The New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a resolution on Thursday supporting local and national demonstrations against police violence in response to the killing of George Floyd — a black Minneapolis resident who was killed in police custody after a white officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, despite pleas from bystanders.
When the resolution was originally introduced earlier this week, it included a section that commended “all law enforcement officers who are partners with and not abusers of the communities they serve.” The resolution was originally released earlier this week, following several nights of marches against police killings of black people that occurred without clashes between protesters and police. But that language was quickly removed on Thursday morning after the NOPD shot tear gas into a crowd of protesters on the approach to Crescent City Connection bridge on Wednesday night and arrested five people.
Instead, the resolution now “calls on law enforcement to show great empathy and restraint when confronted by protests, providing people the freedom to express their anger and grief.” Council members Jay Banks and Jason Williams, both of whom are black, said they would work on an ordinance to ban the use of tear gas in Orleans Parish.
“I am troubled by tear gas being used on our streets,” said Williams, who is currently running a campaign to replace Leon Cannizzaro Orleans Parish District Attorney. “It is so frustrating and problematic that there is such a quick response by law enforcement to use force or tear gas on citizens when they aren’t complying, but such a slower response from law enforcement on other members of law enforcement when they aren’t complying with their oath of office and our laws.”
The council also made a commitment to initiating a process to rename streets currently named after white supremecaists, including Jefferson Davis Parkway.
New Orleans has seen five straight days of demonstrations, joining cities in all 50 states and countries across the globe protesting against police violence, in particular towards black Americans. While other cities have seen riots, arrests and violent police action, New Orleans had remained relatively calm prior to Wednesday. The NOPD had been repeatedly praised for its restraint and ability to de-escalate.
But that changed on Wednesday night, when protesters attempted to cross the Mississippi River on the Crescent City Connection. Hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters were able to climb up the overpass and onto the bridge, but stopped at a police blockade made up of officers in riot gear from the NOPD and Louisiana State Police.
After an hourlong standoff, a small group of protesters appeared to push against a blockade of police officers in riot gear. A larger group moved toward the blockade with their hands up, chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” That’s when the NOPD fired two tear gas canisters into the crowd.
Stuck on a thin bridge with hundreds of people, an initial panic set in among the crowd, with some people running and pushing their way in the opposite direction of the plumes of tear gas. In the 30 seconds that followed, a stampede seemed imminent, and some came dangerously close to being pushed off the side of the overpass.
But the group was able to calm itself down, with demonstrators encouraging one another to walk, not run. Demonstrators helped get children above the crowd and away from the gas, and were able to open a lane to allow injured people to get out faster.
“It’s the job of law enforcement … to de-escalate,” Williams said. “Clearly the de-escalation didn’t happen.”
The Lens observed two people bleeding from their heads. One claimed she was hit with a tear gas canister, and had to be escorted out because of the bloody gauze covering most of her head and eyes. Another woman appeared to have an asthma attack after the tear gas was dispersed, and her friends were yelling to find an inhaler among the crown.
“Just because you walk towards with your hands up in the air saying ‘hands up don’t shoot’ and we have a line, doesn’t mean we’re going to just let you have at it,” NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said at a Thursday press conference. “We have to protect this city. There should be decency and order. There should be law and order, civility in this city.”
He didn’t explain what danger, exactly, the demonstration posed by continuing over the bridge. By all accounts, the protest had seen no violence or vandalism in the nearly three hours of marching before the crowd arrived at the bridge. Other than the scuffling between the small group of protesters and police officers, there were no reports of protesters being violent toward the officers prior to the tear gas, either.
“After being told they would not be able to cross the Crescent City Connection, they chose to use force,” Ferguson said. “They met together, established and formulated a plan, asking the men to step to the front, asking the women to step to the rear and to remove their jewelry. Because they were planning to have a confrontation. They wanted to have a confrontation. And we, citizens of New Orleans, allowed them to bait us into that confrontation.”
And while the danger of letting the protest continue was not made clear by Ferguson, he also didn’t explain whether that danger was measured against the risk of sending tear gas into a tightly packed crowd of almost entirely nonviolent protesters on a thin bridge.
“We did not depart gas on a peaceful protest,” Ferguson said. “We did depart gas on individuals that chose to use force against our officers when they were simply trying to protect the lives of our citizens.”
Ferguson also made vague references to “outside agitators” causing the dispute, something that law enforcement has warned the public about without elaborating on their evidence for it. Notably, three of the five people arrested were locals.
“When we draw that line it means it’s as far as we can go. Work with us. Do not let the agitators step in, take over your emotions, and escalate this into something that it shouldn’t be.”
‘This system is working exactly how it was designed’
The council’s resolutions received over 230 public comments from residents. And almost all of them had the same demands: that the City Council formally condemn the NOPD for using tear gas and shift funding away from the NOPD toward other city services.
“Mr. Floyd wasn’t murdered by a bad few officers,” Patrick Dorio said in his public comments. “He was a murdered by a bad police force, that trained them, by a union that kept them employed despite past complaints, by a city that renewed a contract of a law enforcement agency and ignoring decades of calls for reform and by a country that routinely criminalizes black men and women with impunity.”
The 2020 general fund budget for the NOPD was set at $175 million, representing 27 percent of the $723 million general fund budget. Now, with a looming budget shortage caused by the coronavirus, those funds are seeing additional scrutiny.
Several comments also highlighted that tear gas is banned in warfare under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, which was signed by nearly every country in the world, including the United States. Tear gas is still approved as a riot control measure within US borders, just not outside of them.
Those comments seemed to be the compelling force that led to Banks’ commitment to work on an ordinance to ban the use of tear gas in Orleans Parish.
The council stopped short of condemning the NOPD action. Williams and Banks said they were still awaiting further information about what happened on Wednesday night. But they were clear on how they saw police and racial injustice more broadly in America.
“We have been forced to watch their final breaths because a weapon paid for by tax dollars, or while being in the clutches of corrupt or repugnant law enforcement,” Williams said. “This system is working exactly how it was designed almost 300 years ago. People all over the world, people in the streets of New Orleans are frustrated that this system has a dual purpose. One that seeks justice for the wealthy, historic majority, and one that favors punishment against the poor and historically disenfranchised.”
Banks started his statement with a long list of names.
“Eric Garner, Frank Smith, John Crawford III, Natasha Mckenna, Michael Brown, Tony Roberston, Yizell Ford, Anthony Hill, Donte Parker, Maya Hall, Michelle Zeno, Phillip White, Laquan Mcdonald, Eric Harris, George Mann, Walter Scott, Tenisha Anderson, William Chapman II, Akai Gurley, Alexia Christian, Tamir Rice, Brendon Glenn, Ramon Brenson, Victor Manuel La Rosa, Jermaine Reed, Jonathan Sanders, Matthew Ajibade, Freddie Blou, Joseph Mann, Junior Prosper, Salvador Ellswood, Lamontez Jones, Sandra Bland, Paterson Brown, Albert Joseph Davis, Dominique Hutchenson, Darius Stewart, Anthony Ashford, Billy Ray Davis, Alonzo Smith, Samuel Dubose, Tyree Crawford, Michael Sabbie, India Kager, Brian Keith Day, Lavonte Diggs, Christian Taylor, Michael Lee Marshall, Troy Robinson, Jamar Clark, Richard Perkins, Felix Kumi, Nathaniel Harris Pickett, Keith Harrison McLeod, Benni Lee Tignor… Michael Noel, Peter Gains, Kevin Mathews, Tony Robinson, Bettie Jones, Darius Robinson… Kevin Hicks, Keith Childress Jr. … Janet Wilson, Demarcus Samir, Randy Nelson, Willie Tillman, Antronie Scott, Terrell Thomas, Wendell Celestine, Yvette Smith, David Joseph, Alton Sterling… Philando Castille… Terence Crutcher, Christopher Davis, Paul O’Neal… Dominique Clayton, Jordan Edwards, Atatiana Jefferson, Erin Bailey, Christopher Whitfield, Ronell Foster, Christopher Mcorby, Stephon Clark, Eric Reason, Antwone Rose II, Michael Lorenzo Dean, Botham Jean, Breonna Taylor, Pamala Turner, George Floyd.”
“That list of names I just read were black people in America who have been murdered by police officers,” he said. “The horrible fact is that that list of names started in 2015.”