Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
New Orleans journalist and reformer Deb Cotton, who died on May 2, refused to testify against the person who shot her four years ago. In a New York Times op-ed published today, she explained why.
Deborah Cotton was perhaps New Orleans’ most famous grassroots journalist and one of its most devoted celebrants. To visitors, she was the oracle you consulted if you wanted to avoid tourist bars and your source for all information on any upcoming second-line parade.
In 2013, Cotton was one of 19 people shot during a Mother’s Day parade. The city almost lost her, but she survived, despite being critically wounded, and lived on to continue her work as a tireless advocate for young, black New Orleanians swept up in poverty and violent crime. On May 2, Cotton passed away at age 52 due to injuries related to that shooting.
Her 2013 shooter was arrested, convicted, and is currently serving life in prison, but Cotton refused to testify against him. She could have been put in jail for that, especially given that New Orleans prosecutors aren’t shy about locking up its crime victims for failing to testify. A new report from the watchdog group Court Watch NOLA identifies at least six crime victims who were arrested and jailed in 2016 because they wouldn’t cooperate with prosecutors. Nine more could have been incarcerated had prosecutors found them.
What Cotton was willing to testify about, though, were the injustices of New Orleans’s criminal justice system, particularly the prosecutors who incarcerate crime victims for not cooperating with them. She wrote about this in an op-ed published in The New York Times today:
Arresting victims for failing to testify for the prosecution fosters a sense of powerlessness by further victimizing the person. And it is a show of aggression by our elected officials who are supposed to be the authorities we turn to so that our sense of stability in our community can be restored. These old-school tough-on-crime prosecutors are behind the times. They approach crimes with a heavy-handedness. They ignore feedback from the community on what type of recovery is needed.
New Orleanians have legitimate cause for concern when reporting a crime. Our police department has been under a federal consent decree since 2012, which means our police department’s track record for civil rights abuses has been so bad that the federal government has had to intervene. If we can’t depend on our police force and our prosecutors to not attack or take advantage of us, how are we supposed to trust them with the “who did it” information that could get us killed?
In Cotton’s shooting, her refusal to testify wasn’t out of intimidation or retaliatory fears, as is often the case. She simply “didn’t want to be part of the machine” that sends African Americans to prison at distressing rates. In fact, Cotton publicly expressed love and compassion for her shooter, and the other three young black men involved in the Mother’s Day shootings. As she wrote in an op-ed she penned for Next City just months into her recovery:
Every day is a struggle. I am in constant pain. I’ve lost a significant amount of weight. The things I used to love I can no longer enjoy. One thing, however, is not a battle: I feel no anger or vindictiveness toward those who shot me. Instead, I feel sad. As I move on with my life, the young men who perpetrated this crime are facing the rest of their lives behind bars. They are in early 20s and have already lost their chance at a full, free adulthood.
This is a worn-out theme in my tattered city. People are tired of hearing about it, but seemingly have no answers. Yet as a black woman, I don’t believe there are no answers. I believe there can be resolution to the deadly phenomenon if enough people were truly committed to ending it.
The solution, wrote Cotton, is more resources for education and job training for those young men in New Orleans who struggle with poverty, trauma, and social marginalization. She prescribed a policing program that would round up the small percentage of people responsible for most of the city’s violent crime to offer them a comprehensive suite of social services that would help deter them making criminal decisions. This was a strategy that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu actually took up. These were all issues Cotton spoke out about and advocated for before she endured her own violent episode, as seen in this 2012 video below:
"Deb Cotton was a fearless voice for crime survivors,” says Simone Levine, executive director of Court Watch NOLA. “Crime survivors everywhere should be inspired by the strength of her conviction."
In her final years, Cotton seemed more hurt by mass incarceration than the bullet that ripped through her stomach. As she wrote in her op-ed, perhaps her final public testimony: “As a black woman working on criminal justice reform, it breaks my heart to watch scores and scores of black and brown men in orange jumpsuits going into the tunnel of no return.”
Read Deb Cotton’s New York Times op-ed “Don’t Jail Crime Victims for Not Testifying.”