Thursday, May 16, 2013

Gun fire won't stop parading

Mother's Day shootings ruined a perfect Sunday, but can't weaken love for this city

"The shooting has done absolutely nothing to lessen, color, or shift the absolutely all-encompassing love I have for New Orleans."
On Mother's Day afternoon at around 2:30, I was sitting on the neutral ground on Elysian Fields, wearing my second-lining outfit -- cutoffs, cowboy boots and a cropped tank - along with the blood of a fellow reveler I had tried to help after the shooting stopped. The cigarette I bummed off of a parade-goer was doing its job, calming my nerves and steadying my hands.
Then I saw Wendell, the cowbell player in the second-line's third band who two hours ago I never knew existed, and one hour ago I was dancing with in the street. He walked up to me and pulled me in close, hugging me to his chest.
"You OK?" he asked. I nodded, and we actually laughed, relieved we were both safe even though we were complete strangers. Then he started ranting about the street crime, about seeing a kid fleeing from the scene after the shooting, about ruining a beautiful day when families honor their mothers and grandmothers.
Then he looked at me again and asked, "You got a boyfriend?" I cracked up. I made a joke about it being an inopportune time, and he said no time is better than the present. I should have coughed up the digits, but I didn't.
Then my friend, and fellow reporter, found me. Passing an overgrown lot on the corner of North Villere and Elysian Fields, a rooster was strutting away, all shiny plumage and pomp, minding his own business and wanting me to do the same.
"I love this city," I blurted out. My friend nodded. I didn't say it as a conscious reaction to the shooting. It just came out of me as we were walking. Wendell. The Rooster. Second Lines. I love this city.
I live and work in Baton Rouge, but that's just geography. Just about every Friday, I jump in my car and head to New Orleans for the weekend. I've lived in Louisiana only seven months, and I've never felt about a city the way I feel about New Orleans. On Sunday, I was determined to be in that number for the Mother's Day second line in the 7th Ward.
And that's what put me about 20 feet from the gunmen who opened fire. I didn't drop down to the ground right away, not knowing what the sounds were.
"GET DOWN," someone yelled at me. Then I was down on the ground. The clack of gunfire was over almost immediately. Most everyone started to run away. Others of us ducked behind cars. I called 9-1-1, and then ventured out into the intersection.
I feel thankful no one was killed. But in the immediate aftermath of the shots, I thought I saw three dead right away. Luckily, there were multiple people with medical experience in the crowd, and that probably saved lives.
All I could do was try to stay out of the way and help the people who had less severe wounds with water or whatever else I could. I also took some photographs with my iPhone.
Mark Hertsgaard, a freelance journalist who comes down to New Orleans often, said he thought he fell on some glass. His leg was bandaged, and he was sitting calmly in the middle of the intersection. I got him some water and tried to send paramedics in his direction.
It turns out he was shot and didn't even know it. After consulting with doctors, Mark said they've decided to leave the bullet in his leg, where it will work its way out after a few years. He said he's fine and flying back home Monday (May 13). On the phone he sounded calm, more so than me, and told me he got upgraded to first class.
I wasn't hurt. I didn't even get a scrape, and I couldn't sleep Sunday night. He got shot and said he slept fine, although maybe the painkillers helped.
I didn't know really how close I was to the shooting until I saw the NOPD video released early Monday morning.
Honestly that video triggered something that I didn't feel Sunday, just seeing how close the shooter was, with his gun pointed in my direction. I guess the feeling was fear, but really I don't know how to describe it. The bottom just fell out of my stomach, and I felt instantly tired. My hands got sweaty.
The problem is I can't stop watching the video.
I've watched it 20, 25 times in the last couple of hours. In it I can see Mark falling; I can see the shooter hanging out, nonchalantly watching the people flooding the intersection; and I can see the group of people I was hiding in fall to the ground when the shots started.
I wasn't sure about writing about it. I kept thinking, if I don't have anything additional to add to the now national discussion about this, why say anything? But I decided to do it for two reasons, 1) I hoped it would be cathartic, and 2) I wanted to get across what I couldn't in the brief interviews I did Sunday.
I might not be going back to a second line right away. That's just my personal choice. But the shooting has done absolutely nothing to lessen, color, or shift the absolutely all-encompassing love I have for New Orleans.
In my adult life, I have never been as happy as I have in the last seven months. There's something about being down here. Second-lining is a good example, for me, of everything I love about New Orleans.
Before the shots were fired, there was not one ounce of anger or fear in that crowd. Three or four hundred people marching, dancing down the street, beers or bottles of whiskey in hand, young and old, black, white, local, tourist.
Then a few people took it into their hands to shatter that. That could happen anywhere, but, unfortunately, it happens more often in New Orleans. In this city with such creativity, with such life, death stares its residents in the face every day.
I once told someone being in New Orleans is overwhelming, it's life at its most saturated. I guess Sunday's shooting fits within both of those descriptions. But that's not how I meant it to when I first said it.
Other than Mark and myself, the Gambit's Deborah Cotton was also there and was injured during the shooting. I've never met her, but after the shooting I watched a video interview she did last year on violence in the city. At one point she said the frequency of the violence here "begins to really tear at you internally."
I've only experienced one event like this in my life, and it was Sunday. But there are people who live with this weekly, daily. Later in the video, Cotton says it's not too late to stem the tide of violence.
I don't have the answers. But on Sunday, I joined the growing ranks of people determined to stop talking about it, and start figuring it out. 
Lauren McGaughy is state politics reporter for | The Times-Picayune. She can be reached at
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