The HBO series Treme, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, is the most realistic portrait of that troublesome time that I’ve seen in the almost five years since it occurred. As a New Orleans resident and former evacuee, I’ve seen my own experiences played out on the screen. The story is my story, our story, the story of my city and everyone I know.
Actress Melissa Leo plays civil rights attorney Toni Bernette in HBO’s Treme. (Photo: Paul Schiraldi).
The script doesn’t say so, but Treme is also the story of the ACLU. Within the first few weeks after the levees broke on that fateful date of August 29, 2005, the ACLU of Louisiana, displaced from New Orleans, set up a temporary office in Baton Rouge. I didn’t work here then, but I know that on a temporary visit back to New Orleans, the staff climbed nine flights of stairs in a condemned building to rescue office equipment and files, so that even from a distance they could fight for those caught in the chaos of suspended civil liberties. Such was life in a ruined city, and such is the work of the ACLU.
Not reflected in Treme is the ACLU’s response to the collapse of the criminal justice system after the levees broke. Treme lawyer Toni Bernette (based on real-life lawyer Mary Howell, a long-time ACLU friend and collaborator) tries to navigate the dysfunctional prison and court system to locate Daymo, a man wrongly arrested, stuck in Orleans Parish Prison when it flooded and then lost by authorities during the evacuation of prisoners to a highway overpass. But the true horror is not Daymo’s fictional story, it’s the fact that this story is based on the real experiences of hundreds of people caught in a broken system made worse by catastrophe and institutional paralysis.
There were lots of Daymos. One of them, named James Terry, was arrested on the front porch of his undamaged home. Terry, a veteran with no prior record, was sent to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center with no charges filed and no access to a lawyer or law library. For almost seven months he tried to get the Warden to help him, and for seven months he was ignored. Only when a family member contacted the ACLU, and the ACLU wrote the Warden was Terry released. A lawsuit filed on his behalf remains pending, and his story can be seen on YouTube.
In 2006, the ACLU published a report called Abandoned and Abused, highlighting the failures of the criminal justice system in the weeks and months after Katrina. There was no evacuation plan for the local jail. People were trapped in a dark prison, behind bars, with filthy floodwater up to their necks. People and records disappeared.
Treme is telling the story. The ACLU was there, working as we always do, trying to right the government’s wrongs.