Wounded writer speaks of surviving Mother’s Day shooting
A time stamp on the video that Deborah Cotton shot of the Original Big 7's Mother's Day parade helps her remember the terrible event that followed.
"I'd forgotten I even shot this," Cotton tells us. "The weather was beautiful. It was a little bit overcast, but it was cool and manageable."
The parade was a second line celebration in the 7th Ward.
Cotton recalls, "I looked over, for no reason, and I saw a guy, I don't know... maybe 20 feet ahead of me, with a gun... It was so surreal. It almost looks like he was moving to the beat. It was one of those moments that… it becomes surreal, like you don't believe seeing. Like slow motion.
She tells us what happened next. "I was trying to scream to my friends, 'He's got a gun, he's shooting,' but it felt like it was coming out slow," she says. "And we all started running and I thought I was going to make it. I always make it. I always just get to a scene after something's gone down or I leave just before. I did not think that I would get shot.
"And when it hit me," she continues, "you know, it felt like someone throwing a rock at you. Like it didn't really hurt, the bullet itself. But where it landed in my stomach, because I got shot in the hip, when it landed and it just sat there and it began to burn, the pain was excruciating."
She lay on the ground, waiting for help. Cotton says she remembers begging for medicine to make the pain go away. Cotton and 18 others were shot.
"I wiggled my feet and I realized that I was still going to be able to walk," she tells us.
But the road ahead for Deb Cotton, a/k/a Big Red Cotton, has been and will be rigorous and painful. She spent three weeks in intensive care.
Cotton says, "I don't remember much what happened those three weeks… I can see flashes of faces of people that came to visit me, but I don't remember conversations. I don't remember some of the ways that they say I cut up while I was in the hospital."
In some ways her body can never be the same. "I lost my kidney, gall bladder, half of my stomach, part of my duodenum, part of my bio duct… and a portion of my pancreas, 30 percent of that.
In those three weeks in ICU, Cotton had 11 different surgeries. "I was sort of their star baby, because a lot of people don't survive the surgeries that I had. They said that the injuries happened in an area nicknamed 'the soul hole,' and in that area where significant injuries are, people generally don't survive," she says.
Though she lost 40 pounds in the process, she survived. "I'd rather just be my chunkier self," she admits, "hassle with weight loss on my own."
The mental recovery has gone as you might expect - in stages."The first month and weeks I was pretty sad. And just… you know, broken hearted, broken hearted that this happened. I'm a good person... I try to lead a good life. You wonder, 'Why me... what did I do to deserve this?'"
Cotton credits her friends and family for bringing her back.
We sat down with Cotton Tuesday for 45 minutes. Our conversation turned to the alleged shooters, 19-year-old Akein Scott and 24-year-old Shawn Scott.
Cotton says, "I don't blame the guys.... I mean, I know they did what they did, but I don't harbor any ill will towards them or the city."
When we ask her if she wants to go to the trial, she says no.
"It's not that I don't want to see that," she says. "It's heartbreaking. You know, I feel sad for these boys. I feel sad because of the choices that they made for their lives at the beginning of their lives… They've lost their opportunity, they lost for life.
"I'm sad for them," Cotton continues. "I mean, they're young boys who for whatever reason made ignorant choices. And I am going to survive, I am gonna' keep going. I'm gonna be better - I'm better now. I'm not stuck in jail with no way out."
Pre-shooting, friends described Deb Cotton as informed, engaged and outspoken. Now she says the Mother's Day shooting crystallized her perspective on crime. She blames the systemic problems in New Orleans: on crooked politicians who have stolen funds and resources for schools and poor neighborhoods.
"When you see someone like Bill Jefferson and all of his family members and cronies just rip away everything, you know, from Central City, the area that they dominated... it's not ironic," she says. "I mean, it's simple math. That area of town has the highest crime rate, the most hardened criminals. Why is that? Because those people didn't stand a chance of benefiting from our tax dollars that was supposed to be diverted to help these underserved communities."
Cotton says what's missing is the outrage to help hold the corrupt accountable. "We're suffering needlessly, because there is enough money to help do significant work. But that money is not going in the right direction," she says "It's going to 6 million crime camera ding-dongle hustles... And you know, it's going to S&WB rate hikes, where there is still no policies in place that protect us from being further swindled, waste and corruption. It's going toward programs we really don't know how to access."
Doctors tell Cotton she'll be 100 percent in May 2014, one year after the shooting.
Where will she be then? "I'm going to be with my mother, probably in California if that is where she is," she tells us.
And she says she'll return to the city's second line scene – but she doesn't know when.
"I can feel that fire for it," she explains, "but when I imagine myself going again it's just a chill runs through you. So that I know that I'm going again. I definitely have post-traumatic stress disorder, and I need to work through those issues to be able to go out there and not feel like a target, not feel vulnerable.
She moved to New Orleans right before Katrina, May 2005. She says the wounds from Mother's Day won't force her to start over.
"I'm 48 years old, you know… what am I going to do? Go someplace else, go to Houston and try to put down roots again? No," Cotton says. "I have roots in the community, city, and my friends showed me this is my home, this is my family. This is where my roots are. And I don't know what I would do without a good second line or brass band or precious touchstone, without the culture. It would be like eating soup every day. I just I couldn't do it."
As a journalist, Cotton has documented second lines "I can look back at these videos and feel the thrill again, you know, like always," she says.
With us, she watched her first second line in months, video she recorded on Mother's Day. "This is my big love," Cotton says.
You can clearly tell that's true as she watches and listens. You might notice her shoulders move to the music. It's a sure sign she is recovering, getting better, and someday going to return to the part of our city's culture she loves the most - the part of New Orleans where Deb Cotton feels at home.
"I like to tell people, I may be eight years' new to New Orleans, but been black all of my life," she says. "And this is my people's stuff here. This...makes me proud."
Cotton says her medical bills total about $50,000 right now, and that's just the beginning.
Friday night Soul Sister, Funk Baby, and Gasa Gasa will hold a fundraiser at Gasa Gasa on Freret Street. DJ Soul Sister is one of the organizers; the money raised will help pay for those medical costs.