I just got off the phone with Mayor Ronnie Harris of Gretna. I'm still reeling from the conversation, so all I can do is report approximately how it went.
He said "is this Doctor Loftis?" The whole time he kept calling me Doctor. It was like that when I taught in Alabama as well. "I just got your fax"
Me: Wow, I didn't think you would respond. I imagined you are getting a lot of faxes and emails.
Him: Emails, but no faxes. That's why I wanted to respond to you. I figure if you took the time to fax, well, I just wanted to tell someone how things look from here. But wait, let me hear you. What do you think happened here.
I tell the story as I read it in the LA times and SF Socialists. As a start, there is a click and a bit of an echo. Either he switched to speakerphone, or he was recording me.
After I say what I thought happened, he starts on his side of the story. For a long time, I don't even interrupt him to say "uh huh." I started writing down as much as I could of what he said. Here I have only notes. For this part of the conversation, I’ll simply transcribe my notes in the order I wrote them down. The notes where written from his perspective. When I switch to my own voice, I will put it in brackets.
* It was never our intent to call New Orleans and ask "how can I help you."
* Our department had already arrested looters.
* On Tuesday two busloads got dropped off in our community. Our bus station. They were regional transit workers who were evacuating with their families. We supplied them with water and port-o-lets until they could move on. But then more busses started coming without notification. And the incident on the bridge, let me tell you, it was 16 hours, it was not a five minute thing.
* New Orleans policemen had looted and stolen a mail truck before they were arrested. You couldn't tell friend from foe.
* It took five days for FEMA to get to us.
* Geraldo was on the TV he said "go to Gretna. They have power and water. They have safety." But there was no safety here. A community of 17,500 was reduced to 5,000. We had no water. Power, fortunately, was restored quickly to essential buildings and to a hotel.
* There was a diesel spill in our drainage system. [I couldn't follow his explanation here. It sounded like a boat carrying diesel crashed in such a way that all the contaminated a large area. He said he was lucky though, because the boat could have breeched their levee.]
* I'm still waiting to hear from Nagin. He gets on the media, but I haven't heard from him yet.
* "People want to paint Gretna like the bad guy, but let me tell you New Orleans and the State of Louisianan has problems."
* The mayor of Baltimore sent aid (and I can tell you he’s in political hot water). Baltimore responded quicker than your federal government. I broke down in tears when that aid came.
* And the incident on the bridge, what was it, it was civil disobedience. Where they were, the convention center was as safe as safe can be…except for the criminals. And I’m not saying they were all looters.
* “Sir, there will be bloodshed on our borders if someone keeps making these bad decisions.” [recounting a conversation with someone who was directing refugees to Gretna]
* A shopping center near us was looted and set on fire. For my community to hear that the Parkwood shopping center was burning was like, ‘what do you mean?’
* We did what we could for them [I think he meant the people at the convention center]. We commandeered busses and we brought them to safety. There were roundtrips for 12 hours. We moved five to six thousand people.
At this point he asks me what I think. I don’t feel like I have the right to pick a fight with someone who has been through so much, but I still don’t see how he has justified his actions at all. I say something like “I still think it was the wrong decision for you to make. That’s where I am, but I’m far away. There is no point in going over the past again and again, though. I hope you and your community can recover.”
Then he starts again. We are back to notes.
* You say from where you are, but from my perspective, it was one of the best decisions we made.
* I see from these emails people are saying lives were lost because of what we did. That’s bullshit. No one died on that bridge. If people died it was because of the city of New Orleans.
* No one died in my community.
* The wrath of God struck New Orleans, and it spared us. We were hurt, but we did not see the wrath of God.
He asks me again what I think. I tell him I feel how much fear he felt, and how that affected his judgment. He says “fear—you bet you, you know. But you can’t blink. You do what you can.” He then assures me he can sleep well at night. “We did what we could do,” he says. “I had to move a ship.” He still hasn’t seen the Red Cross. He mentions that I talked about the fundraisers were doing here in my fax. He says that he hopes we give the money to people who actually come. The faith based organizations have helped him a lot. He talks about an organization called “Friend Ships” and emphasizes that it has two words. He talks about an Israeli team he met, who went against their governments orders.
He tells me about the person who got the water back up. He did it in a day and a half. And he knew that his house in St. Bernard Parish was under twelve feet of water. He is a hero. He gets choked up about here.
Let’s go back to note form.
* I can tell from your letter that you have a lot of emotion. Your emotion is no near mine.
*It was the right thing to do at the right time.
*Not a life was lost on the bridge. And the officer who fired the one shot was Black. And that shotgun blast set them straight. You do whatever is necessary to get these criminals in line. And they aren’t all criminals. [I believe he said "They aren't all criminals" three times during our conversation. The sentence says more than he realizes.]
* His community lost a police officer.
* When they rebuild New Orleans, Gretna will be the stopping off point, because at least we still have a community here.
*You gotta do the action for the greater good of all.
I told him I felt lucky he chose to call me, and I hope he and his community recover quickly. Then we hung up.
I can see quite clearly where he is coming from: He thinks he did the right thing, because he protected his people. His problem is that he has too small a view of who his people are.