video courtesy of Zudie
This week's episode of HBO’s ‘Treme’ 'Knock With Me, Rock With Me' revisited the second line parade back in October 2007 when musicians Glenn David Andrews and Derrick Tabb were arrested. I was at that second line and watched the entire debacle go down. While I think the show did a pretty good job dramatizing the incident - not that it needed any additional dramatization - I’m a believer that fact is more often than not stranger than fiction. Especially when you live in New Orleans.
I’d like to share with you some details that weren’t covered in the episode’s re-enactment.
(more below the jump!)
That night, I was sitting in my living room when I heard the sounds of a brass band playing. When you live in Treme and hear a brass band at night, its usually a sign that someone important in the community has died which means that the second line will be an emotionally powerful event. I immediately threw on my sandals and ran outside to find the parade.
I joined up with the group of about 75 folks on Governor Nichols. We turned the corner at Robertson and got all the way to the old Caldonia music hall when a police car came zooming toward us coming the wrong way down the one way street. It ran up on the curb in front of us and screeched to a halt. Officer Frank Robertson jumped out of the car and began screaming at the crowd to stop the music.
I was very familiar with this cop. Frank Robertson was the Quality Of Life officer for my area of the First District. I’ve always been active in my NONPAC (New Orleans Neighborhood Policing Anti-Crime Council) and had become friendly with both Frank and his superior Captain Colin. Frank was usually an affable guy in a small town Andy Griffith cheery sort of way. But this was a different Frank that night, yelling and becoming emotionally unglued before our eyes. However it was post-Katrina New Orleans and people everywhere were losing their sh*t all the time. You learned to just breath and let them click out - lest you get caught up emotionally and end up going south with them.
Frank told Rebirth’s Phil Frazier that we didn’t have a parade permit and had to shut the second line down. Incredulous, Phil tried explaining that the parade was for his brother Kerwin James who had just died. Frank was immune to reason. He told us we couldn’t be on the streets parading without a permit.
During this heated exchange between Phil and Frank, the music is still going loud and strong Rebirth style. I could see the mounting disgust clouding Phil’s face. And then, a decision. He turned with his sousaphone and led the paraders to a vacant lot across the street, now the site of Tuba Fats Square. Musician, part-time resident, and lover of all things Treme John Richardson from London, England owned that lot and we knew we had carte blanche permission to be on it anytime we wanted.
Officer Frank Robertson had just been outwitted. And thus became furious. He immediately called for back up, then stormed over and began handcuffing musicians. The song the band was playing fell apart as people in the crowd, shocked to see a cop manhandling musicians, went from singing to vocalizing outrage. At which point cop cars seeming to come from every corner of the city descended on us. I counted at least 25 police cars all around us, sirens blaring. All there at the behest of Officer Robertson. Because musicians were parading in Treme.
I’d met several of these cops at the NONPAC meetings. The police force had been recently purged of cops that had abandoned their post during the storm or had been caught looting in its aftermath. These were all new cops: young, mostly white, looking fresh scrubbed and like they hailed from disaster-free places like Oregon and Kansas and Minnesota. As they got out of their cars, you could see their eyes assessing the bizarre situation. They were dumbfounded to see members of bands they’d recently come to recognize and enjoy, like Rebirth and the Prince of Treme Glenn David Andrews, being arrested. The officers all positioned themselves in front of their cars almost military style - but none of them were willing to participate in Frank’s arresting rampage. And while they wouldn’t engage the furious paraders who by now were cursing and loudly criticizing the NOPD, the looks on the young officer’s faces said it all. Theirs were expressions of masked embarrassment.
At that time, I decided I’d had enough and went up to Frank and asked him what the hell he was doing? “We moved off the street like you said Frank. So now what laws are being broken?” He responded, “There are always criminals and murderers at these events and there are some at this one too. You don’t know cause you’re new here." He was talking loud enough for the new hires to hear, apparently trying to impress them with his ‘insider knowledge’ of the community. I was so stunned at his characterization of the paraders, I just stared at him speechless.
I returned home that night and jumped immediately on to my computer, firing off a furious email to Frank’s boss Captain Colin, detailing Frank’s behavior. I knew this was not something the Captain would condone. He has since retired but during his tenure I had come to know him as a conscientious and reasonable man, one who was sensitive to his responsibilities as a leader in this culturally-rich neighborhood that created jazz and musicians like Glenn David Andrews, Derrick Tabb and Phil Frazier.
I got a call the next day from my friend John Bagneris, a native New Orleanian born and raised in Treme’s Sixth Ward. He told me to meet him down on Robertson and St. Philip at 8pm. We were gonna finish the second line we’d started the night before.
I later learned that earlier that morning, John and former state representative and funeral home director Louis Charbonnet met with Captain Colin to discuss the incident. Both Louis and John are old school New Orleans, loyal to Treme and the indigenous culture of second lines and brass band music. They were granted a parade permit and police escort for the evening in exchange for $50 - far less than the normal $4,000+ second line fees clubs were forced to pay during those crazy post-Katrina days.
That night, Treme was packed. Hundreds of people turned out determined to preserve the second line tradition and to roll for Kerwin James the way Black New Orleanians have always done when a brass band musician dies. Included in the crowd were reporters and camera crews from every media outlet in town. The story of New Orleans second line culture being under siege by the NOPD was a story that would make local as well as national news.
In the following weeks, many eloquent editorials were written by folks like Lolis Elie, Jarvis Deberry, and Chris Rose. This was turning out to be a PR nightmare for the Nagin administration - back when it could be said that the former mayor cared about the public’s perception of him. Two weeks later, Police Superintendent Warren Riley called a press conference in front of Armstrong Park. Flanked by District Attorney Eddie Jordan and the City’s official cultural ambassador trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, Riley made the announcement that the district attorney’s office was dropping the charges against Andrews and Tabb. He also pledged that no musician would ever be arrested in Orleans Parish for playing his horn. Now of course, all this was political theatre. No ordinance was erected to transform this declaration into law. But for the time, it sufficed to close the chapter on this notorious fiasco.
I never received a response to my email complaint from Captain Colin. He retired soon after the incident. At his final NONPAC meeting, we had cake, speeches, and hugs for him. And Frank Robertson had been quietly removed from the Quality of Life detail for my section of Treme. A few years later, I ran into him working detail at the Iberville Housing Projects. Gone that day was the affable Andy Griffith-like disposition, a brooding scowl had taken its place. Today he serves as an official spokesperson for NOPD.
Over the years, I’ve reflected often on this incident. One thing that’s always stuck out in my mind about that night, that’s different from the show’s portrayal, was that it was a single officer’s action that triggered this marker in our city’s history, a crossroads moment that reveals the tenuous relationship between our cultural traditions and political policies. And that this officer who showed such disdain for our precious unique indigenous African American tradition is himself Black. This is not written to heap scorn on the guy. I think he, like so many of us during that time, was probably suffering PTSD and got caught up in a moment that took him away from ration and reason. But I also think it points to an attitude I see exhibited far too often by those in leadership in New Orleans: the value of culture and tradition is often missed by those lucky enough to be born closest to it. I mean, why come back here and go through the excruciatingly painful and laborious process of rebuilding if not to be able to recapture and preserve our culture and traditions? Otherwise, we all could have all just stayed in Dallas and Atlanta.