Still Parading: Second-line shooting survivor returns to the route
It's been almost a year since a hail of bullets shattered the joy at a Mother's Day second-line parade in the Seventh Ward.
Two brothers face state charges and are listed in a federal drug indictment in the shooting that injured 20 people.
Deb Cotton almost died when a bullet ripped through her. After multiple surgeries and a slow recovery, the cultural historian and blogger is finally back on her feet.
She was in the crowd April 20 when the Pigeon Town Steppers took to Claiborne Avenue for their Easter tradition.
"It's good to see ya, I haven't seen you in a long time," said Cotton as she greeted other revelers.
"I've had people that I don't know approach me and say they were going to pray for me, and I know that's what saved my life," Cotton said, in the thick of the crowd.
She was recording the Pigeon Town Steppers for history's sake. She almost lost her life doing the same thing almost a year ago.
It was May 12, 2013, when Cotton was recording the colorful Big Seven Mother's Day second line. Then, gunfire erupted. The music and the crowds she loved faded to black.
"We were coming up the street and I was with the band," said Cotton as she walked the crime scene at Frenchman and North Villere for the first time since she was shot. "Something told me to look up, and I looked over and some guy was standing here smiling with a gun in his hand spraying the crowd." Cotton gestured just like the shooter did that day. Her eyes glazed over.
"I started trying to run but it seemed it was happening in slow motion. Then I felt the gunshot hit me in the hip."
She said one of the musicians yelled out to her and asked her if she was shot. Then he saw the blood.
"Cotton shot, Cotton shot," she said the words she heard faintly that day.
YouTube video shows her on the ground in the most horrifying moments of her life. She says she remembers lying in the street with people over her fanning her to try to keep her awake. She remembers an agonizing slow burn in her stomach.
Leroy Williams lives at that corner. He was home that day and recognized Cotton as someone he'd heard about.
"Oh, you were the one that lost a kidney," he said.
"I lost a kidney, two thirds of my stomach and part of my pancreas," she responded.
Two surveillance cameras on Williams' home gave police a clearer picture of what happened.
"We were outside and my cameras were on. I never cut them off. They stay on," he said.
Another neighbor also told what she remembered.
"You could see the man in the middle of the street when he shot three or four times," the neighbor said. "You could see the fire coming out of the gun! I went inside and said, what a Mother's Day!"
Cotton remembers looking into the gunman's eyes.
"I wanted to shake him and ask him what are you doing?" she said. "You don't do this!"
Three days later, police arrested 19-year-old Akein Scott in New Orleans East and booked him with 20 counts of attempted murder. His brother, Shawn, was later picked up and also charged in the crime. At that time, Deb Cotton was in the hospital.
"I was there for almost two months, and during that time they did about 12 surgeries on me," she said. "It was a long haul. The doctors told me they didn't expect me to live because of the severity of the damage."
She fought back. With community support and fundraisers, she made it out of a life-or-death situation. She wanted desperately to go back to second-line parades.
"When you are a part of the second-line culture, the feeling you get from participating is such a high," she said. "It's like a thousand people moving in unison to the music."
Cotton moved to New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. The Los Angeles native and African-American studies major immersed herself in the culture. After the storm, she made it her mission to record second-line parades.
"I got to thinking if we hadn't been able to rebuild this city, there wouldn't have been any evidence of this culture that's so incredible that no one else has," she said.
It wasn't until fall of last year that she went for a few minutes to her first parade since the shooting. Camera in hand, she recorded the Young Men of Olympus. She was nervous.
"I was getting a lot of love and hugs and well-wishes from those who I didn't think knew me," she said.
She says she's not angry with the men charged in the shooting that changed her life.
"I feel sorry for them," she said. "They have ruined their lives. They're not coming out of jail. Clearly they have violence in their heart, but they have other good qualities the world won't get to benefit from."
The unofficial archivist of New Orleans fun will continue bringing color to the masses through her camera. She says documenting New Orleans' rich history is worth any risk.
When asked if she would have died that day on Frenchman and North Villere, would it have been enough? She answered, "Yeah, I've had a good life. I'm blessed to live in the community I love. When I go to second lines, I pray before I go and ask to be protected, and that's the most I can do."
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