Lifestyle & Belief

Shooting victim offers forgiveness as Dalai Lama preaches to a wounded New Orleans


Deborah "Big Red" Cotton, who was critically injured in the second line shooting in New Orleans on May 12, 2013.

NEW ORLEANS — The Dalai Lama touched down here last week after heavy media coverage of a manhunt that ended with two brothers charged in a mass shooting at a Mother’s Day second line, or jazz parade, where 19 people were wounded.

But no one died, and the national media lost interest in surveillance footage of a shooter fleeing the scene as people fell like flies. Five other people were subsequently arrested for harboring the accused. Meanwhile city leaders prepared for two days of appearances by the 1989 Nobel Peace Laureate and 77-year old leader of mainstream Tibetan Buddhism, which had been scheduled well in advance.

The juxtaposition of a riveting crime story and the visit of a global religious figure melded into a poignant drama of “resilience and compassion,” as a victim of the shooting embodied the Dalai Lama’s words.

Of three people critically wounded at the parade, Deb Cotton, a popular blogger long focused on survival of the city’s rich street culture, lay in the ICU of Interim LSU Public Hospital, minus one kidney, with continuing surgery scheduled.

“She’s facing a very long, expensive recovery,” her friend Linda Usdin, a community activist who was immersed in planning the Dalai Lama’s visit, told GlobalPost.

Cotton, who posted powerful video statements on her website New Orleans Good Good and blogged for Gambit Weekly, was a shadow figure in the events unfolding around the Dalai Lama’s trip. But her words of concern for the fate of her accused shooter, expressed to Usdin, formed a powerful coda to the visit of the second man called His Holiness to visit New Orleans since Pope John Paul II in 1987.

Cotton, 48, intuitively embraced the Dalai Lama’s line of thought, despite her weakened state and inability to follow TV coverage. She grew concerned on learning from friends about the arrests of alleged shooter Akein Scott, 19, and his brother Shawn, 25, both being held on multi-million dollar bails.

“I don’t want this to be all about demonizing this young man,” she told Usdin. “It’s all about all the systems that have failed young black men.”

In a city reeling from aftershocks of the mass shooting, some 50,000 people attended four public events to hear the Dalai Lama speak.

“Real gun control is ultimately from here,” he said, with a hand to the heart, at a Friday morning press conference before his first speech at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

“Human beings’ basic nature is compassionate. We are social animals. Violence is against the basic human nature...We must educate and develop a firm commitment for nonviolence.”

Of Hurricane Katrina and the 2005 “flood with so many people,” he told the journalists, adding a somnolent pause, “I felt sad. And the other day, some shooting, makes me express my condolences — and shock.”

“The source of a happiness is not material value, but the inner life,” he continued. “Experience during a difficult period can be helpful.”

Born of a Jewish mother and African-American father, Cotton was raised in Texas and identifies as a Jew. After graduating from San Francisco State, she worked as a writer and union organizer in Los Angeles before moving to New Orleans three months before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Evacuating to Houston, she recoiled when Texans scoffed at a rebuilding plan for the city.

“My tattered, war-torn town is slowly, gently being stitched back together by disaster relief crews and stubborn residents who stayed behind, weathering the storm, refusing to let her die,” she wrote in a 2007 memoir, Notes from New Orleans.

The words seem to describe her own condition today. Friends launched an online fundraiser that has received generous support. 

The 2005 flood covered 80 percent of the city, an area seven times the size of Manhattan. Recovery stagnated under Mayor Ray Nagin, who left office in 2010, hugely unpopular. Several months ago he was indicted in federal court for allegedly taking bribes as mayor for a sideline family business.

Under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the flow of federal funds has fed infrastructure repair and low unemployment to match a booming tourist economy. New Orleans has also become an entertainment mecca, riding a zeitgeist of music, art, writing and film production.

But “the drumbeat of violence” in the words of Landrieu, who has made homicide an issue on his watch, is make-or-break for the city’s future. Roughly 100,000 people did not return after Katrina. The population is about 350,000. Nearly a third live in poverty. “Shell Shocked,” an independent documentary by John Richie is a haunting exploration of guns, the drug economy and people traumatized by the drumbeat.

After presenting the Dalai Lama a key to the city, Landrieu brought his own religious message to the other story of the week.

“In the face of this horror, and the daily grind of violence on our city’s streets, I have drawn strength and found solace in the prayer of St. Francis,” the mayor said.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where their is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light

Where there is sadness, joy.”

As Landrieu withdrew from the stage, eight Tibetan monks wearing dark robes and saffron plumes marched to the front of the stage and issued deep, booming chants well below the lines of Western baritone that seemed a sonorous echo of the Buddhists’ saga of long exile from Tibet since the 1959 Chinese takeover.

In speaking to an audience of 4,000 people that Friday afternoon, the Dalai Lama linked global warming to a larger crisis of human consciousness. He spoke of the rising emission levels of carbon dioxide. “We are reaching a serious threshold,” he said. “It is a question of the survival of humanity.”

The next day he gave the commencement address at Tulane University and received an honorary doctorate. The School of Social Work has a longstanding program in Dharamsala, India — seat of the Central Tibetan Administration and the Dalai Lama's home — and the dean, Ronald Marks, was a key figure in arranging the visit.