After Blocking the Bridge, Gretna Circles the Wagons

Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times, Sept. 16

GRETNA, La.—Little over a week after this mostly white suburb became a symbol of callousness for using armed officers to seal one of the last escape routes from New Orleans—trapping thousands of mostly black evacuees in the flooded city—the Gretna City Council passed a resolution supporting the police chief’s move.

“This wasn’t just one man’s decision,” Mayor Ronnie C. Harris said Thursday. “The whole community backs it.”

Three days after Hurricane Katrina hit, Gretna officers blocked the Mississippi River bridge that connects their city to New Orleans, exacerbating the sometimes troubled relationship with their neighbor. The blockade remained in place into the Labor Day weekend.

Gretna (pop. 17,500) is a feisty blue-collar city, two-thirds white, that prides itself on how quickly its police respond to 911 calls; it warily eyes its neighbor, a two-thirds black city (pop. about 500,000) that is also a perennial contender for the murder capital of the U.S.

Itself deprived of power, water and food for days after Katrina struck Aug. 29, Gretna suddenly became the destination for thousands of people fleeing New Orleans. The smaller town bused more than 5,000 of the newcomers to an impromptu food distribution center miles away. As New Orleans residents continued to spill into Gretna, tensions rose.

After someone set the local mall on fire Aug. 31, Gretna Police Chief Arthur S. Lawson Jr. proposed the blockade.

“I realized we couldn’t continue, manpower-wise, fuel-wise,” Lawson said Thursday. Armed Gretna police, helped by local sheriff’s deputies and bridge police, turned hundreds of men, women and children back to New Orleans.

Gretna is not the only community that views New Orleans with distrust. Authorities in St. Bernard Parish, to the east, stacked cars to seal roads from the Crescent City. But Gretna’s decision has become the symbol of the ultimate act of a bad neighbor, gaining notoriety partly from an account in the Socialist Worker newspaper by two San Francisco emergency workers and labor leaders who were in a crowd turned back by Gretna police.

Numerous angry e-mails to Gretna officials accuse them of racism. (Harris and Lawson are white.)

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said Thursday that Gretna officials “will have to live” with their decision.

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