When it happened, Justin Harris was a teenage spyboy for the Wild Tchoupitoulas, clad in a suit of purple feathers.
He’d spent hours sewing beads onto canvas to create his apron, which bore the image of an Indian riding a bear. He could hardly wait to take part in St. Joseph’s Night, when suits like his seem to glow under the streetlights, he said.
Instead, on that night 10 years ago, Harris was surrounded by police officers who had their guns trained on him. All around him, New Orleans Police Department squad cars drove with sirens blaring and at high speeds, creating clouds of dust as their cars fishtailed through A.L. Davis Park in Central City, a traditional Mardi Gras Indian gathering spot on St. Joseph’s Night. Police forced Indians clad in their feathers to the ground, in a scene that was captured on video and witnessed by hundreds.
Today, that sort of hostility seems a world away, said Harris, now a third chief for the tribe.
“It’s changed,” he said. “The police are on our side now. There’s no humbug about it anymore.”
Indians say the current détente was forged over several years through the work of persistent Indian chiefs, police commanders and city officials, including Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who this week described the events that occurred a decade ago as disheartening.
“That was a real low point for us,” he said.
The mayor played tambourine with Mardi Gras Indians during his inaugural gala and, from the moment he took office, worked to remain in sync with the tribes, hammering out a consensus between members and police commanders and continuing to hold regular meetings like the luncheon he hosted right before Carnival “to make sure that the chiefs had everything they needed.”
For decades, there had been chronic flare-ups between Indians and police.
On Mardi Gras, officers often ordered Indians to remove their masks after 6 p.m., citing a nonexistent law. During the annual Super Sunday parades, the processions would drag on beyond their appointed time, leading to disputes. The worst clashes usually happened on St. Joseph’s Night, which is celebrated every March 19. It is a Catholic feast day adopted as a holiday by the Indians, who travel their community streets drumming, chanting, visiting honored neighbors and facing off with other tribes in the early evening hours.
Yet no one expects any trouble Thursday when the tribes come out to celebrate.
“It’s a real turnaround from where we were. And it took a lot of work — and actual conversation,” civil rights lawyer Mary Howell said.
In the wake of the 2005 incident, Bertrand Butler, director of the Mardi Gras Indian Council, requested help from the city’s civil rights lawyers, including Howell, who helped to create a group of legal observers that monitor each Indian event in neon green baseball caps.
There was a breakthrough on St. Joseph’s Night in 2010 when NOPD commander Robert Bardy created pedestrian zones for Indians and spectators near A.L. Davis Park, which his officers patrolled on foot.
There were isolated flare-ups and arrests downtown and on the West Bank in 2010 and 2011. But in recent years, there have been no complaints at all.
Big Chief Howard Miller, of the Creole Wild West, who is also president of the Indian Council, credits Bardy, now the department’s deputy chief, for being the first 6th District commander to actually sit down with Indians in Central City.
“Before Bardy, I never had a friendly encounter with police commanders,” Miller said. “They didn’t want to sit down with us.”
Bardy says he’s extremely proud of how things have changed, but he shrugs off the plaudits.
“It was a listening deal, coming to a common table,” he said. “Listening to what the needs are.”
What became known as the St. Joseph’s Night debacle was “shocking to so many people, partly because the incident was filmed,” said Howell, referencing a video by photographer L.J. Goldstein showing the Comanche Hunters tribe walking, drumming and chanting while officers pointed at the big chief and yelled, “Get him off the street.”
The chief, Keith “Keke” Gibson, remembered how hard he’d worked on that year’s purple and silver two-tone suit. So when he first heard the orders, he ignored them and kept walking.
“I wasn’t going to take it off,” he said this week. “I was going to stand up for my rights.”
He tried to stop and reason with an officer, tried to explain what St. Joseph’s Night meant to Indians. He pointed to his beaded apron, which was a self-portrait of a chief walking the streets of the city with his tribe, with his spyboy and flagboy in the front to spot nearby tribes.
But the officer just shook his head. Using profanity, he told Gibson that he didn’t want to hear about tradition. Either take off the suit or go to jail, he said.
Gibson looked at his son, who was 14 and had tears welling up in his eyes. He begged his father to remove his suit. And Gibson listened.
For those who knew the Indian tradition, that moment was held up as borderline heresy.
“Here were officers ordering a chief to remove his crown,” Howell said. “It was a last straw.”
Hearing about the fracas, Yellow Pocahontas Big Chief Darryl Montana drove to the park with Butler, who left the car to talk with 6th District Capt. Anthony Cannatella. Then Montana heard an officer shout, “Shoot,” and he ducked behind the car’s metal window partition, bracing for gunfire. In the end, Butler and his daughter were arrested but released with a summons. Police contended that Butler kneed Cannatella in the groin; Butler and Montana dispute that.
Afterward, there were no public apologies. The NOPD refused to turn over the security videotapes from the park that it said exonerated its officers. Mayor Ray Nagin’s office offered no explanation.
The Indians demanded a hearing. “It was a big deal, a potential powder keg,” said Oliver Thomas, who was on the City Council then and recalled this week how he had tried to resolve the situation behind the scenes. “It was on the city. It was the city’s responsibility to fix it,” he said.
Finally, Thomas set a council hearing for June 27. Indians felt like it was a victory that the hearing had materialized at all. Montana remembers leaving work that afternoon and telling a co-worker, “We’re going to make history tonight.”
But history took a tragic turn. Before a packed council chamber, Montana’s father, Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana, spoke first, as the senior chief in the room. He recounted how, over the years, police had swung billy clubs at Indians, sicced dogs on them.
“I want this to stop,” he said, and then collapsed and died.
Thomas suspended the hearing. A few months later, Katrina struck.
Observers point to two moments at City Hall that led to the transformation, one through the City Council and one through the office of newly elected Mayor Landrieu.
Early in Landrieu’s administration, the Mayor’s Office hosted a long meeting where Indian chiefs and NOPD commanders hashed out their differences. Then Scott Hutcheson and Asante Salaam, from the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Economy, began working to fix the strained relationship, piece by piece. Indian advocate Alison McCrary along with James Carter, the mayor’s criminal justice coordinator, also played key roles.
In February 2012, after the Indians told Councilwoman Susan Guidry that they didn’t feel like they had closure from the hearing that ended in Tootie Montana’s death, she invited Indian chiefs along with all eight of NOPD’s district commanders and the department’s deputy chief to a meeting of the criminal justice committee, which she chaired.
There, police pledged not to use sirens or lights to push Indians off the street. If officers needed Indians to yield to traffic or address another concern, they pledged to get out of the car and speak to the chief in person, not to issue orders over their cars’ loudspeakers. New recruits also would learn about the Indian tradition in the academy, NOPD brass promised.
Though there were suggestions that Indians get a permit or follow a prescribed route, Guidry rejected that in favor of the philosophy of Jerome Smith, founder of the Tambourine and Fan youth organization.
“You cannot police a bird,” Smith testified.
‘More helpful than harmful’
Darryl Montana’s phone now rings like clockwork on Mardi Gras morning, usually just after he’s packed his suit in his truck and is headed to his mother’s house in the 7th Ward. It’s Commander Christopher Goodly, who heads up NOPD’s 5th District and is known for checking in with the chiefs in his district to see if they need escorts anywhere and to remind them that he’s just a phone call away.
Similarly, Big Chief Gerard “Bo” Dollis Jr., of the Wild Magnolias, got a text early on Fat Tuesday from 6th District Commander Ronnie Stevens. He offered to send an escort if the tribe was still headed downtown despite the weather.
Around 6 p.m. Thursday, when Dollis arrives at the corner of Second and Dryades streets, he knows what he’ll see.
“They’ll have police there already, waiting for us,” he said. “Probably two cars and two horses.” While the tribe is on Dryades, the police will keep the crowd back. And when they move toward A.L. Davis Park, police will ride ahead, clearing the way for them.
It’s the way things are with the NOPD today, Dollis said. “They’re more helpful than harmful.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed March 19 to correct the spelling of the late NOPD Capt. Anthony Cannatella’s last name.