Bo Dollis Jr. performed at the White House for Mardi Gras this year. But he was back on the streets of New Orleans for St. Joseph's night -- March 19 -- one of the most important holidays for Mardi Gras Indians. This year, however, the New Orleans Police Department put a halt to St. Joseph's night in a manner that has raised many questions and garnered few answers ("St. Joseph's Night Gone Blue," March 29).
That night, Dollis says, he was out with members of the Creole Wild West near A.L. Davis Park. Suddenly, he says, NOPD officers showed up in squad cars, cursing at him and other Indians, and telling them to get off the street. The behavior struck a bad note with Dollis, who, like many Indians in the crowd, travels the world in his handmade suit. "We go other places and get all kinds of respect," says Dollis. "We come to our hometown and we can't get one night."
That complaint was heard frequently at the community meeting held at A.L. Davis Park on the Monday after St. Joseph's Day. Over and over, the same point was made: The city uses its Mardi Gras Indians to promote New Orleans cultural tourism. But critics say the city's police force has become increasingly hostile to these cultural messengers on their traditional parades through the streets of the city. In the past, Indian representative Bertrand Butler says, Indians had frequent and cordial meetings with NOPD's Sixth District -- but those meetings broke off in recent years. The Indians and NOPD blame each other for the impasse.
NOPD spokesman Lt. Marlon Defillo also says that the police found no evidence to support allegations that squad cars drove at high speeds through crowded streets and that officers used foul language and rough treatment with everyone from venerable Indian chiefs to young spectators. But video footage obtained by Gambit Weekly from local photographer L.J. Goldstein shows disrespectful officers, driving at high speeds and ordering Indians off the street. Defillo also says that NOPD's crackdown stemmed from community groups that complained about an Indian "in pink regalia" carrying a gun. But he wouldn't name one of those community groups to help verify the account. He also didn't explain why officers didn't focus their attentions on searching Indians in pink suits rather than disbanding the entire event. He didn't reveal how many people were detained in police cars and were released without being charged. And he didn't explain why, according to Defillo's own data, hours of police activity in a crowd of hundreds yielded just one summons and two arrests -- one for public intoxication and another for damage to public property.
Mayor Ray Nagin says that surveillance video from the park showed no inappropriate behavior by officers. The mayor should make that footage public, because there is no shortage of onlookers with accounts of police insensitivity -- including First District Assessor Darren Mire, who was watching the scene near the intersection of Simon Bolivar and Jackson Avenue.
Last week, Gambit Weekly published a photo, taken by visiting photographer Andy Levin, of two officers putting a hold on 25-year-old Victor Sims, son of longtime Big Chief Victor Harris, who has led the Indian gang Fi Yi Yi for decades. According to Harris, the sidewalks were crowded with neighbors, forcing his son and two friends to walk in the street when an NOPD squad car turned the corner at high speed, narrowly missing them. Harris says the officers then stopped their car, told the young men that they should've moved more quickly, and grabbed Sims, the biggest of the three. Sims was eventually charged with public intoxication and resisting arrest. He says he sustained tissue damage in his arm and faces surgery in order to regain use of one hand.
Mardi Gras Indians embody the creativity that thrives on our streets. But Goldstein's video and its unbearably loud police sirens are the stuff of nightmares, says Jerome Smith, who helped to found the Super Sunday Indian parades and has worked with local children for three decades. "To these youngsters, it became a horror story they cannot forget -- all the people running and falling down, and at the same time, these sirens blasting in their ears."
Ironically, this year the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has added a new stage devoted to Indians and brass bands. But festivals can't become the only safe venue for this street culture. NOPD officers should be trained to recognize the importance of these artists and understand the structure of their organizations. The NOPD should also work with the Indians to monitor and safeguard their gatherings, not interrupt them. After all, it makes no sense to quash cultural arts at the same time that you're showcasing them. "Look at all the things that the people from the streets bring to New Orleans," says longtime Big Chief Larry Bannock. "Now you're going to take a pie and rub it in their face?"