As seven New Orleans police cars converged on the corner of Second and Dryades streets on Mardi Gras night, Big Chief James Harris of the Seminole Warriors grabbed for the five youngest members of his Mardi Gras Indian tribe, all of them younger than 6.
Holding up his feathered purple, green and yellow wing, Harris tried to slow the cars, but they kept moving through the thick crowd of parading Indians and spectators, sirens blaring and tires squealing.
Harris said he barely was able to pull the children to the sidewalk. “They were scared,” he said. “One ran this way and the other ran that way.”
Starting about 6 p.m., the police cars raced for at least 15 minutes, according to cell-phone video accounts, and officers insulted bystanders, spectators said.
The episode, which a police commander characterized as a routine effort to clear streets sparked by a neighbor’s complaint of Indians with guns, has stirred memories of the events of St. Joseph’s Night 2005, when officers sped through crowds and told Indian chiefs to remove their extravagant suits or go to jail.
With this year’s St. Joseph’s holiday approaching, the Mardi Gras incident has raised concerns about continuing police antagonism toward Indians and sparked fears about what might happen the next time tribes encounter local law enforcement officers.
Central City residents who questioned officers trying to break up the Mardi Gras street party said they were met with epithets, and longtime chiefs gathering at the corner said they were told they could not remain on the streets because they had no permits — a hot-button issue to Indians who maintain they shouldn’t need a permit to continue age-old traditions.
Like other Indians before them, Big Chief Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias and his longtime friend, Golden Eagles Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, said they have started and ended their tribes’ Mardi Gras celebrations at Second and Dryades streets for 50 years.
Sixth District police commander Maj. Robert Bardy called the episode “an isolated incident” and said allegations of high speeds and bad behavior by police officers would be “looked into and dealt with.” He said a nearby business owner may have called 911 to report that some Indians on the corner had guns.
But no neighbors interviewed had seen or heard of anyone with guns, and they questioned why officers reacted the way they did.
“Cars came from nowhere and they kept circling,” said Big Queen Rita Dollis.
“It was manic,” said Patrick Keen, a barber from nearby Brimmer’s Barbershop. When he asked an officer why they were circling the block, Keen said, the officer called him a crude name and complained that the Indians “are messing up my night.”
Two other men said they were treated unpleasantly by the same officer, said Keen, who said he walked up to Sgt. David Liang and asked to file a complaint. He said Liang ran a criminal check on Keen, finding nothing, before getting on his radio and describing the complaint, which Bardy said is being investigated.
Two days later, Indian representative Bertrand Butler and a dozen other people met with Bardy, who told them he didn’t know what had happened but would speak with his officers and report back, Butler said.
Bardy emphasized that it is unsafe to have anyone in the streets after dark, said Mardi Gras Indian Council President Howard Miller, who is also first chief of the Creole Wild West, the city’s oldest Indian tribe.
“I want to be fair about the whole thing,” said Miller, who has masked Indian for 40 years. “I think that instead of driving around with the sirens on, the police officers should have gotten out of their cars and said, ‘Hey, it’s nighttime, it’s a safety hazard, we need to get you out of the street."
Bardy shook his head at the suggestion. “It wouldn’t work,” he said, because people would just move to the next block. He supported the idea of moving people with cars, although not fast-moving ones and not in an impolite way, he said.
Indian chiefs said the experience on Mardi Gras night was an echo of what happened five years ago on St. Joseph’s night, one of the few occasions besides Mardi Gras when Indians wear their suits.
On that night in March 2005, Indians gathering at A.L. Davis Park were met with police cars driving at high speeds, then spinning around and revving their motors. In spectators’ accounts, corroborated by amateur videotapes, officers ordered chiefs to remove their “f---ing feathers.” One elderly chief said it looked like someone was “filming (an episode of) the ‘Dukes of Hazzard.’”
At the time, a police spokesman said the NOPD investigated and found the Indians’ complaints unsupported. The crackdown, he said, was prompted by a 911 call about “someone in pink regalia” carrying a gun. Officers never located such a person.
Chiefs who saw it as police harassment appealed to the City Council. But the council’s June 2005 hearing ended abruptly when revered Yellow Pocahontas Big Chief Tootie Montana collapsed at the podium from a fatal heart attack. His last words were: “I want this to stop.”
The comparison to 2005 is faulty, Bardy said. The Mardi Gras run-in “wasn’t a good incident, but it wasn’t like what happened before. And it’s not going to continue.”
Bardy displayed an award and three letters from the Indian Council thanking him for his district’s support and its “exemplary” work during the Indians’ last Super Sunday parade. “I relish those letters,” he said. “And I will get one for 2010.”
But Butler said the Indians want another City Council hearing. “We need to start again where we left off when Chief Tootie died,” he said.
Katy Reckdahl can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3396.