St. Joseph's Night Gone Blue

On Saturday, March 19 -- St. Joseph's night -- Mardi Gras Indians were dancing and singing their way over to A.L. Davis park. Then came the sirens.



Bryian is 11, Justin 17. He carries a hatchet carved of wood and decorated with feathers. On their aprons, purple and pink feathers surround beadwork images -- Pocahontas (hers) and an Indian riding a bear (his). The two are spygirl and spyboy for the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indian gang.

Bryian Fluker's grandfather, John Ellis, made her suit. Justin Harris made his own, finishing his homework and then spending hours hooking tiny beads into canvas.

But on Saturday, March 19, New Orleans Police Department officers ordered Bryian and Justin -- and hundreds of other local Mardi Gras Indians -- to remove their Indian suits or face arrest.

Consistent reports came from Indians and from spectators who'd gathered Uptown near A.L. Davis Park to watch the century-old St. Joseph's night Indian celebration. NOPD officers, they say, drove at high speeds on crowded streets, used foul language, and treated people roughly. One big chief's son, who alleges that he was manhandled by police officers that night, suffered tissue damage in his arm and is facing surgery.

Among the Indians in the streets were highly respected chiefs who have celebrated St. Joseph's night in their handmade suits for more than 30 years. Old or young, Indians say they were given two choices: "Take off your f--ing feathers or go to jail."

Much of their accounts is supported by a video taken by local photographer L.J. Goldstein, who annually follows Indians on St. Joseph's night. This year, Goldstein was trying out his new digital video camera. Late last week, Gambit Weekly viewed the resulting footage.

NOPD spokesman Lt. Marlon Defillo says he welcomes the opportunity to see that video. At this point, Defillo asserts, the department has viewed video from surveillance cameras in the park and interviewed officers. They've found nothing, he says, to support allegations of irresponsible driving, foul language and disrespectful treatment. "The commander of the Sixth District, Captain Anthony Canatella, was out there and saw nothing of the sort," says Defillo.

Police that night told people that the crackdown was prompted by a call about an Indian in pink feathers carrying a gun. Defillo confirmed that a caller reported "someone dressed in pink regalia," but that officers never found that person. Nor did they find any weapons at all.

According to Defillo, the final tally for that night's arrests in and surrounding A.L. Davis Park was two -- a young woman charged with damage to public property and another person charged with public intoxication. Longtime Indian representative Bertrand Butler was also given a summons after he approached Canatella to ask about the reasons for the crackdown. Some witnesses say that 60-year-old Butler spoke to the captain and was then roughed up by officers; NOPD officers say that Butler kicked Canatella in the groin.

By about 7 p.m. that evening, Wild Tchoupitoulas spygirl Bryian was in tears -- "heartbroken," says her grandfather. Together, they stood in the parking lot of the New Look bar (formerly Kemp's). Across the street in the park, they saw flashing police lights and chaos -- squad cars steering in circles, "driving like crazy, smoke coming up from their tires," says Ellis.

Carol Harris, mother of spyboy Justin, had just parked her Ford Escort, walked to the New Look with Justin, and gotten Justin dressed when NOPD officers drove up. They ordered the kids to take off their suits, put them in the car and go home, she says. That launched a tense night for Harris. At one point, when Big Chief Keith "Keke" Gibson and the Comanche Hunters passed by, Justin couldn't take it -- he threw on his suit and went with them. Harris followed, but was stopped by two officers and lost sight of her son's purple feathers. She ran after him, only to see two young black men sitting in the back of a police car. Her heart sank, thinking one of them might be Justin. It wasn't.

Harris emphasizes that her son is not someone who disrespects law-enforcement officers. In fact, she says, Justin's late father was Raymond Reed, a decorated NOPD officer. As a child, Justin helped deliver mail in police headquarters. Now, a decade later, he's a teenager who spends much of his free time with a needle and a thread. On Sunday afternoons, he learns traditional Indian songs at the Indian practices that lead up to Mardi Gras.

So Justin found it unfair that he and Bryian should have to remove their suits. "Why am I being punished for doing something right?" he asked.

Neither Carol Harris nor John Ellis knew how to answer. Both the spyboy's mom and the spygirl's grandfather had been coming to St. Joseph's night for decades. Now they stood facing Lasalle Street, stunned. "Indians were still coming from all over, four or five this way, four or five that way," says Ellis.

Each group of tall feathers was followed closely by NOPD squad cars, which herded the Indians along, Ellis says, sirens wailing, buzzers pulsing, loudspeakers blaring -- "Get out of the street. Clear the street."

EVERY ST. JOSEPH'S NIGHT, each Indian carries a flashlight, which reflects off nearby sequins, beads and feathers. "Even the worst Indian suits look beautiful at night," says 24-year-old Bo Dollis Jr., who fell in love with St. Joseph's night as a 10-year-old who had just made his first Indian suit.

For Mardi Gras Indians, three dates matter most: Mardi Gras Day, St. Joseph's night, and Super Sunday.

The origin of the evening is unclear. Some chiefs say that the night following St. Joseph's Day, a feast day during Lent, was a natural time for Indians to celebrate in this very Catholic town. Others say that Catholic and Italian storeowners and restaurateurs would celebrate St. Joseph's Day at their establishments and that Indians began traveling from place to place in their suits, eating and drinking and celebrating. However it started, they say, St. Joseph's night has been an Indian tradition for more than a century.

At one point, before the Super Sunday parades began, Indians donned their suits for two dates: Mardi Gras Day and St. Joseph's night. Larry Bannock, longtime big chief of the Golden Star Hunters, explains: "Back in the days, St. Joseph's night meant more, because it was the last day you would wear your suit. The next day you'd destroy that suit and start all over."

Today, some Mardi Gras Indians sell their suits to museums. Others, like Dollis, wear them all year, performing on stages around the world and locally at events like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. This year, Dollis and his gang performed at the White House on Mardi Gras Day. But St. Joseph's night is still important -- it gives Indians a chance to show off the baubles and beadwork they didn't quite finish by the time the rooster crowed on Mardi Gras morning.

Big Chief Keith "Keke" Gibson started masking when he was 15 and has known about St. Joseph's night since he was "a little bitty baby." He says that March 19 is considered a makeup date for gangs that didn't see each other during Carnival. "If the tribes don't meet up on Mardi Gras Day, they make it necessary to meet up on St. Joe's, to show off their suit to each other, see who's prettiest, who can out-talk each other."

Indians from gangs all over town start out St. Joseph's night in their neighborhoods and then walk or ride in trucks to A.L. Davis Park. If they walk, they follow specific rules. "Each Indian has a flashlight, they walk in a single file and stay to the right and don't stop traffic," says Ronnie Baham, known as Big Chief Buck of the Seventh Ward Warriors.

Whatever happens, Indians know one thing -- follow your big chief. In fact, entire communities look up to that chief, explains Howard Miller, First Chief for the Creole Wild West, a gang from the Seventh Ward. "The neighborhood looks up to you as being their leader, not only of the tribe you may be leading," he says.

Which made the crackdown on St. Joseph's night especially offensive to many New Orleanians. "What, are these new police?" asked Dwane Franklin, a 35-year-old woman who grew up across the street from A.L. Davis Park, where each year neighbors barbecue and host friends for St. Joseph's. This year, she says, officers cursed out Indians in front of them and then told her family and her guests to get the f--k off the corner or they'd put everyone in the paddy wagon.

Indian representative Bertrand Butler explains that, in the past, Indians had frequent and cordial meetings with former Sixth District Capt. Mike Ellington. For every event, they even had the cell-phone number for a specified lieutenant-in-charge. Not so with Canatella, says Butler, who took charge of the Sixth a few years ago and has refused to meet with them. Defillo says that the fault lies with the Indians, who didn't contact NOPD this year.

There has been a lot of speculation about the NOPD officers who traveled to A.L. Davis Park on March 19. Were they simply unaware of Indian customs? If so, why? Among those asking questions is Councilman Oliver Thomas, whose family helped form the Ninth Ward Hunters. "Indian is a way of life in my family," said Thomas in a community meeting that was held to address the problems of St. Joseph's night.

Other elected officials have also reached out to the Indians. "And we know the mayor is aware," says Big Chief Howard Miller. As part of his inauguration, Mayor Ray Nagin hired Indians to parade right behind the carriage that took him from St. Louis Cathedral. As a result, many Indians were dejected when the mayor wasted no time after St. Joseph's night to voice his support of the NOPD. "The mayor went in with the heartbeat of New Orleans -- a second-line band and the Mardi Gras Indians," says Miller. "But now he has no use for them."

BY THE TIME THERESA CRUSHSHON arrived Uptown, A.L. Davis Park was locked and dark. "Consider 65 pounds on your back and you've walked all the way from Mid-City. It was frustrating," says Crushshon, who sewed on her suit for more than two years and spent more than $8,000 on it.

Indians say that materials for one suit run approximately $3,000 to $10,000 each year. With that price tag comes some caution. Indians won't even walk between two closely parked cars for fear of tearing up their handiwork. "Anytime you put all that time into sewing a suit, you're not going to go out and act the fool," says Crushshon.

They say that they didn't see that caution from the officers in blue. Indians from every ward in New Orleans have stories about the chaos they witnessed -- unnecessary chaos, says Seventh Ward Warrior Big Chief Ronnie Baham. Baham explains that any chief would have supported officers who were actually searching for someone with a weapon. "We would've cooperated with them 100 percent," he says. "Because no chief tells their Indians to go out and fight. We tell them, 'Avoid trouble. If there's trouble, let the chief handle it.'"

There always have been a few Indians who will hide a gun in their clothes or wrap a real hatchet in feathers -- but violence is definitely frowned upon, says Alphonse Robair, who carries the flag for the Red Hawk Hunters. "In the old days, it used to be about trouble, used to be bad. Now it's about beauty -- it's like a fashion show," says Robair, who was ordered off the street on St. Joseph's night while he was standing with his 1-year-old daughter Payton in a matching lime-green suit.

For years, there have been no reports of incidents caused by Indians. Except one. Bannock explains that several years ago, an Indian hit another with an actual hatchet. That Indian, he says, was sanctioned by the Mardi Gras Indian Council and is no longer allowed to parade in Council events. "In our bylaws, it states that any Indian who draws a weapon against another Indian will be banished from the Mardi Gras Indians."

A.L. Davis Park neighbor Dwane Hunter says that she saw no guns that night and has found no other neighbor who did. She says that police clearly overreacted to a call about one weapon. Her 3-year-old son Da-juan has seen police and sirens plenty of times before, she says, but the police that night were so aggressive that he couldn't stop crying. "Policemen were talking to us like we were dogs and trash," says Hunter.

"They were real awful about it," says Big Chief Keith "Keke" Gibson, who says he became the focus of that disrespect when he tried to explain the St. Joseph's tradition to officers.

In L.J. Goldstein's video, Gibson can be seen with his gang chanting and drumming down the street. Their sequins are glimmering, their feathers shimmering in the faint light. Then, on Washington Avenue, about a block from Lasalle Street, several squad cars drive up, sirens blaring, and ordered everyone out of the street. Gibson signals for calm and tries to talk. But one officer starts yelling loudly: "Get him out of the street now. Get off the street."

Gibson says that he then went off to the side, where he once again attempted to talk with an officer about the tradition: "He said he didn't want to hear a f--king thing about tradition; get off the street because you don't have a permit." Gibson says that he has been parading for about 20 years and has never needed a permit to parade on St. Joseph's night.

"They crowded me and said, 'Take the f--king uniform off or you're going to jail,'" he says. So Gibson said, "I'm going to jail tonight." But then his son, who was standing nearby, got tears in his eyes and said, "Daddy, please take the suit off." So Gibson removed his suit.

Soon afterward, the officers apparently got another call. Goldstein's video shows squad cars hitting the gas hard as they back up and turn around, heading to another location. One officer even rolled across the hood of his car in an effort to speed his exit.

Spectator Michelle Longino says she was startled see 25 police cars "screaming" down Simon Bolivar's neutral ground. "They were going so fast, it was frightening," she says.

Those sorts of shenanigans happened all night long, says Golden Star Hunter Big Chief Larry Bannock. "You saw police backing up in the middle of the street, driving fast, spinning the cars around, rolling and sliding across their cars," Bannock says. "I thought they were filming The Dukes of Hazzard."

  • Andy Levin
Bryian, an 11-year-old spygirl for the Wild Tchoupitoulas - Mardi Gras Indian gang, was "heartbroken" after being - ordered to remove her suit on St. Joseph's night, says her - grandfather, John Ellis. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Bryian, an 11-year-old spygirl for the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indian gang, was "heartbroken" after being ordered to remove her suit on St. Joseph's night, says her grandfather, John Ellis.

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