I didn’t plan to go back to the courthouse for more testimony in the Danziger Bridge case this afternoon, but after reading about the case and watching that Frontline episode this morning–I’m on vacation–I felt the pull of the courtroom. I hopped on my bike, leaving camera and cell phone at home (hence, no picture), and headed downtown. I got there right as court was coming back into session after lunch and Bobbi Bernstein was asking questions on direct to Jennifer Dupree, the NOPD officer who kicked out the original 108 call that people were shooting and officers were in danger in the vicinity of the bridge (yes, I speak police now). We all watched an 8 minute video shot by an NBC crew, and we watched it over and over again as both prosecution and defense tried to tell us what we were we seeing. Yep, we learn to see, and those eyes trained over years and years shade what we can and can’t see.
That was on my mind as Jose Holmes took the stand. Holmes was 19 years old when he was shot on the Danziger Bridge. He was studying for his GED and working at McDonald’s. He liked sports and his friend James Brissette, who he challenged to a race as they headed to the Danziger to cross over to the Winn Dixie in search of Glucerna for Holmes’s ailing grandmother. Holmes won, because Brissette smoked cigarettes and so had to quit running. Brissette didn’t like sports anyway–apparently the 17 year old was a nerd. Maybe that’s also why Uncle Leonard (also known as Big Leonard to differentiate him from his son, Little Leonard, though “Big” Leonard is only about 5’4″) liked Brissette so much. It took about 30 seconds of testimony this afternoon for Holmes to show himself to be a kid. Young, eager, hardworking (he likes his job at the Kroger in Augusta because “everyone loves me”), with good turns of phrase (how did he know Brissette was excited to see him when they found each other in the days after the levees broke? “I could see all his teeth.”) and unfailingly polite (yes, ma’am, yes, ma’am).
But that’s not what the cops saw that day. They saw a dangerous criminal, and they saw that not because New Orleans was “chaos” after the storm (or at least not just because, the claim the defense will hang its hat on in attempt to prove this wasn’t murder), but because they, like the rest of us, have been trained to see young Black men as always already criminal. Young Black men running toward the bridge? DANGER. Holmes heard the shots and jumped over the concrete barricade to hide from the shooters, no idea they were NOPD. He lay on his right side, figuring if he was down, he wouldn’t get shot. But he was wrong; he got shot multiple times, including in the stomach at close range, in spite of being already down with shots to the jaw, arm, and head. He had to wear a colostomy bag for years, he can’t play basketball like he loved to do–the part where he can’t straighten his thumb makes it hard to do a left-handed layup, or reach all the chords on the piano.
I can’t even imagine the things Holmes saw and the losses he’s suffered, what it was like to lie on the ground and hear the EMTs talk about how he had a 50/50 chance of survival, what it must have been like to learn that his friend was dead, that his entire family on that bridge with him that day had been shot. How do we find justice for that kind of massacre, and how do we never let it happen again, even as versions of it are happening all the time? Because these are not just rogue cops. This is a system that just might be running like it’s supposed to.