Deborah Cotton

New Orleans writer and cultural advocate Deborah Cotton died Tuesday at University Medical Center, finally succumbing to injuries she suffered four years ago during the Mother's Day second-line mass shooting, according to close friends. She was 52.

Sassy, stylish and passionate, Cotton was raised in Texas and Oklahoma. She attended San Francisco State University, taking up African-American studies, before moving to Los Angeles, where she worked as a union organizer.

In mid-2005, not long before Hurricane Katrina struck, she moved to New Orleans. Almost instantly, she embraced the city's culture and communities with a singular zeal.

She became known for her writing about brass bands, second-lines, Mardi Gras Indian practices and other New Orleans mainstays under the name “Big Red Cotton,” blogging, tweeting and filming nearly every Sunday second-line parade.

“She was the first journalist to treat the second-line community as a beat,” said Kevin Allman, editor of Gambit, which published her weekly blogs starting in 2009. When Cotton published an annual calendar of social aid and pleasure club parades, it became one of the most popular items on the paper’s website, he said.

Along the way, Allman said, her work helped to forge better relationships among the city, police and the parading clubs.

Though Cotton was not from the city, she truly appreciated the tradition, said Fred Johnson of the Black Men of Labor Social Aid and Pleasure Club. “She liked the music, fanfare and pageantry, and she really understood its significance — probably more than many people who were raised in New Orleans.”

In person, she was one of a kind, Allman said. “Deb had a tremendous amount of joy, laughter and gusto,” he said. “But if she was making a point, she was dead serious. And she could be dead serious in 4-inch heels with a Mimosa.”

In 2007, Cotton published “Notes From New Orleans,” subtitled “Spicy, colorful tales of politics, people, food, drink, men, music and life in post-breaches New Orleans.”

Ironically, one of Cotton’s first "Big Red" posts was critical of children walking in the lengthy parades, said Shalanda Adams, an ardent second-liner. “We gave her some feedback about that, and she listened,” said Adams, who ended up embracing Cotton like a member of the family.

Four years ago, when shooting broke out in the 7th Ward during the annual parade of the Original Big 7 Social Aid and Pleasure Club, Cotton was filming. Of the 19 people shot that day, she was the worst injured, suffering grave internal injuries that required multiple surgeries and kept her on the brink of death for more than a month.

Cotton, thrust into the media spotlight after the incident, jumped into a new role, as a victims' advocate, but with a twist — her insistent empathy toward the shooter, Akein Scott, who looked like her nephew Austin, she often said.

It was an unusual response for a victim of violence.

After Cotton died Tuesday, David Simon, producer of HBO’s "Treme," tweeted, “Even after the worst affront, Deb was as big-hearted, forgiving and joyful as the city and the culture she loved.”

Tamara Jackson, who heads up the New Orleans Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force and works for the group Silence Is Violence, regularly helps crime victims. She didn’t know what to expect from Cotton what she got out of the hospital.

“Deb had the opportunity to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the city’s social aid and pleasure clubs and our struggles,” she said.

Instead, Cotton turned her scrutiny to the criminal-justice system’s revolving door, which had released countless people like Scott without a focus on rehabilitation, change or opportunity, she said.

At a local criminal-justice reform meeting in February, Cotton also spoke about Scott, who’d received a life sentence. She’d visited him in prison and kept in touch with him by letter and telephone. He was a talented poet, she said, but his entire life had been marked by a lack of opportunities to excel.

“We can no longer take the position, ‘Lock them up and throw away the key,’ ” Cotton said. “We have to ask, ‘How can we be our brothers’ keepers?’ ”

She saw promise within Scott, she said. “He is redeemable,” she continued. “We need to find that point of humanity and begin to build there.”

In February, the Alliance for Safety & Justice gave a grant to the group Voice of the Experienced allowing Cotton to be paid for the victims’ advocacy work she was doing. “Deb was pretty ready-made for the work,” said Bruce Reilly, VOTE’s deputy director, who last saw her on Sunday, when she left the hospital to accept an award from Avodah, a Jewish group focused on justice work.

“I am not a victim; I am a survivor,” she told the audience, describing her ongoing relationship with Akein Scott. 

She collapsed shortly after the event and was taken to the hospital, where she remained until her death.

Survivors include her mother, Carolee Reed, and two sisters.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.