By Jackie Bang
One week ago, on the night of Wednesday, June 3, around 2000 Black Lives Matter protesters attempted to cross the Crescent City Connection Bridge. The night before, protesters had marched onto the I-10 silhouette by the last of the sunset chanting, “say his name, George Floyd! say her name, Breonna Taylor!” and carrying signs that demanded an end to police murders of Black people. And New Orleans police had knelt with them on the interstate, seeming to acknowledge the gravity of Black lives lost to police violence.
The NOPD behaved with great restraint throughout the week — as compared to the violent suppression of protests by law enforcement in other major cities — functioning primarily as an escort for scheduled daily marches from Duncan Plaza. The rest of the country rightly marveled at the lack of police violence against protestors in New Orleans, and it became common knowledge that a main difference between New Orleans and other major cities across the country is that New Orleans police are governed by the hard won federal oversight of “The Consent Decree” that emphasizes de-escalation and non-force compliance techniques.
But on Wednesday night, a thin line of New Orleans police in riot gear stopped Black Lives Matter protesters from crossing the Crescent City Connection. Behind the NOPD was another line of state troopers, and behind them a military tank. On the other side of the bridge, staged in a motel parking lot, were deputies from Jefferson Parish in case the peaceful march made it that far.
In the days after Hurricane Katrina, hurricane refugees in New Orleans tried to cross the Crescent City Connection Bridge but were turned back at rifle point by Jefferson Parish deputies and Gretna police who fired multiple rounds into the air. 15 years later, amidst a global pandemic, and national uprising against police murders of Black people, Black Lives Matter protesters who tried to cross were shot with military grade tear gas and six were arrested.
In a press conference Thursday morning, Mayor Cantrell gave New Orleans Police Superintendent Ferguson an opportunity to characterize the protest as “violent.” And during his talk which narrates footage police pulled from protester’s own social media — “What we’re looking at is a confrontation where the protestors are trying to force their way through the line” — Ferguson is clearly nonplussed by the tenacity of the march in its intention to cross the bridge even though police were standing in their way and told them not to, describing his own emotional state as “troubled” and “disheartened.” Ferguson clearly believes the arrests were an unfortunate necessity to maintain law and order. “We told the protesters that we would not allow them to cross the Crescent City Connection. And the protestors attempted to cross the Crescent City Connection by force,” he said matter of factly, as though the two thoughts summed up both the conflict and the inevitably of its resolution.
Solely due to “The Consent Decree” the actions of the NOPD Wednesday night will be reviewed by their federal monitor to determine if the deployment of tear gas on unarmed protesters, and as it turns out also rubber balls and sponge grenades was, as per the language of the decree, “reasonable.”
In the meantime we charge that it is police generally who have acted violently — nationwide — both historically and in the present moment and that the characterization of protests as violent or nonviolent has less to do with the actions of protesters than with re-actions of police.
In major cities throughout the US, in response to the horrific murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop and Tony McDade, and New Orleans’ own Modesto Reyes — and all of the names known and unknown that preceded them — in response to the mass uprising of citizens demanding police accountability, police across the country have, as one article described, “erupted in violence.”
In Seattle, police purposefully sprayed a young child in the face with pepper spray, and in New Orleans by way of spraying tear gas indiscriminately into the crowd of protesters en route to the Crescent Connection Wednesday night, as there were children present. In a week long fit of rage at the national protests for Black lives, police throughout the country have viciously beat people with their batons, notably this last Tuesday during the peaceful LGBTQ demonstration in memory of the Black and Brown trans women who rioted against police brutality at the Stonewall Inn in New York, June of 1969 — one activist at the memorial Tuesday who sustained a badly broken arm and head wounds that would require multiple staples was held in custody for 11 hours without a mask or medical attention; police have permanently scarred and injured people with rubber bullets and other non lethal projectiles, which of course brings to mind for us Standing Rock — one young Black man in Dallas protesting police murders has lost his eye; and finally, police have used excessive bodily force, which can’t help but remind us of the repeated and brutally violent arrests of Indigenous women leaders at L’eau Est La Vie Camp and throughout south Louisiana at various construction sites of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline.
So it begs the question: is policing a vocation of violence? And if so, is this violence in some way necessary to our lives? The answer can be found in a wave defunding police departments around the country — and in Minneapolis where this week the Third Precinct police station was lit like a paper effigy of itself and burnt to the ground — serious talk of their abolition.
So perhaps these uprisings have led us back through the twilight wards of New Orleans to that moment of hope in the 1970s when prison and police abolition seemed an attainable goal.
On Thursday, June 4th, New Orleans City Council member Jay Banks proposed a local ordinance against the use of tear gas by NOPD. That night, around 5000 protesters met in defense of Black lives at Duncan Plaza next to city hall to listen to local Black leaders speak. And then marched through the streets of New Orleans to police headquarters and the jail, many carrying signs that called for justice for Tony McDade — a Black trans man murdered two days after George Floyd by police in Florida — and nearly all chanting in chorus “Black Lives Matter! Say His Name, George Floyd! Say Her Name, Breonna Taylor! Say His Name, Modesto Reyes!” and also, not surprisingly given Wednesday night’s chemical attack on marchers en route to the Crescent Connection, and given the centuries of state sponsored police terror wrought on Black communities in New Orleans and throughout the country —
“Fuck the police!”
One Black leader of the New Orleans Workers Group said during Thursday night’s rally at Duncan Plaza that she frequently runs out of paper to write down the names of all the Black folx she knows who have been killed by police. Another Black woman in the crowd held a sign that pictured both her father and brother who were murdered by police, saying, “This is why I’m here.”
Author: Jackie Bang
If you would like to support the incredible groups who organized these Black Lives Matter actions in New Orleans, consider donating to the New Orleans Workers Group via Venmo (@noworkersgroup), Take ‘Em Down NOLA, and Southern Solidarity.