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Racism, resources blamed for bridge incident

Evacuees say they were turned back by police



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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- As the heart of a hurricane-ravaged New Orleans filled with sewage-tainted floodwaters and corpses, Mayor Ray Nagin urged people to cross a bridge leading to the dry lands of the city's suburban west bank.

But some evacuees who tried that route told CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" and "News Night with Aaron Brown" that they were met by police with shotguns who refused to allow them into Gretna, a nearby town on the other side.

The evacuees blamed the incident on racism, but Gretna's police chief said his town was in lockdown and was no better equipped to handle evacuees than New Orleans.

With food and water dwindling at the Louisiana Superdome and the city's convention center and the promise of buses unrealized, New Orleans police directed one group across the bridge toward the city's west bank -- and Gretna, said Larry Bradshaw, one of the evacuees.

"We were told by the commander at the police command post ... that we should cross that bridge, and there would be buses waiting to take us out," he said on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360."

"We walked, probably 200 people, about a two-hour trek," Tim Sheer, another evacuee, told CNN's "News Night with Aaron Brown." "We got to the top of the bridge. They stopped us with shotguns.

"We had people in wheelchairs, we had people in strollers, people on crutches, so we were a slow-moving group," said Bradshaw. "And we didn't think anything when we saw the deputies there. Then all of a sudden we heard shooting."

Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson, who was interviewed on CNN before Bradshaw, Sheer and another evacuee, Lorrie Beth Slonsky, said that to his knowledge, no officers fired shots near the crowd.

"We certainly will look into it," he said, "once this is over with, and we get back to a level that we can investigate it."

But the evacuees said they were very disturbed by what the officers told them about why they wouldn't be allowed to cross the bridge.

"What we were told by the deputies is that they were not going to allow another New Orleans, and they weren't going to allow a Superdome to go into their side of the bridge, Gretna," said Slonsky.

"So to us, that reeks absolute racism, since our group that was trying to cross over was women, children, predominantly African-American," she said.

Lawson said his officers did stop the group from crossing but insisted racism had no part in the decision.

"We had no preparations," he said. "You know, we're a small city on the west bank of the river. We had people being told to come over here, that we were going to have buses, we were going to have food, we were going to have water, and we were going to have shelter. And we had none.

"Our people had left. Our city was locked down and secured, for the sake of the citizens that left their valuables here to be protected by us."

The chief said he had not spoken with any of the officers involved in the incident.

More than 56 percent of Gretna's population is white, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and under 36 percent are black.

Some evacuees said police took food and water from a group that had camped out on the bridge.

Slonsky said the group that camped on the bridge had some food and water and felt relatively safe. But fellow evacuee Larry Bradshaw said, the police came back at dusk.

"Jumped out of his car with the gun aimed at us, screaming and cursing and yelling at us to get the blank-blank away," he said "And just, just so rabidly angry. And we tried to reason, we tried to talk. And he was just putting his gun in the face of young children and families. It said Gretna on the police car."

Asked why Gretna authorities did not allow the group into town and call for buses, Lawson said, "Who were we going to call?"

"We had no radios. We had no phones. We had no communications, as I just told you," he said. "We had not spoken to the city of New Orleans prior to or during this event. Who were we going to call? What were we going to do with thousands of people without enough water to sustain them, without enough food to sustain them, or without any shelter?"

Reports of a similar incident involving busloads of evacuees from Algiers, in Orleans Parish on the west bank, and Jefferson Parish deputies have not been confirmed by CNN.

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