On May 2, 2017, Deborah Cotton passed away at the age of 52 due to injuries she had suffered four years earlier. Cotton was one of 19 people shot after brothers Akein and Shawn Scott sprayed bullets into a crowd gathered in the 7th Ward for the Original Big Seven’s annual Mother’s Day second line parade on May 12, 2013.
But that is not Cotton’s entire story. It is just a piece of it.
Prior to that fateful day 10 years ago, the woman also referred to as “Big Red” was best known as a champion of the city’s street culture — documenting in a weekly column for Gambit the lives and rituals of New Orleans’ brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians, and social aid and pleasure clubs.
After the shooting, Cotton became famous for something else. Instead of demanding revenge and calling for the maximum penalties for those who hurt her, she expressed empathy and understanding, and advocated for mercy, in a series of public comments and op-ed columns for publications such as The New York Times, The Lens and Next City.
From The Lens:
That young man who shot me is all our young men. He’s us. All those young men that we’re throwing into prison, those young men who are killing us, the ones we’re demonizing — they’re us. We made them. We raised them. (Or didn’t.)
Maybe it’s too late for the young man who shot me. Maybe he’ll spend the rest of his life in jail. But we can change what’s happening out on the streets. We have the resources to deal with this problem. We always have. What we’ve lacked is willpower.
As the 10th anniversary of the shooting approaches, Verite spoke with journalist Mark Hertsgaard who was shot in the leg during the same 2013 second line. He later befriended Cotton as he reported for his upcoming book, “They Shot Big Red: The Story of Deborah Cotton and Race in America.” It will be published next spring.
Herstgaard described many of the in-depth conversations he shared with Cotton about race and violence in New Orleans, but most importantly, about redemption.
Below are excerpts from Hertsgaard’s interview.
After the shooting, Hertsgaard returned to San Francisco to recover. He continued to monitor the ongoing coverage of the mass shooting in the news. One day he read a story about another victim, Deborah Cotton, who spoke before the City Council.
“I saw her quoted at that City Council meeting about a week later, where she says, essentially, ‘We need to show mercy and understanding to these two young men, because of, essentially, structural racism.’
“She says, ‘I want everybody in the city to stop and think about how disassociated, a person has to feel to look out to a crowd of people who look just like you and start shooting. The level of self-hatred is so profound.’ I said to myself, ‘Man, I have got to meet this woman.’ It really did strike me that she was a saint, to say that.”
Hertsgaard, who is white, reached out to Cotton, the daughter of a Black father and Jewish mother, through her editor, Kevin Allman, at the Gambit. She agreed to meet him a few months later.
“It was obvious to me that there was a major book waiting to be written here. Precisely because this shooting, it wasn’t like what happened at a grocery store, or football game or a school, as horrible as those things are. It happened at this iconic ritual that enslaved people brought with them, to this land, their burial rites and the second line parades. I’ve got a quote from John Boutte in the book, where he says that it was like shooting up a church. To shoot up a second line parade is like shooting up a church.”
Through their hundreds of conversations over the next four years, Hertsgaard remembers one comment from Cotton so profound he carries it with him always.
“She said, ‘Racism can kill Black people, even when it’s a Black finger pulling the trigger.’” She was basically channeling what great Black intellectual political leaders have been saying for a long time going all the way back to Frederick Douglass and beyond. The way that slavery and racism make black people think less of themselves.”
Hertsgaard said he told Cotton that she should write a book about her experience and that he could put her in touch with his literary agent in New York. But she declined the offer.
“She said, ‘It was bad enough to get shot without having to relive it all by writing a book.’ But Deb being Deb, she was an organizer, she was an activist, and she saw that shooting as a teachable moment. And as an organizer, I think she decided, let’s get this taught. She said, ‘Mark, I think somebody does need to write that book. And that somebody is you. You are called to write that book.’ And that was kind of the clincher because she and I both came up in the church, and when you’re called, you are called by Jesus or the Holy Ghost. Deb’s favorite phrase was, ‘The most high,’ which was a great New Orleans line to use for God.”
There were two factors that played a pivotal role in Hertsgaard’s ability, as an outsider, to write a book about deeply insular New Orleans’ communities.
“Deb was really instrumental in introducing me to people in New Orleans who definitely would not have talked to a white reporter otherwise. The fact that I also was shot that day was equally important. When Deb would introduce me, she would say, ‘Mark was there that day, too. He was shot too and he’s writing about it, and you should talk to him.’ And so, as a result, those two things gave me access to people, especially Black people in New Orleans, that I’m pretty sure would have never talked to me otherwise.”
Hertsgaard said when he started reporting, he quickly learned that not everyone was as forgiving as Cotton.
“Not many people, Black or white, shared her view that we should show mercy and understanding towards these young men. That was not popular with Blacks or whites, including people that knew and people who didn’t know her. And that was obviously an important part of the reporting process. And I would later go back to her about that and ask her, and she was pretty consistent in what she felt about it.”
Cotton was insistent, however, that her statement about showing mercy to the young men who shot her had been misinterpreted.
“She said to me, ‘Look, people are reacting to two sound bites that the media reported on my City Council statement. I stand by those. But I’ve never felt like those young men shouldn’t be punished. I never said that. I’ve never believed that. There has to be punishment. All I was trying to get across is to say that these are not animals, these are human beings. And they are human beings in circumstances that they did not create, circumstances that this society created. And that’s what we need to be talking about, not just what they did on that day. We need to be talking about why they and so many other young African American men in this city are in a situation where they are desperate, where they hunt one another like an urban guerilla war. That breaks my heart.’”
Hertsgaard said after the Scott brothers were sentenced to life, he and Cotton visited Akein at the Nelson Coleman Correctional Center.
“Deb and I went there to see Akein and to offer him our personal forgiveness. That was a tough day. Deb cried on the way home. As you go over that bridge that takes you back to the north side of the river, she was crying by the time we went over that bridge.”
Hertsgaard remembers the day he heard Cotton had died.
“It was a total surprise. I was standing in line to board a plane after security, and I got a call from one of her friends. She said, ‘Deb is dead.’ And I just shouted, alarmed all the people standing next to me. I just said, ‘No! No! No!’ To me it was a total shock”.
Hertsgaard was in New Orleans this year to attend Jazz Fest and remembered how Cotton, despite her love of the city’s culture, did not enjoy the annual event. Except for one time.
“She hated it. She’d say, ‘No. You’re all sweaty and dirty out there. Uh uh. That’s not for me baby.’ Although we did get together to Jazz Fest once. This is 2014. She wasn’t in great shape. She couldn’t go very long. But I remember we went to Chaka Khan together. She made an exception for Chaka. She was an amazing, amazing person, and my eyes are tearing up as I tell you this story.”
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