When Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans three months ago, thousands of people left in the city were trapped with no food, no water and no shelter. They were desperate to escape the devastation.
The bridge that spans the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Gretna was one of the few ways out, until police from Gretna used force to stop pedestrians from crossing it. Since most of the police officers were white and most of the evacuees were black, the incident quickly took on racial overtones. 60 Minutes wondered why, under any circumstances, people who were only trying to walk out of a devastated city would be prevented from reaching relative safety.
Correspondent Ed Bradley went to New Orleans to find out. But, as with so many things in America, when it comes to race, the answer is hardly ever black and white.
The bridge where the incident took place is called the Crescent City Connection, linking the city of New Orleans with the west bank of the Mississippi River.
It was Wednesday, three days after Katrina had struck, when thousands of people started to walk across the bridge. Some 6,000 were put on buses. The exodus continued the next day when a group of tourists who had been staying in the French Quarter started heading in that direction.
Along the way, they were joined by hundreds of locals. But when this group tried to cross the bridge, they were met by a line of armed Gretna policemen who fired shotguns over their heads, told them Gretna was closed and turned them back.
60 Minutes found eight people who were on the bridge that day. Cathey Golden, who now lives in Boston, was visiting her hometown with her daughter, her son and three of their friends. Larry Bradshaw and Lorry Beth Slonsky, both paramedics from San Francisco, were in town for a convention. They all met the morning they were forced to leave the hotel where they had been staying since the hurricane.
"There was no electricity or plumbing and so after four days it just became, I'm sure, a danger to not just the hotel, for us! We needed to get out," remembers Slonsky.
They joined thousands of people who had been left behind in New Orleans and were walking the streets looking for help.
Two hundred people from the hotel ended up stranded across from the police department's command post.
"A gentleman came out and identified himself as one of the commanders. And he said 'I have a solution. I have buses waiting for you across the bridge,'" Bradshaw recalls.
With that assurance, they joined hundreds of other people who were walking toward the bridge to Gretna. Images taken that day by a CBS News crew driving across the bridge show groups of evacuees approaching a line of policemen holding shotguns. The police car was marked Gretna Police.
Cathey Golden told 60 Minutes that when her group reached the police line, they were told there were no buses, and stopped with a shotgun blast.
What was her reaction when she heard the gunshot?
"I was scared at first. I've heard gunshots before, because I live in an inner city area. But not a shotgun. And I was concerned about my safety and those who were with me," she says.
One of the people on the bridge with Cathey Golden was Shauron Holloman. She says she saw police officers fire their guns. "We were close enough to them. They'd rack their shotguns and let off a warning shot. We were this far away," Holloman says with a gesture. "This far away from you as I am," says Holloman.
Larry Bradshaw, who was at the front of the group, says he tried to get an explanation why they were being turned back.
"The only two explanations we ever received was, one, 'We're not going to have any Superdomes over here,' and 'This is not New Orleans,'" Bradshaw says. "To me, that was code language or code words for, 'We're not having black people coming into our neighborhood.'"
With nowhere to go, they set up a makeshift camp in the middle of the highway. The plan was to spend the night on the bridge and try to cross again the next day. But then a vehicle with Gretna police markings drove up.
"He sped down in his cruiser and over the loudspeaker he just continuously said, 'Get the f*** off the bridge,'" a male eyewitness who was on the bridge that day told Bradley. "And would point his gun at some people."
At that point a helicopter dropped close to the encampment and its downdraft blew things everywhere, forcing the evacuees off the bridge. They believe that the motive was racism.
Why does the eyewitness think they were turned away? "I think because the group was 95 percent African American," he says.
Asked if there was any evidence to support that, Shauron Holloman says, "A group of people trying to leave a city that's predominantly African American. And you have the officers who were white. That's the way it appears. And in that situation, that's the way you feel. We weren't given any information as to why we couldn't leave. So just appearance alone would make me feel that way."
"We're not a predominantly white racist community that some people may assume that, because we live in the South, because we're in New Orleans, that that's just the way it is," says Ronnie Harris, the mayor of Gretna.
Harris spoke with 60 Minutes because he feels strongly that the Gretna police department's actions on the bridge had nothing to do with race and have been greatly misunderstood.
"Our community is one that understands compassion, one that understands that we have to give where we can. But when there is none, you have to take care of your own population first. And that is what we were faced with," says Harris.
Gretna is a middle class suburb whose population of 17,500 is mostly white. But there is a substantial black minority: about 35 percent.
According to the mayor, from "day one" after the hurricane, Gretna was in no position to help outsiders.
"The city of Gretna was completely on its own. Our entire services were disrupted. No city services. No electricity. We had no shelter. We had no medical services. We were hit by a category four hurricane. What were people expecting us to do?" says Harris.
Harris says he saw brief reports of the looting in New Orleans. "Quite frankly, I was embarrassed to see a free-for-all of not taking food and water but goods and items. Vandalism. Civil unrest. Civil disobedience. And it sickened me."
The mayor's image of New Orleans came from media reports that emphasized chaos, looting and violence.
"So, this environment of police officers being shot, citizens lying dead in the street, images of looting going on in the city of New Orleans made me realize that our community was in a crisis of far greater proportion than just of the hurricane," says Harris.
His concern increased on Wednesday when thousands of people from New Orleans, mostly desperate poor African Americans, started walking across the bridge towards Gretna.
"It started as a trickle, then it began quite heavily. From our estimates, between 5,000 and 6,000 people amassed on the west bank of the river. Now, that's our side of the river. The Gretna side," says Harris.
The number of people fleeing the city was so large that the Gretna police commandeered transportation to bus them out of town. Over the next 24 hours, the police say they bused 6,000 evacuees from New Orleans. At the same time, police were on guard against reports of looting and stolen guns.
"All of this was crashing down on all of us who were in charge, had to make decisions in a crisis mode," says Harris.
What led to the police chief's decision to seal off Gretna?
"Something had to be done," says Harris. The mayor says it was the police chief's decision, a decision which he supported "wholeheartedly."
"We had to make a decision because we did not have the wherewithal to continue and to evacuate thousands and thousands of more people," Arthur Lawson, chief of police in Gretna, told a CBS News reporter shortly after the incident.
"Our job was to secure our city. We did our best to evacuate those that came over, but we could not continue to evacuate the entire city of New Orleans," Lawson told the CBS News reporter.
60 Minutes wanted to ask Lawson about his decision to shut down the bridge but he declined our request for an interview.
Mayor Harris says he sealed off the city because he wanted to protect the lives of Gretna's residents. "You had to be there to understand and witness total chaos, total mayhem, the lack of information," he says.
Does Harris think firing a shotgun was justified?
"When law enforcement is present, order is expected. Without it, terror and mayhem can ensue," the mayor says.
When asked if he felt he had to condemn everyone because there might be some bad apples in that group, Harris said "Absolutely not!"
But the city turned everyone around—even the elderly and children-- because there might be some bad apples with them.
"What we did was seal that location off just like a dead end, because there was no safety or security available to wherever they were going. It did not exist. Was not there," Harris said.
But, again, the city didn't let anyone into their community, including old women and children, because of fears that some bad apples might have come in with them.
"The crowd was desperate," Harris said. "The crowd had gone through some unbelievable sights and sounds and devastation [in the] hurricane. And I understand they were looking for safety and security. Something that I could not provide. It was as simple as that," said Harris.
Oliver Thomas, president of the New Orleans City Council, calls that a "lame excuse."
The day the Gretna police put the ban on pedestrians crossing the bridge into effect, he says, he was watching from his car.
"Hold on a second now. I can't walk across the bridge? And that's the state's bridge. Let's just get at the basic human rights. You got on the governor's bridge and stopped a Louisiana citizen from walking on the state's bridge. So who gave you the authority to stop that walk? It was non-violent. There weren't people walking with shotguns and rifles. They had to walk through shotguns and rifles," says Thomas.
"It's not humane to intimidate women and children, old people, many who were on their last leg. If you could see the condition of people walking across the bridge, it was, literally the only way you could walk is one step at a time. But it was one calculated step at a time," says Thomas.
Told that Gretna police felt they were facing an unruly crown and felt threatened, Thomas says, "They felt threatened by dehydrated, starved, tired people. Sounds like they need a new police force."
"I'm sure that there were very good people. There were scared people. There were desperate people. And, unfortunately, contained within that crowd was a criminal element. That criminal element burned, looted, stole, threatened and terrorized," says Mayor Ronnie Harris.
Thomas says people took advantage of the catastrophe throughout the region. "Guess what? There are people who do that. But do you penalize and victimize everybody else because of it?"
Chief Lawson had said: "We had no more to offer here than they did in New Orleans. We did not have food. We did not have water. We did not have shelters here."
Bradshaw's response: We weren't asking for food, water or shelter. We were asking for the ability to walk out of New Orleans."
"We did secure our community. I do not apologize for shutting the bridge down. You know my job and responsibility to this community is to make sure that it's safe, the people and their property are safe in this community," Chief Lawson told the CBS News reporter after the incident.
People in Gretna aren't apologizing either. Signs thanking the police chief and his department have sprouted in many of Gretna's front yards. And the city council unanimously passed a resolution saying that "Allowing individuals to enter the city posed an unacceptable risk to the safety of the citizens of Gretna."
The people of Gretna seem to be saying that there's a limit to compassion, that there is only so much you can do in circumstances like this to help people.
"Well, I think we're finding that out. I think we're finding that out in America right now, today," says Thomas.
Does this say something about America?
"Katrina washed away a lot of veils and took a lot of face masks off. Your politics cannot be bigger than your humanity. And in this case, we didn't need politics. We needed humanity," says Thomas.
The Louisiana attorney general's office is investigating whether laws were broken or civil rights were violated on the bridge to Gretna.
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