Making a Grand Gesture After a Tragedy



I was looking for a grand gesture, something that took my breath away, to write about this month in keeping with the theme for the May issue of skirt! magazine.

I also was thinking about Mother’s Day.

And I kept coming back to a story about another writer, one who lived in my hometown of New Orleans.

I’ve never met Deborah Cotton, but her project is one I would have loved. Under the pen name “Big Red Cotton,” Deborah wrote about Mardi Gras traditions and peculiar New Orleans things like second lines, the traditional celebratory line returning from a funeral that has become shorthand for all kinds of celebrations to Crescent City tourists.

It was Mother’s Day 2013 when Deborah was filming a second line by the Original Big 7, a social club.

Akein Scott was a young man with a gun and a drug territory to protect. When he sprayed the crowd with bullets, he didn’t intend to shoot Deborah, but her wounds would lead to life-threatening surgeries for years.

Here’s where the grand gesture comes in.

Because as surely as Akein changed Deborah’s life, she refused to let him change who she was.

Just a month later, she would write in The Lens, “The young man who shot me is all our young men. He’s us. All of those young men that we’re throwing into prison, those young men who are killing us, the ones we are demonizing – they’re us. We raised them. (Or didn’t.)”

Akein was convicted and received a life sentence.

This past February, Deborah was at a meeting hosted by singer John Legend and said she had visited Akein several times in prison.

“We can no longer take the position, ‘Lock them up and throw away the key,'” Deborah said, according to a report by The New Orleans Advocate. “We have to ask. ‘How can we be our brothers’ keepers.’ … Scott was redeemable. We need to find that point of humanity and begin to build there.”

She wrote this even as she continued her lengthy recovery.

And here’s the part that takes my breath away.

Deborah died Tuesday of complications from the injuries she received four years ago. She was 52.

Sometimes, perhaps, the grandest gesture is simple forgiveness.

Helen Mitternight is a former AP reporter and current freelancer living in downtown Charleston. She headed up public relations for the Humane Society of the...

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