Beverly Curry has one question. Why are this city's police officers stopping Treme neighbors from their traditional way of grieving -- with music?
'We've been mourning this way since I was a little girl, and I'm in my 60s,' says Curry, as she sits on the front steps of her pink shotgun house in the Treme neighborhood. Kids in uniforms from Joseph A. Craig Elementary School walk by on the sidewalk, and Curry knows everyone, the result of three years of volunteering as a parent facilitator at Craig, where, among other things, she supervises the school's tutoring program.
But just before 9 p.m. on Friday, April 22, Curry says, she saw a New Orleans Police Department officer point a pump-action shotgun at some of 'her children' -- three teenage boys who were sitting on a stoop next to other mourners gathered outside Joe's Cozy Corner. 'The supervisor pointed his gun right at them and told them to move their f-ing asses,' says Curry. 'Which I was appalled at. Because these boys weren't smoking or drinking. And they were well-dressed boys.'
The First District police officer, Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann, disputes all of Curry's account. The three young men were stopped, says NOPD spokesman Capt. Marlon Defillo, because Scheuermann was investigating individuals 'possibly engaged in narcotics and weapons activity.' And his gun was never raised, says Defillo. 'According to the officer, at no time did he point a shotgun at any person.' When told that Gambit Weekly had interviewed more than a dozen separate people who said otherwise, Defillo noted that any citizen who believes that Scheuermann or any other officeer acted improperly should file a formal complaint with the department's Public Integrity Bureau.
In January 2003, an NOPD incident investigation outlined a list of findings including Scheuermann's possession of a shotgun, despite the fact that he was 'not qualified to possess and/or carry a Departmental Shotgun on duty.' A November 2003 city Civil Service Commission decision cleared Scheuermann on other charges but never addressed his shotgun qualifications. Defillo reports that the lieutenant is currently certified to carry that shotgun and will be through the end of May, when he'll be up for re-certification.
Beverly Curry says that the sight of Scheuermann and his shotgun left her feeling shocked, and so she walked away, toward Craig school, where she saw several other police cars lined up outside, 'as if they were waiting for something.' About 30 minutes later, those cars would be part of a police action that sent 15 officers in eight patrol cars racing around the block. There, in front of Joe's, officers jumped out of their cars to tell the same mourners -- now joined by members of the ReBirth Brass Band -- that anyone who second lined that night would go to jail, and that anyone from the St. Bernard housing project would be arrested, onlookers say. Over the police car's loudspeaker, according to those in the crowd, Scheuermann also chided them for 'celebrating a murderer's death.'
Curry didn't see that incident, although she heard plenty about it later. At the time, she was a few blocks away, walking down the sidewalk on St. Philip Street. On her way, she passed the house where she'd grown up. There, she says, she first learned her neighborhood's traditions, as a little girl standing tiptoe to peer out the window.
Whenever someone died, she recalls, the evening ritual was the same. 'I'd see a bucket of beer go by. Then a plate of food. And then I'd hear somebody playing music.'
ABOUT 15 YEARS AGO, Curry was part of a week's worth of gatherings for Mama Ruth, a longtime friend of musicians who ran Ruth's Cozy Corner at the corner of Ursulines and Robertson streets. 'When Mama Ruth died, we played music all night long in front of the bar,' she says.
Not long afterward, Joe 'Papa Joe' Glasper, Jr. opened Joe's Cozy Corner in the same building. He, too, became popular with his neighbors, especially musicians. Last Friday morning, neighbors heard via stoops and cell phones that Glasper had died while in custody at Orleans Parish Prison awaiting a hearing on his manslaughter conviction ('Down on the Corner,' May 18, 2004).
Curry, like others, heard about Glasper's death in the morning and stopped by Joe's several times that day. All afternoon long, people were steadily stopping by, cooking food and standing around a flower arrangement that spelled out 'Papa Joe' in pink silk carnations.
Curry has a special loyalty to Glasper, she says. During any special sessions -- summer, weekend or vacation -- Glasper unfailingly bought breakfast and lunch for all her students. 'Papa Joe was my backbone with my children,' she says. 'That's why it hurts me to see the police do this.'
She thinks back to that Friday night, trying to plumb for anything that might have attracted police attention. Even as she had walked up, she says, she noticed the quiet -- no loud conversation, no clowning. It was so still, she says, that she could hear the hot sausage crackling on the bar's big grill. 'Everybody was subdued, just standing and remembering, talking about how they were going to miss Papa Joe,' she says.
She says there were less than 30 people outside. She can picture the scene in her mind: four ladies on the bar's side steps, the three young men on the adjacent stoop, four people sitting on the front shoeshine stand, one in the chair next to the door, three standing on the corner, and roughly 12 standing along the sidewalk across the street.
What had drawn the officers' attention was not the current crowd but the potential for those numbers to grow exponentially, says Defillo. 'The traffic division was looking at thousands of people wanting to second-line.'
Thousands of people -- where? 'Gathering,' says Defillo. 'This is apparently what was anticipated for the second line on Friday.'
ReBirth members say that, if officers had bothered to ask, they would have discovered that the crowd was likely to stay near 50. It being Jazz Fest time, the band's members were only making a brief stop, on their way to another paid gig. They planned to play three or four songs and then pay tribute to their friend Papa Joe with a second line around the block -- a low-traffic, residential block.
The officers' action was uncalled for, says 30-year-old ReBirth trumpeter Derrick 'Kabuki' Shezbie. And it interrupted a longtime custom -- nightly second lines for recently departed musicians' friends like Glasper. 'That tradition has been carried on for many years, since when Pops -- Louis Armstrong -- was coming up,' says Shezbie. 'And long after I'm dead, I'm sure that tradition will still carry on.'
EVERY GLOSSY PICTURE BOOK about New Orleans explains that the Treme and a few other historic neighborhoods are known for their musicians and jazz funerals, led by solemn grand marshals wearing black brimmed hats on their heads and black sashes across their chests.
These neighborhoods also export their musicians to other parts of town to play parades for conventioneers who, no matter the season, toss beads and wave hankies around a French Quarter block or a hotel ballroom. Local brass band players say that these parades are most accurately called 'paid gigs' -- because they're not authentic second lines.
For musicians, the most beloved second lines are those that start spontaneously. Sometimes they're landmark birthdays, housewarmings or big wedding anniversaries. Other times, these parades reflect the issues of the day -- and they have for at least a century. Treme Brass Band bass drummer 'Uncle' Lionel Batiste recalls the days before the 'Uncle' was added to the front of his name. It was 60-some years ago, and he was living in the Treme, across St. Philip Street from his childhood pal, grand marshal Henry Youngblood. It was during the days of Jim Crow when they could only enter area restaurants by the back door, if at all. Then, in the 1930s, the 'Brown Bomber' -- boxer Joe Louis -- began making his bid for the heavyweight title. Whenever he won a fight, Batiste and Youngblood and their friends second-lined all over town.
These days, the joys and sorrows that prompt second lines may be connected with the current-day imprisonment boom. Doing time has become so common in largely black, high-poverty neighborhoods like Treme that some second-line parades now celebrate someone's release or give loved ones a tearful send-off before they leave.
Still, unlike formal jazz funerals and big parades, which require permits and police escorts, most NOPD officers have -- until recently -- looked the other way for spur-of-the-moment second lines. Even as recently as Mardi Gras Day, when a marching band began marching around the Treme, a few officers smiled and waved them on. Some even trilled their cars' sirens along with the band. In response, second-liners waved or did a fancy dance as they passed the men and women in blue. Suddenly, however, near North Claiborne Avenue, several patrol cars came in at high speeds, parking diagonally to block paraders. Officers jumped out in front of the musicians, commanding the group to stop.
Neighbors resent these shows of force more acutely when the second lines represent something more solemn, as they often do. When Anthony 'Tuba Fats' Lacen died in January 2004, musicians followed their tradition -- they got together and played for him every day, from the day he died until the day he was buried. They did the same for Hot 8 Brass Band trombonist Joe Williams when he was shot dead by NOPD officers on North Robertson Street last year ('Why?' Aug. 17, 2004). And they should have been able to do the same for Papa Joe Glasper, musicians say.
Curry explains the tradition. 'Whenever anybody dies who's in music, owns a bar, or hangs by a bar, we serve food, we laugh and talk, we play music. And we do it every night until they put him in the ground. Then again on the anniversaries of his death.'
Musicians were following that tradition in January, when they gathered for a memorial second line to mark the anniversary of trombonist Corey Henry's younger brother Little Mookie, who was tragically shot and killed a few years ago.
The ad hoc band, followed by a crowd, headed out of the Treme and marched up Claiborne to the Iberville housing project, where Mookie spent his childhood. They were moving toward the Lafitte project, when squad cars cornered the crowd, saying that everyone should leave -- unless they held a horn or a drum. The officers then put all the musicians up against police cars, frisked them, and ran their names to check for unpaid tickets and warrants. It was unheard of. 'We never had to do that. Not in the neighborhood,' says Henry. 'And we've been doing this forever.'
For his part, he's mystified. 'I can't really pinpoint what's happening,' he says.
NOPD spokesman Defillo says that, in general, violence at a few second lines have prompted police to observe them more closely. But, in regard to the recent stop at Joe's Cozy Corner, officers were responding to something more specific. Officers had received tips from certain unidentified citizens, he says, that if a second-line took place, 'there was going to be a 'hit' on a certain individual in attendance.'
Bureaucratic details were also left undone. 'Organizers did not receive proper permits to second-line and stop traffic,' Defillo says.
NO ONE SHOULD HAVE NEEDED a permit, says criminal defense lawyer Rick Tessier, who was in the crowd at Joe's that night and talked with the responding officers. 'My position was, 'If you have the right to free speech and the right to assemble, why do you need a permit to go around the block and play music?''
Tessier is referring to a now-established legal precedent, one that began nearly 30 years ago with decisions like Bowman v. Landrieu, written here in New Orleans by U.S. District Judge R. Blake West. In the case, filed by attorneys Bill Rittenberg and Mary Howell on behalf of French Quarter street musicians, West ruled that performed music is a form of free speech and deserves First Amendment protections.
That makes perfect sense to Beverly Curry. Spontaneous second lines are a long-held tradition, she says, and they should not require permits. Her argument echoes complaints heard after this year's St. Joseph's night dust-up, where police treated Mardi Gras Indians roughly, saying that they needed a permit for their century-long tradition ('St. Joseph's Night Gone Blue,' March 29). 'The police want to cite us, saying we're breaking the law,' says Curry. 'But there was no law given us -- we always had the freedom to do this.'
Tessier says that he tried to explain this long-standing tradition to Scheuermann. He said, 'F--k tradition. You need a permit,' says Tessier.
Before the police arrived at Joe's, Tessier had been talking with his wife, Nissa, and his co-counsel on Glasper's criminal case, fellow lawyer Carol Kolinchak.
While Tessier spoke with the officers, Kolinchak hung back, quietly urging ReBirth and everyone else to go inside the bar, she says. 'My sense was that they had come to arrest people,' says Kolinchak. The officers had jumped out, acting very hostile, very aggressive, she says, and people felt threatened.
The scene was also scary to Linda Santi, who had joined Tessier and Kolinchak after a day of work at the New Orleans Public Library. 'The officers were yelling at people, yelling in an agitated way,' says Santi.
Tessier's account, like the others, was given separately to Gambit but jibes with Curry's. The lieutenant was carrying a pump-action shotgun with a flashlight on the end and he pointed it at the kids, says Tessier. When Tessier asked him why, Scheuermann didn't mention any ongoing narcotics investigation. 'He told me, 'They were lurking in the darkness,'' Tessier says.
To Tessier's wife, Nissa Tessier, the officers' rationale didn't match their actions. 'If the police were really fearing for people's safety, I don't know why they couldn't have accompanied the second line around the block,' she says. And they could've modified their approach, Kolinchak suggests. 'They could have said, 'We heard you're going to second-line and we have some concerns.''
When she walked back inside the bar, Nissa Tessier found other bar patrons also fearful -- and heavy-hearted. 'They were really disappointed that they couldn't celebrate a loved one's life by second-lining, something that's so much part of the community,' she says. Beverly Curry wipes a few tears from her cheek as she tries to explain the damage that's being done. "They're not letting us express our culture, follow our traditions," she says. "We mourn our people hard -- and now we're not going to be able to get that out of us. It really is sad."
- Cheryl Gerber
- ReBirth trumpeter Derrick 'Kabuki' Shezbie (center) says the NOPD's actions interrupted a longtime custom -- nightly second lines for recently departed musicians' friends. 'That tradition has been carried on for many years, since when Louis Armstrong was coming up,' says Shezbie. 'And long after I'm dead, I'm sure that tradition will still carry on.'