On June 27, the 82-year-old big chief suffered a fatal heart attack while speaking at a New Orleans City Council hearing. Since that time, dignitaries and cultural activists have debated how best to honor Montana. Some suggested naming a street after him, erecting a statue or even building a museum. But before city officials appear at a bronze-pouring or cut any ribbons, they should deal with the most obvious matter at hand: honoring Montana by ensuring that Mardi Gras Indians are never again disrespected on the streets of New Orleans.
That was the issue that prompted Montana to appear at City Hall on June 27. He spoke at a special hearing convened to address police behavior on March 19 -- St. Joseph's night, a traditional holiday for the town's Indian gangs ("St. Joseph's Night Gone Blue," March 29). Bystanders described squad cars driving at high speeds, spinning in circles, sirens blaring. They said New Orleans Police Department officers told highly respected big chiefs to remove their "f--king feathers." Many of the witnesses' accounts were verified by local photographer L.J. Goldstein's video footage, viewed by Gambit Weekly, which shows officers driving at high speeds near crowds that include children. A photo taken by visiting photographer Andy Levin shows two officers putting a brutal hold on Victor Sims, son of the highly esteemed Big Chief Victor Harris, who served as Montana's flag boy for 20 years before starting his own gang, Fi Yi Yi.
On the night of his death, Montana told council members that police harassment of Indians was nothing new. On previous occasions, he had discussed it in interviews ("Why Mess With Me?" July 5) and fought it politically. In fact, in 1994, Montana had appeared in the same council chamber to ask why, on Mardi Gras afternoon, NOPD officers consistently hosed down Orleans Street, the rendezvous point for Indians and other black Mardi Gras groups. In past years, Montana had encountered officers standing shoulder to shoulder, billy clubs in the air, in order to block the path of approaching Indian gangs. The 1994 council responded by proclaiming its official support of the Mardi Gras Indians.
But on June 27, here was Montana, 11 years later, standing at the same podium and speaking to the same issue. He first called the other chiefs in the room to stand behind him, and then began to describe the harassment that Indians had suffered at the hands of NOPD. "I want this to stop," he said, looking at council members and top police officials. Then Montana collapsed and was rushed to Charity Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The hearing was recessed immediately.
Montana's work is not finished. "When he died at the microphone, his sentence was incomplete," said longtime Treme Community Center director Jerome Smith, speaking at Montana's funeral. Indians and council members are reportedly discussing dates for another hearing. But NOPD needs to bring more to that meeting than personnel. It needs to bring answers. Why, for instance, were hours of police activity deemed necessary in light of the paltry results -- one summons and two arrests -- this past St. Joseph's night? How many squad cars and how much manpower was devoted to A.L. Davis Park? How many individuals were detained in a squad car, then released at the end of the night without being charged? NOPD promised sensitivity training for officers, but at Gambit Weekly press time, spokeswoman Jonette Williams said she could not provide information to show that the department has kept that promise.
Mayor Ray Nagin, too, should help resolve this issue. The mayor rightfully spoke at Montana's funeral, calling him "this great man, Tootie Montana." Yet Nagin never addressed the fact that Montana had died in his City Hall, where the big chief spoke without the mayor's support. In fact, a few days after St. Joseph's night, Nagin publicly supported the police, saying that surveillance video from the park showed no inappropriate behavior by officers. If that video is definitive, the mayor should make it public. Williams says that to her knowledge, it has not yet been released.
Tootie Montana's legacy as a cultural icon and a respected citizen is undisputed. Now, city and police officials should acknowledge his legacy by implementing policies and safeguards to protect Mardi Gras Indians from future mistreatment. For this city's culture to thrive, official New Orleans must better understand traditional New Orleans.