Sunday, January 29th 2023   |

Avodah honoree Deborah Cotton succumbs after brunch

By ALAN SMASON

Deborah “Deb” Cotton, the outspoken writer and community activist who was just awarded the top honor from Avodah for her work in advocating for the African-American and Jewish communities to which she belonged, died Tuesday, May 2 as a result of the injuries she sustained in the Mother’s Day shootings nearly four years ago. She was 52.

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Deb Cotton, the community advocate and writer, as seen at her last public event, the Avodah Partners in Justice Brunch on April 23. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Cotton, who hailed from Texas and Oklahoma, found her identity in the African-American culture of the Mardi Gras Indians and the second line bands who played regularly in New Orleans, by writing about the culture and using social media and video to document parades and events.

It was during such an event in the 7th Ward on an otherwise pleasant Sunday, May 12, 2013 afternoon that Cotton was capturing video images of the second line group when two brothers, Shawn and Akien Scott, took up positions opposite one another and began shooting at a rival gang member, whom they struck five times. During the melee 20 people were injured and 19 of them shot. Cotton, who instinctively ran toward the action, confronted Akien, the younger of the two shooters, who hit her several times with gunfire. Cotton’s injuries were the most devastating of all and she was confined to University Hospital for months after the shootings and required multiple surgeries to keep her alive.

When she recovered enough to leave the hospital after many months of rehabilitation, Cotton inquired of the shooters and surprisingly began to advocate for them insisting they not be sentenced to life terms. The two shooters,  along with two other brothers and other family members, were part of the violent FnD gang and had been charged by federal authorities with a variety of charges including racketeering, drug conspiracy and firearms violations that dated back to 2006. Eventually, they were all sentenced to life terms with no possibility of parole. Cotton visited Akien Scott, whom she said looked like her nephew, while he was confined in prison to advocate on his behalf. According to Cotton, the two regularly talked over the phone and she was working with him on an appeal process.

Educated at San Francisco State University, Cotton was a union organizer in Los Angeles for several years before she came to New Orleans as a writer in 2005 just prior to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Part of her identity came from her mother’s Jewish values, which she especially prized. Writing for Nola.com and Gambit Weekly under the nome de plume of “Big Red Cotton,” she began to cover the sub-culture of brass bands and second lines and utilized social media to bring attention to them.

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Simone Levine of Court Watch NOLA presents Avodah Partners in justice Award to Deb Cotton. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Cotton’s blogging, photographing and filming of the unique sub-culture of New Orleans began to get notice for her subjects and for her. The material formed the basis for a book “Notes from New Orleans,” a reference both to her writing and the music culture she covered.

Cotton’s health was always precariously balanced after the shooting. Doctors had saved her life on several occasions, but her organs had begun to fail just the week before the Avodah Partners in Justice Brunch was to be held. According to close friend Simone Levine of Court Watch NOLA, Cotton was not only in hospital, but actually in a coma only three days before she regained consciousness and appeared at the event held at Temple Sinai on April 23.

“Deb was such a fierce soul.  Her conviction was steadfast in anything she personally decided was righteous whether that meant removing corrupt officials or rallying crime survivors to make their voices heard,” Levine told the CCJN. “She was beloved by many in the Jewish community who see her as an inspiration in forgiving those who hurt her, so that she could better repair the world. She will be missed by so many.”

Levine introduced Cotton to the Avodah crowd on that Sunday afternoon prior to her receiving her award. “It is that strength and that pure grit that has her here today,” she said. “I am so honored to give this award to Deb Cotton, who has given so much to stand in front of all of us today and to continually tell us where the path of justice is, both in the Jewish community (and) in the community-at-large.”

Frail, but determined, Cotton addressed the crowd with a fervor and spirit that spoke openly of her defiance towards death and her commitment to social action.

After her recovery, she was asked to make a victim impact statement at the pre-sentencing hearing for the shooters. “I am not a victim. I am a survivor,” Cotton recalled telling federal prosecutors.

“I’ll never be the same,” Cotton acknowledged to the crowd. “Thank God for disability and Obamacare.”

When she did face the two brothers in court who had been convicted for the shootings and other offenses, she spoke firmly.  “‘I don’t know what happened to you in life that gave you the cojones to do what you did, but I still love you,'” she recalled having said. “‘I’m not talking fake love; I am talking real love. I am going to be here for you. You are connected to me karmically.”

While this stance may have seemed out of place for someone who had been shot, it did not surprise those who knew Cotton. “One of the Jewish tenets that I live my life by is tikun olam, is repairing the world,” Cotton explained. “If I don’t do anything else before I leave here, I mean to have made my presence felt (and) do what I can to repair the world, do my piece to repair the world.”

Cotton is survived by her mother, Carolee Reed, and two sisters. Funeral arrangements have not been finalized.

 

 

 

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