'Stop the car right now,' reporter told. `Back up, or I'll shoot'
I wheeled the car around and headed back to the scene of the shooting, looking
for Toronto Star photographer Lucas Oleniuk, when the officer turned, spotted
me and pointed the shotgun right at the windshield.
"Stop the car right now. Back up, or I'll shoot," he screamed.
A couple of others cocked their weapons and trained their guns on the
car, purpose in their eyes.
Instinctively, I raised my hands above the wheel and gunned the Pontiac
in reverse over fallen tree limbs and debris in the street.
This was our indoctrination into a Big Easy that'll never make a picture
Minutes earlier, as Oleniuk and I first saw downtown New Orleans looming after
a long odyssey to get into the locked-down city, he shouted at me to stop when
he spotted armed officers crouched behind a cruiser, training their guns on
an apartment block.
His welcome to the besieged city came the second he left the vehicle
when three shots rang out — a quick "pop-pop-pop." Oleniuk stumbled
behind a lamppost for protection and began shooting photos.
In seconds, as many as 40 officers sped to the scene, most in marked
cars — but one in a Kinko's van — some of whom set up behind Oleniuk,
their guns aimed over his left shoulder.
Others, guns drawn, shouted at me to get out of the way.
Realizing he was in the line of fire, Oleniuk raced for cover behind a cruiser
and worked alongside a group of police as they fired into the building.
After 15 minutes, the last of more than 350 images shot by Oleniuk
depicted officers delivering a fierce beating to the two suspects, an assault
so fearsome one of the suspects defecated.
Realizing their frontier justice had been captured for posterity, the police
turned on the photographer, one ripping a camera from his neck with such force
it broke its shoulder strap.
Another grabbed a second camera and, somewhere in the melee, Oleniuk's press
pass was ripped from his neck.
The officers fumbled with the cameras, finally pulling out the memory
cards with the photos.
Oleniuk pleaded for the return of his cameras, was rebuffed, then, after retreating
about a block, approached them again and asked for his cameras back.
One of the officers who had been hunkered down with Oleniuk during the 15-minute
shootout said he could have his cameras, but when he asked again for his pictures,
he was gruffly told: "If you don't get your ass out of here, I'm going
to break your motherf---ing jaw."
In the chaos that is New Orleans, police menacingly pointed loaded weapons
at me four times, and Oleniuk and I watched later when four officers armed with
machineguns, after first demanding to know where we were going, turned on an
approaching cab and screamed at the Hispanic driver to get his hands off the
wheel or they'd open fire. When he wouldn't do so immediately, it appeared for
a split second that he would be shot on the spot.
Mercifully, his shaky hands finally appeared above the dash.
Because New Orleans is under martial law, police need no reason to stop and
search anyone or pull them off the street. There's no doubt they see journalists
as an impediment to their efforts to regain control of their city. But they
have also been shot by snipers and looters in the nighttime chaos, and anyone
who drives through this city these days knows what it's like to get a little
As one navigates ravaged New Orleans from the east, through Kenner and Jefferson
Parish, past the airport and toward the French Quarter, driving flooded streets
till the filthy water gets too deep, then trying alternate routes, it is the
human toll, not the physical toll, which worsens.
First, there is a single barefoot man walking aimlessly along Airline Highway.
Then others slogging through the floodwaters of Metairie. Then families trudging
dispiritedly along the roads of Kenner. Then, by the time you get to Napoleon
and St. Charles in New Orleans, close to 100 sit silently in the middle of debris,
watching the strange car navigate among the downed trees in their neighbourhood.
Later, down St. Charles, some try to stop you to ask for rides — "I
have a baby ..." — others glare sardonically, while others peer at
the car blankly.
Through downtown, toward the French Quarter, the refugees congregate in groups
of 10 or 20. Some have guns, some have crowbars or iron bars, and, mindful of
carjackings, you dispense with the hurricane etiquette of treating darkened
intersections as four-way stops.
When you park on Canal St. to get a sense of the enormity of the refugee flow
as people come down the Interstate overpass, many pushing shopping carts or
luggage racks, you sense the desperation. You park close to where others are
parked and you regret that you can't pack them all in your backseat and get
them out of there.
And you wonder where the relief workers are.