Monday, July 8th, 2019 started with a celebration of the life of trumpeter Dave Bartholomew in Gentilly, and ended with the arrest of trumpeter Eugene Grant on Frenchmen Street —perfectly encapsulating New Orleans’ tendency to simultaneously honor and criminalize its most famous cultural traditions.
While a lot has been written about the incident that culminated in Eugene’s arrest— which has made national news— one fact remains indisputable: the arrest and proceeding rough treatment by the New Orleans Police Department was unacceptable. Anyone who spends even a little time on Frenchmen Street knows Eugene, and knows him to be a good natured, friendly young man who ultimately just wants to make music and entertain others. To see the now viral footage of Eugene held on the ground by two NOPD officers with tasers in their hands was shocking. It should have never happened, and the incident was close enough to a hypothetical worst-case scenario that it should give everyone pause.
So how did we get here, and how do we make sure it never happens again?
The Young Fellaz Brass Band, who Eugene was playing with, have been performing on a near-daily basis at the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres for the better part of the last decade. Though some members may vary from night to night, the band is comprised of a relatively small group of young Black men and are a known entity—they perform at roughly the same time, at roughly the same location, most nights of the week. They are such a well-known presence that New Orleans and Co. (formerly the Convention and Visitors Bureau) actively uses their image to headline the official marketing page for Frenchmen Street, promoting them as an attraction to millions of visitors each year. Frenchmen Street Live, a web based tourism company affiliated with a business conglomerate that owns several music venues on Frenchmen— and bills itself as “The official Insider’s Guide to all things Frenchmen St” —has used footage and images of the band dozens of times in social media posts to advertise tours and party packages. A few months ago, David Zalkind, the current owner of Frenchmen Art and Books who placed the call to NOPD that led to Eugene’s arrest, advertised his business on Facebook by noting the band played outside his store nightly. These outside entities continue to use the bands’ image and creative labor, without consent, for their own profit and specifically market the band’s tie to the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres. It’s understandable that the band feels a sense of ownership to that location, and reasonable that they want to use it to make some money for themselves, too.
While The Young Fellaz Brass Band has been a fixture on the corner for a number of years, the corner—and Frenchmen Street as a whole—has undergone a major transformation. With more businesses and more tourists, there has been an increased focus on street-based consumption and activities, creating a sort of ‘mini Bourbon Street’. The Praline Connection is gone, replaced by a Willie’s Chicken Shack, which sells cheap food and oversized daiquiris. The long-closed Café Brasil has reopened as Favela Chic; the Frenchmen Street Market and Deli now stocks mainly tallboys and cigarettes; and even celebrated mainstay music venues like d.b.a. have experimented with selling food and drinks through a street facing window. Though many of the changes are irrevocable, they weren’t immediate.
Musicians, business owners, residents, and visitors have been complaining about the state of Frenchmen Street for years, and the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres in particular. Where the City fails to find collaborative solutions that work for all of the people affected, people tend to make decisions based solely on their own self-interests. That’s what is happening on Frenchmen Street: that’s what happened on Monday, July 8th, and again on July 16th, between David Zalkind and The Young Fellaz Brass Band. Inevitably, when things devolve to this level, it is those with the least institutional power that bear the brunt of the impact. That night, it was a young man named Eugene Grant. This is the result of a years-long failure of city leadership on various levels, which has now allowed the situation to deteriorate to the point of conflict and risks to personal safety. It’s time we stop pretending we can turn back the clock, accept the reality of Frenchmen Street today, and together build a better vision for its future.
Despite the changes and challenges on Frenchmen Street, there is still no excuse for the treatment that Eugene Grant received by the NOPD, especially in a city still under a Consent Decree and a department not yet fully in compliance with constitutional standards of policing. There are a number of issues at play here—overly aggressive policing of people of color, young Black men in particular; insufficient training on how to work with individuals with special needs (Eugene has been diagnosed as autistic); a lack of crowd control and de-escalation techniques used by law enforcement; gentrification of the city by individuals who do not respect or understand New Orleans traditional culture; and, of particular relevance, the long standing criminalization of New Orleans’ street and neighborhood cultural traditions. This incident follows a decades long pattern of similar events, including the harassment of Mardi Gras/Black Masking Indians on St. Joseph’s Night; the arrest of several musicians in the Treme in 2007 during a traditional second line to honor Kerwin James; the shutting down of To Be Continued Brass Band on Bourbon and Canal at the start of the Landrieu administration; and, just several months ago, the temporary shut-down of The Hundreds Brass Band outside of Jazz Fest—who were told to stop while an officer looked up what ordinance they were violating, and were allowed to continue when there, in fact, wasn’t one.
The NOPD has made progress in their interactions with New Orleans musicians and traditional culture bearers, but when leadership changes—both in city government and in the NOPD—informal agreements and understandings begin to dissolve, particularly if those most directly impacted by or involved with the issues are not consulted by the new leadership. We need to fortify these agreements, not allow them to weaken.
As for a path forward, first we should heed the words Eugene himself, who, in a statement released by his attorney, said he wants what has happened to him to “start a greater conversation amongst the city, the police, and the community about effective solutions to pervasive problems.” That conversation is already beginning, and the NOPD has shown a willingness to engage. That’s great—but we also need to think bigger.
We need to figure out how to make Frenchmen Street safe, enjoyable, and profitable for everyone. There have been a number of ideas presented over the years, but no decisions should be made until there has been a full, inclusive, public process that equitably involves everyone who has a stake the area’s success —including street musicians. The city has spent countless hours and millions of dollars on projects like the Lafitte Greenway—one of New Orleans’ most musically important streets certainly deserves the same amount of attention. We also have to buckle down and do the hard work to change the laws, legal systems, and enforcement practices that have allowed these same issues, and this same treatment of our cultural community, to perpetuate. It’s going to be a challenge, but we also have a tremendous opportunity to use this unfortunate incident as a catalyst to create real change.
We at the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans believe that those that are closest to the problems are closest to the solutions. Acting on this value, we are hosting and facilitating a series of meetings with those most impacted to allow them to work together and develop community-driven long term, sustainable solutions. We expect that process to begin very soon, but in the meantime: on Sunday, July 21st , at 2PM, there will be a rally to support musicians in New Orleans. Unlike July 8th, let’s ensure that this day both begins AND ends with a celebration to honor the backbone of New Orleans’ culture, not arrests and further criminalization. That will be a great first step.
Ethan Ellestad is a founding member of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) and has served as its executive director since 2014. MaCCNO works at the intersection of culture, public policy, and social justice, organizing and advocating for the vast community of musicians and culture bearers in New Orleans.
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