable. You took the life of an angel and basically ripped my heart out.
I’ve followed this case from the beginning- the attempted cover-ups by local law enforcement, the US Justice Department investigation, the arrests of the officers, the convictions, and finally, on April 5, 2012, the sentencing of the five officers involved in the shootings and their investigation.
Four officers, were convicted of federal fire arm charges and civil rights violations. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius were sentenced to forty years in prison. Anthony Villavaso received thirty-eight years. Robert Faulcon, who was convicted in both shooting deaths, was given the longest sentence of all- one of sixty-eight years. Retired officer Arthur Kaufman, who investigated the killings, was charged with conspiring to cover-up the wrongdoing of the guilty officers, and was sentenced to six years in prison. Al Jazeera reports that along with a two-hour tongue-lashing towards prosecutors from the presiding federal judge, Lance Madison addressed the officers who murdered his brother and attempted to frame him. To the officers involved in the shootings, and to Faulcon who was convicted of killing his brother, Madison commented, "When I look at you, my pain becomes unbearable. You took the life of an angel and basically ripped my heart out." He also went on to address Kaufman’s conspiracy to protect fellow officers by saying, "You tried to frame me, a man you knew was innocent, and send me to prison for the rest of my life."
Unsurprisingly, Al Jazeera’s coverage has been far more comprehensive then what we have seen here in the United States.
These convictions and sentences offer, at least, some semblance of justice to the weary hearted living in New Orleans and those following the case throughout the nation and world. They also offer a glimmer of hope and remind us that, sometimes, with hard work, advocacy, activism and remembrance, righteousness does prevail.