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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Deborah Cotton, longtime Gambit second line correspondent, dies at 52

Posted By and on Tue, May 2, 2017 at 1:52 PM

Deborah Cotton.
  • Deborah Cotton.

"It is my belief that you don't choose New Orleans — New Orleans chooses you. Those who have fallen for her, live with her, are sprung, lost and turned out in love with her, know exactly what I mean. Ain't no amount of wind, water, gunfire, potholes, 'ignant' politics or doomsday predictions can pry your death grip from her. Come hell or high water, you stay — or return.

"She makes you high from laughing too much and too long. She breaks your heart till you're crying on the kitchen floor. She haunts you, melts you and is just a damn joy to live in.

"I think she's a cult."
— Deborah Cotton
Deborah "Big Red" Cotton, Gambit's longtime second-line correspondent, local writer, filmmaker and advocate for New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian, brass band and social aid and pleasure club cultures died May 2 at University Medical Center. She was 52.

She was among 19 people injured during a mass shooting at an Original Big 7 Social Aid and Pleasure Club second-line parade she was filming on Mother's Day, May 12, 2013. She underwent dozens of surgeries to repair damage to several of her organs and a year of rehabilitation following the shooting. Friends of Cotton told The Advocate she had died from those injuries.

Cotton was raised in Texas and Oklahoma and lived in California before moving to New Orleans in 2005, just as Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee breaches damaged the city. ("Taking a cab from New Orleans to Houston is certainly an original, if not inexpensive way to escape Armageddon," she noted.) She returned after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures with a mission to chronicle through blogs, photography and film what she considered the underreported aspects of New Orleans culture: Treme,  where she lived, brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians, social aid and pleasure clubs.

In 2007, Cotton published the book Notes From New Orleans: Spicy, Colorful Tales of Politics, People, Food, Drink, Men, Music and Life in Post-Breaches New Orleans, In it, she tackled such disparate subjects as the death of famed chef Austin Leslie; the eternal divide between native and non-native New Orleanians; the stories of the people of the 9th Ward; "The Welcome Arrival of Zoloft and the National Guard"; her search for the perfect "big black man named James" ("a tall black bear with a big belly who loves him a thick yella girl, the kind that would inspire Jill Scott to write a third album"); and her growing disillusionment with then-Mayor Ray Nagin.

click to enlarge Deborah Cotton.
  • Deborah Cotton.
She began writing regularly for Gambit's Blog of New Orleans in 2009, giving details of upcoming second-line parades and posting a popular annual calendar. She also was active in community matters surrounding musicians' rights, maintenance of second-line parade traditions, gun violence, victims' rights and more.

In 2010, she wrote an essay for Gambit titled "Mainstream Media Doesn't Care About Black People: A Kanyesque Teachable Moment About Second Line Culture Bias," in which she lambasted local reporters for conflating gun violence at second-line parades with the peaceful paraders themselves. An excerpt:
Let's revisit for a moment the charge that second line culture is a breeding ground for murderers. New Orleans has the highest murder rate in the country — 174 killings in 2009 alone. When you have a society that parades 40 weekends a year, there’s bound to be a murder that falls on the same day and possibly within the vicinity of the parade — especially when you consider that the host clubs are by nature neighborhood-based groups that live in predominately low-income areas with high incidences of crime. (For the record, it should be noted that the last time a murder took place in the vicinity of a second line parade was over three years ago in 2007, before the police and SAPC task force settled their permit fee case.) In these troubled neighborhoods, you also have a preponderance of churches and police in addition to second line clubs, all attempting to stabilize vulnerable environments where numerous crimes happen. Yet no one blames the police or the churches for causing more crime in these areas. Using the reporter’s bias logic, if you say social aid and pleasure clubs cause crime you may as well say the police and churches cause crime too since they are all in the vicinity where a significant numbers of murders occur.
Due in part to her work educating people about Mardi Gras Indian traditions and second lines and stressing that those who parade should be considered role models and mentors for at-risk youth, both Mayor Mitch Landrieu and then-New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas paid tribute to her after her shooting and emphasized that second-line participants were not to blame, and indeed were a positive force in the community.

She launched, an online arts and entertainment magazine focusing on New Orleans people, traditions and events she thought were undercovered by mainstream media. She also was among people whose stories were shared in the 2016 documentary 91%: A Film About Guns in America by New Orleans-based director John Richie, whose work examined universal background checks for people purchasing guns.

click to enlarge Deborah Cotton, aka Big Red Cotton, accepting the Ashley Morris Award at the annual Rising Tide conference. - KEVIN ALLMAN
  • Deborah Cotton, aka Big Red Cotton, accepting the Ashley Morris Award at the annual Rising Tide conference.
In August 2015, Cotton was honored with the Ashley Morris Award at the Rising Tide bloggers' conference for being a community "connector" after Hurricane Katrina. At that time, Travis and Akein Scott, the men accused of shooting her, had not yet stood trial. Both later were convicted and sentenced to life in prison, and Cotton visited Akein in jail, telling a criminal justice reform conference in February hosted by singer John Legend, that the shooter was a talented poet.

She earlier had told the crowd at Rising Tide that the Scotts were not the only ones responsible for the melee. "I hold them responsible," she told the audience, "but I hold us responsible too. We do not convert outrage into holding leaders accountable."

Memorial arrangements were not immediately available.

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