Last week’s police confrontation with the Krewe of Eris has been polarizing. When Jan Ramsey wrote criticizing the police for their heavy-handed tactics stopping the parade, commenters wrote to point out that the krewe were vandalizing cars, and I had Marigny residents stop me to tell me that members of the parade were keying cars. The Times-Picayune‘s letters page today includes an account of members of the parade writing inflammatory words on people’s cars. Most accounts of the parade include references to paraders walking on cars.
At the same time, I know someone who was in the parade and who knew nothing of vandalism and didn’t know about the confrontation with the police at the front of the parade until the mayhem played its way through the crowd, and it’s a safe bet that many if not most people in the parade were simply parading in the spirit of the season.
Accepting that vandalism took place doesn’t make the situation a wash, though. The video footage we posted here shows police officers badly out of control, at one point slapping the phone out of the hand of someone who was doing nothing more than videotaping his actions. It’s hard to see how the police could have expected any other outcome than the one they got when they opted to meet the situation with aggression instead of, say, escorting it to its conclusion and dealing with specific bad actors.
And this account of the police at the Fifth District after arresting members of the krewe sounds like something out of David Goodis:
The mood in the 5th District station house was grim. Not only the line of twelve cuffed prisoners kneeling on the floor of the hallway– we were grim alright– but the police themselves were somber and uneasy. The mood was subdued, punctuated with explosions of anger from the still adrenalized officers who’d been at the scene of the Fifth District’s bulldozing of Eris.
“Y’all fucked up,” ranted a fat officer, pacing up and down the back hall where we arrestees knelt. It was hour two of what would be over four hours kneeling cuffed side-by-side on the Fifth District’s linoleum before transfer to Sheriff’s custody. “Y’all done fucked up now. I hope I see the motherfucker who hit me. I’m gonna find him. I’m gonna see that motherfucker on the street, and I’m gonna whip the shit out of him. You DO know that. When I see that motherfucker I’m gonna fuck him up bad, and I hope he’s one of y’all’s motherfucking cousins. I should’a shot that motherucker! You heard me?”
The station Sergeant was angry too, but he wasn’t venting at the arrestees. He was angry at the French Quarter’s 8th District police force. “I can’t believe they got on the radio talking all that shit,” he said, his voice getting louder as he spoke. “What the fuck was that? Getting on the radio and telling us there was a riot heading our way. Like it’s a joke to them. ‘Oh yeah, we got this big crowd throwing trash cans and rioting, so look out. We’ve got them heading right your way.’ That is severely fucked up.”
A junior officer grunted in acknowledgement. Several pairs of handcuffs were unaccounted for, and he was trying to sort out whose handcuffs were whose. The police couldn’t agree who’d arrested which of us.
The anger at the French Quarter officers is really disturbing. If we accept this account, does that mean that the law is enforced unequally around the city? The writer describes how the Quarter police simply worked to make sure the parade didn’t go into the Quarter, blocking streets to turn it around. The garbage cans that the police complained were overturned and dragged into the streets were, according to this account, were done so to get the police car following the parade to stop clipping at the heels of the back of the parade – a police tactic that second lines are well familiar with.
Also worrying is the possibility that the NOPD denies arrestees needed medical help, as this grim, cynical passage suggests happened:
One arrestee had a broken cheekbone and a large, matted bloody wound on the back of his head from being beaten with a police baton. Later, this injury would require surgical staples. On the wall where we were kneeling, there was a growing bloodstain behind his head where his injury had bled onto the drywall. “He’s bleeding,” said another of the arrestees. “Officer, that man needs medical attention.”
“I say you could speak? Shut the fuck up,” the officer currently watching us replied. A couple of the arrestees had earlier been demanding lawyers, and he had told them to shut the fuck up too. He was big on that phrase. Earlier, he’d told yet another arrestee, “I’m a trump your charges to the sky if you don’t shut the fuck up.”
An officer walked in cradling his hand and smiling. “You need hospital?” The silence-oriented officer asked him.
“Yeah, I’m going in a minute,” said the officer with the wounded hand. “I knocked motherfuckers tonight, tell you what.”
“That hand definitely look sprained,” said the shushy officer. “Please tell me you tagged one of these assholes.”
“Nah, none of these here,” the officer said, looking us over. “I don’t think it was none of these. But whoever the fuck it was, he damn sure know it.” He poked his knuckles tenderly. “I’m a be out on this one for a while,” he said, and grinned. “Might have to stay home Mardi Gras.”
Another account that emailed to us at OffBeat considered the riot the product of a few on both sides:
We house a artist who participated in the parade. He said he never intended to do a protest. Mardi Gras is no time for that. Mardi Gras the time when we had at least 50 parades without permits. A few took it on themselves to get crazy. They didn’t care about ERIS . The next morning others from the parade told me the same thing. Yes there are bad police officers. I myself had a terrible experience once but I have to admit they responded well all the other times. The night of the parade kids told me they saw 5 officers restrain one officer who was getting violent. We have housed hundreds there are 3 documentaries to prove that. We have had to call the police on occasion. In the past few years I have seen such a spirit of tolerance we were building a good relationship with the authorities.
That doesn’t entirely absolve Eris. As Varg writes in an analysis of the event at TheChicory.com:
I am not quite sure where the outrage is. If the point of your Krewe is to create or celebrate chaos you must suspect there to be some response correct? So where is the outrage? Anarchists’ goal is chaos. There is no need to be all up-in-arms when you clash with the establishment. It’s the point isn’t it? So, I can’t support your outrage. There isn’t any logic to it. It seems disingenuous because covertly, it was what you wanted all along.
Along those lines, you also can’t be surprised when the city strikes back in a predictable-if-imprecise way by shutting down the Iron Rail. The closure may not affect the people who created the problems, but in the eyes of the city, close enough.
But Eris’ core impulse doesn’t let the cops off the hook. You’d think considering the police’s reputation before and since Katrina that it would behave more intelligently, particularly during Mardi Gras when the city has the nation’s attention. If its tactics remain to meet force with greater force, then it’s doomed to repeated violent conflicts with those it’s sworn to protect, and the use of tasers instead of lethal force is only a marginal improvement. Restoring peace isn’t their goal; punishing the wrongdoer is.