NEW IBERIA — This year’s 73rd Sugar Cane Festival in New Iberia could be the fun, five-day fête it was intended to be — assuming it isn’t marred yet again by violent clashes between police and black revelers on the city’s west end.
Two incidents during festivals since 2006 have led to one deputy being fired and to federal lawsuits being filed against the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office, which is the sole police force in New Iberia.
The law enforcement agency is likely to draw especially close scrutiny during this year’s festival in the wake of the fatal shooting in March of Victor White III. His death was ruled a suicide by the Parish Coroner’s Office, provoking outrage from his family and others who don’t believe he shot himself in the back of a deputy’s squad car.
The Sheriff’s Office has been sued over separate incidents at Sugar Cane Festivals seven years apart, with plaintiffs claiming deputies were overly aggressive in their crowd-control tactics.
The incidents included the tear-gassing of a group of festivalgoers in 2006. And a grainy video surfaced last year showing a deputy hitting a kneeling, handcuffed man at the festival, an incident that, as with White’s case, has prompted a federal investigation.
Both festival-related incidents occurred on Hopkins Street at its intersections with Robertson and Field and Lombard streets, where Moore’s soul food restaurant sits and where Gator’s Barbecue used to be. The area is home to a predominately black population.
Neither Sheriff Louis Ackal nor Mayor Hilda Curry would comment on past years’ flare-ups or this year’s public safety plans, but two black City Council members and some residents say sheriff’s deputies have deployed heavy-handed tactics that go beyond what is reasonably needed for crowd control.
“You can’t have people scared of police,” said Edward “Gator” Walker, a black New Iberia resident who was part of a federal lawsuit filed after the 2006 tear gas incident.
The Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office isn’t saying much publicly about how it plans to keep the peace at this year’s Sugar Cane Festival, which runs Sept. 24-28.
“We’re going to handle any issue accordingly,” Capt. Ryan Turner, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, said last week. He declined to say more about the agency’s plans.
David Merrill, one of three black City Council members in New Iberia, said the Sugar Cane Festival incidents, along with White’s shooting in March, are local reflections of the racial strife in the United States, most recently rising to national prominence in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Something has to change in light of these situations all over the country,” Merrill said.
The Sugar Cane Festival honors an industry that has employed much of the parish for more than a century. Festivities are spread out over the city, with most events in the city’s picturesque downtown, on La. 14 near U.S. 90 where retail commerce thrives, or on Bayou Teche, where a boat parade will run.
Merrill said an initiative started a few years ago gave some in the predominately black section that includes Hopkins Street an opportunity to make some money from the event. Liquor and food permits were issued to vendors in the area as a way to spread the wealth. That inclusion, along with the regular parties that spring up on Hopkins, made the area very crowded at night during the festival.
Last week, Walker and Councilman Raymond “Shoe-Do” Lewis gathered on Hopkins Street with other men and talked about the festival and past problems with law enforcement.
Both Walker and Lewis — his friends call him Shoe — recalled how deputies, in 2006, fired tear gas to disperse a crowd that had partied into the night. Lewis said he wasn’t there, though many of his constituents dialed his cellphone that night.
The sheriff at that time was Sid Hebert.
Walker said he was in the crowd that got hit with the gas. Walker also was one of many — men, women, children — who sued the Sheriff’s Office in federal court, a suit that eventually was dismissed.
He said the crowd in 2006 did nothing to provoke a response that warranted the use of tear gas.
But a federal court filing written by attorney Kenneth Henke for the Sheriff’s Office paints a different picture: As the crowd grew unruly, motorcycles weaved dangerously among stationary vehicles on a gridlocked Hopkins Street, prompting at least one frightened resident to call the Sheriff’s Office for help.
“The powder-keg volatility of the situation the deputies faced was still further evidenced by the undisputed fact that after the initial deployment of just two canisters of gas, many people in the crowd cursed at and charged the deputies and threw bottles at them,” Henke wrote.
Lewis said he straddles the fence when it comes to residents’ complaints versus police responses.
“I don’t agree or disagree with the (Sheriff’s Office responses). They’re out here handling that event,” said Lewis, whose District 5 includes Hopkins Street.
Last year, also on the festival’s second to last night, there was another violent incident. That Saturday night, as police were trying to disperse a crowd they said had grown unruly, a deputy reportedly hit a man who was handcuffed and kneeling while in police custody. The deputy was fired after a grainy video surfaced of the incident. The deputy never was identified and never has faced criminal charges.
According to an account in The Daily Iberian, last year Sheriff Ackal pulled in 60 extra police officers — 40 from other sheriffs’ offices along with 20 troopers and a personnel carrier from State Police — following the Saturday night disturbances and after receiving credible warnings of violence on the festival’s final night.
Walker said deputies on the final night last year blared sirens, scaring revelers who were further intimidated by heavily armed police in a personnel carrier.
“When they (police) come up here with force, it ain’t nothin’ pretty,” Walker said. “We were all out here with our kids. ... And now y’all starting to disrespect our ladies.”
Lewis said he neither agreed nor disagreed with Ackal’s response last year or the crowd’s reaction to police.
“At that time I said, ‘Do what you have to do to keep the city and the citizens safe,’ ” Lewis said. He also said he’s never seen deputies get overly rough with residents, “But in every rumor is a little bit of truth.”
Some festivalgoers who claim they were victims last year of overly aggressive police crowd control have filed at least four federal lawsuits that are in the process of being adjudicated.
The U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, Stephanie Finley, announced after the videotaped police beating last year that federal agents were investigating the Sheriff’s Office.
Finley also recently said FBI agents were probing the death of White, the young, black, handcuffed man whose death in police custody in March has provoked outrage.
The Iberia Parish Coroner’s Office has ruled White committed suicide by shooting himself in the side of his chest while his hands were bound behind him and after he had been searched at least once. White’s family doesn’t believe the story and has welcomed the Rev. Al Sharpton’s comments that the official explanation of his death belies common sense.
Finley’s office said recently the probes were proceeding.
Efforts to interview Mayor Curry were unsuccessful last week. A representative in her office said the Sheriff’s Office conducts law enforcement in the city and that she has little say-so in policing matters.
New Iberia dissolved its municipal police force in 2004 after a citywide vote. The vote left the Sheriff’s Office, traditionally the law in rural and unincorporated areas, as the only police force for the city.
“We’re not like Lafayette and a lot of other cities,” said Merrill, the city councilman. “We don’t have our own police department under the governing of the mayor. (Ackal) doesn’t have to discuss anything with us if he doesn’t want to.”
Merrill said the festival and the security provided by deputies would be discussed at the monthly City Council meeting on Tuesday.
Merrill also said the incidences of violence between black residents and law enforcement were disturbingly similar to events that sprung up after the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, Missouri, in which the unarmed teenager was shot by an officer. The Ferguson police force was widely criticized for deploying unnecessarily aggressive tactics in response to community protests after that shooting.
Although the majority of police officers are good, some are not, he said.
“There are some police officers that take their positions overboard. They should be reprimanded,” Merrill said.