The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) will allow Mardi Gras Indian tribes to parade relatively unimpeded during Carnival season and on St. Joseph's Day this year, top police officials said at a Feb. 6 meeting on police-Indian relations before the New Orleans City Council's Governmental Affairs Committee.
Among other concessions, NOPD formally agreed to end the controversial practice of ordering Indians off the street at 6 p.m. on Mardi Gras, which NOPD Deputy Superintendent Kirk Bouyelas said is not based in law. "There is no 6 p.m. law, no 6 p.m. rule," said Bouyelas, who appeared with Criminal Justice Commissioner James Carter as well as all eight NOPD district commanders.
District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry responded by polling the tribe members present as to whether they had either been subjected to or had witnessed others subjected to the practice. All responded in the affirmative.
"It is our right to be in our community at 6 o'clock," said Cherice Harrison-Nelson, Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society, in a phone interview several days after the meeting. "There's a legacy of them telling people to get off the street. That didn't start in 2005."
Antipathy between police and the Mardi Gras Indians reached an apex on March 19, 2005, when police raided a gathering of hundreds of Indians at A.L. Davis Park in Central City on St. Joseph's Night, ordering them to remove their Indian suits or be arrested, as recounted in a 2005 Gambit article by Katy Reckdahl. Three months later, "chief of chiefs" Yellow Pocahontas Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana collapsed and died in council chambers while addressing the council on police harassment of Indians.
Sixth District Commander Robert Bardy, whose Central City district was held up as the model for significantly improved relations between police and Mardi Gras Indians, said overall communication and cooperation had improved. "We have gone incident-free in the past two years of this administration," Bardy said. "We have had no incidents in Central City."
Still, Bardy and others conceded that there is still room for improvement, which is why NOPD will soon be inviting chiefs to help train incoming officers in the academy, Carter and Bouyelas said.
"We want to make sure that our officers are aware of the culture, that they're sensitive to it," Bouyelas said.
Harrison-Nelson told Gambit that police have a long history of targeting the Indians on flimsy or nonexistent pretexts. She recalled an incident last year when she and her tribe were gathered at a bar in full dress, preparing for the upcoming Carnival season, when she stepped outside to make a phone call. She said that after less than a minute outside, police told her to get back in the bar or she would be cited for loitering, a threat she said is fairly common for the groups while practicing.
"If you go to Indian practice, part of it is to line up," while suited up outside on a sidewalk, Harrison-Nelson said. "Because they're not culturally aware, they call it loitering." She added that similar standards don't seem to apply citywide. "If you drove Uptown, up to Tulane, you see all these people standing around outside. What's the difference?"
At the meeting, Creole Osceolas Chief Clarence Dalcour pointed out that, especially during Carnival season, costumed people are allowed to be on the streets all night without having to worry about police intervention. He asked that police simply treat Indians as they do parade krewes and other late-night revelers.
"We look at this as something we do for the community," Dalcour said. "We are all paying tribute to the holiday in our own way. ... I don't understand how it closes when the sun goes down for some people and not others."
Asked by Guidry and District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer (the only committee members present at the meeting) to commit not to enforce a 6 p.m. curfew on Mardi Gras Indians, Bouyelas balked, saying there needed to be further discussion prior to Mardi Gras and mentioning "permit issues." Bouyelas' mention of permits drew an angry response from chiefs who pointed out that permits would necessitate tribes sticking to a specific, pre-determined route. Chiefs at the meeting explained that Indian tribes are engaged in a type of stylized "war game," essentially a modified version of hide-and-seek. A permit requirement would undermine the entire tradition.
"There will be no permit. There's never been a permit," Guidry said. Asked later by Palmer if police would commit to promising that "they won't be shut down at 6 p.m.," all present NOPD officials finally agreed.
Bouyelas said NOPD had also agreed to stop following and corralling the tribes with their cars and not to flash their lights or sound their sirens at Mardi Gras Indians, allowing chiefs more autonomy to police their own tribes, which was welcome news to many present. Bouyelas also promised to identify and give out contact information for someone in the department who will act as a point person for complaints about NOPD harassment of Indians on Mardi Gras and St. Joseph's Day.
"We're working to make sure everyone has a great day. ... We're one big family," said Darryl Montana, the son of Tootie Montana and chief of the Yellow Pocahontas.
According to civil rights attorney Mary Howell, who spoke at the meeting, former NOPD Deputy Superintendent Marlon Defillo filled the role of point person through last year. But Defillo retired in July 2011 in the midst of negligence allegations surrounding the internal investigation of the post-Katrina police killing of Henry Glover.
"We need someone who gets it," Howell said.
Harrison-Nelson told Gambit that she has followed up with 5th District Commander Christopher Goodly since the meeting. "I made it perfectly clear to him that we just want to do what we do and I'm not looking for the police to come after me with flashing lights," she said, adding Goodly seemed accommodating. She hopes the same is true throughout the department.
"I'm optimistic but I'm a realist," she said. "I'll confirm my optimism on Ash Wednesday."