Rough Ride

Protesters face harsh treatment from JPSO

On June 16, 2020, while protests against police brutality in the wake of the murder of George Floyd raged across New Orleans and across the world, about 100 demonstrators took to the streets of Gretna and Harvey to protest the killing of Black men by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office (JPSO), including Modesto Reyes, a young welder and rapper who was killed by police following a traffic stop in Jefferson Parish (two days after George Floyd’s murder); and Keeven Robinson, who was killed in 2018 by JPSO agents after a brief footchase.

Sheriff Joe Lopinto initially said that Reyes tripped while running away from two deputies and rolled over to point a gun at them. But an independent autopsy revealed that he had been shot twice in the back and therefore could not have been turning around. JPSO deputies aren’t required to wear body cameras, and neither of the deputies involved in the shooting were wearing them.

Robinson’s death was ruled a homicide after the Jefferson Parish Coroner’s autopsy found that he died of compressional asphyxia due to “significant traumatic injuries to the neck.” According to statements from deputies who were at the scene, Robinson resisted arrest, and one deputy kneeled on his head. After they handcuffed him, JPSO agents noticed Robinson wasn’t breathing and was unresponsive. One public defender called Robinson “our own George Floyd.”

What began as a peaceful demonstration in front of the JPSO headquarters ended with multiple arrests and injuries. Lawyers representing some of the protesters allege “brutal and unnecessary” beatings at the hands of JPSO deputies, with one attorney saying that JPSO did not follow normal arrest procedures, intimidating and abusing protesters that they arrested.

More than a year later, those arrested are still dealing with the legal repercussions and the physical and psychological trauma inflicted by law enforcement. “At one point, one of the guys who arrested me whips out a knife with the blade facing my stomach while we’re driving at high speeds in this van,” said Loam Durapau, a New Orleans-based artist and one of the protesters who was arrested. “My train of thought was like: this guy is going to gut me. They have me in a van and this is it.”

Durapau and a friend named Nate Smith, also a New Orleans-based artist, were ambushed by law enforcement while they were walking beneath the overpass of the Westbank Expressway, zip-tied, and thrown into an unmarked van with eight other JPSO deputies. Durapau said from the moment he and Smith were put into the van and the door was shut behind them, there was an immediate shift in the demeanor of the deputies. “We were in their world,” Durapau said. “There was glee. There was laughter and smiling on their face. It was really disturbing.”

Despite the fact that they were arrested within eyesight of JPSO headquarters, Durapau said the van aggressively drove around for about five to 10 minutes. During that time, deputies goaded, insulted, and physically assaulted them. “They immediately started wailing on Nate. He had one guy holding down his legs and another guy punching him,” Durapau said. Durapau is white and Smith is Black. Durapau said deputies were much more violent and abusive towards Smith. “To me, they were gentler. I mean, I got slapped and punched and my nose was broken by them, but I wasn’t getting the beating that Nate was getting.”

Smith and Durapau both had their hands zip-tied behind their backs, posing “no threat to the deputies,” according to Kara Larson, attorney for Durapau. They also weren’t restrained with seatbelts, Larson said, which meant that their bodies were thrown around as the vehicle made aggressive turns, an abusive police practice known as a “rough ride.” It’s the same practice that killed Freddie Gray after Baltimore police officers shackled his hands behind his back, put him into a van without restraining him with a seatbelt, and drove around taking sharp turns at high rates of speed, causing his body to be thrown about the van. As the van carrying Durapau and Smith drove around Gretna, the pair feared for their lives and were met with further abuse and insults.

“I was yelling at them, trying to get them to stop hitting Nate, while at the same time one of the guys is slapping me in the face, calling me a pussy for not fighting back, and calling me a little bitch for not hitting him back,” Durapau said. “He wanted a reaction. He wanted to find a reason to justify why they just broke my nose and why they were beating the shit out of Nate.”

Protesters march along the Westbank Expressway on June 16, 2020

Just a few hours before, Smith and Durapau were among the people participating in a protest against police brutality and demanding the use of body cameras by JPSO deputies. The demonstration began in front of the JPSO headquarters in Harvey (immediately adjacent to Gretna). From there, the protesters marched down the lower part of the Westbank Expressway, holding signs and chanting the names of Black men killed by police.

JPSO deputies formed a line on one of the exit ramps to prevent the protesters from accessing the upper part of the Westbank Expressway. As the group passed the exit ramp, a woman recognized one of the deputies standing in the police line. She and a handful of others broke away from the main group and began walking up the ramp. “She recognized one of them as being someone who was involved in their family member’s murder,” Durapau said. “They hadn’t been communicated with by Jefferson Parish, and to then have that officer there present in that moment—someone who was involved directly, you know—they wanted to speak to that person. They wanted to get an answer.”

Durapau said that when he and Smith saw the group break away, they decided to join and help support them. When they met the line of JPSO deputies, he said the deputies quickly turned hostile. “One of them was saying, ‘We’re here to protect you, we’re here to care for you.’ But almost after finishing his breath, he immediately turned to, ‘We’re going to arrest you.’ So he changed very quickly from we’re going to make sure you’re safe to we’re now going to try to kidnap you,” Durapau said.

The larger group of protesters marching down the lower part of the Westbank Expressway saw the commotion, turned around, and began making their way up the exit ramp toward the police line.

The first person arrested was Uma Kumar-Montei, a Tulane student who grew up about 10 minutes from where George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. She said the killing felt close to home and she wanted to participate in every protest that she could, which brought her out to Jefferson Parish that day. She said that as a JPSO deputy was chasing down individuals in the small group in order to arrest them, he tripped and fell.

“He fell almost right in front of me,” she said. “I mean, I had to laugh a little. And as he was getting up, I said something like, ‘Don’t fucking touch him,’ or something, and he turned to me and grabbed my arm. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘I’m arresting you.’”

As Kumar-Montei was being arrested by the deputy, a legal observer approached to make sure that she was OK. “The cop was being really violent,” she said. “He was twisting my fingers back and holding my hand in a weird way so it was putting a lot of pressure on my wrist. The legal observer was asking if I was alright while a group of people was trying to get the cop to stop arresting me.”

The deputy eventually separated Kumar-Montei from the rest of the group and brought her up the ramp behind the police line. She said she had a lighter tucked into her bra beneath her shirt, and when a deputy noticed the outline of it, he moved to pat down her chest. Another deputy stopped him and called for a female officer.

“So then this female cop comes up and just gropes me in front of all of these male officers, all over my body,” Kumar-Montei said. “As a brown woman, I get patted down pretty much every time I go to the airport, and this wasn’t just a pat-down. There’s a protocol you’re supposed to follow so you don’t violate someone. They didn’t have any regard for protocol or anything like that. I’ve experienced sexual violence before and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, they’re really doing everything they can to make me feel horrible.’”

Kumar-Montei was placed in a police vehicle at the top of the exit ramp. She said while she was waiting to find out where she would be taken, one of the deputies tried to make small talk with her. He told her that her parents would probably be happy that she was learning a lesson. She said she snapped back at the officer. “I said, ‘First of all, the amount of privilege it takes to say that…’” Kumar-Montei said. The word “privilege” enraged the deputy, who then took her out of the vehicle and brought her to the railing on the side of the highway. “He has me handcuffed, bent over the edge of the highway, and he says, ‘Don’t you ever fucking talk to me about privilege again,’” Kumar-Montei said. She was terrified.

The deputy put her back into the vehicle and she was eventually taken to jail, or the “JP Hotel” as she was told. The chaotic scene on the exit ramp eventually calmed down and the group of protesters made their way back to the lower part of the Westbank Expressway. A short while later, the demonstration started to come to an end. Loam Durapau and Nate Smith were beginning to make plans to get back across the Crescent City Connection (CCC) to New Orleans, where they lived.

“Things were dispersing, people were leaving,” Durapau said. “Then we heard about two protesters that had been stopped in the road, had their windows smashed out, and were arrested by the cops. And then we saw the van.”

Durapau said an unmarked police van raced towards him and Smith, screeching to a halt right in front of them. Other JPSO vehicles swooped in from multiple directions, boxing them in. Deputies spilled out of the vehicles and grabbed Smith. “It was pretty surreal,” Durapau said. “It was like an ambush.”

Durapau said he believes the deputies recognized Smith from the scene on the exit ramp earlier in the day. When Durapau tried to intervene, he was thrown to the ground and had his hands zip-tied behind his back.

Kumar-Montei, Smith, and Durapau were three of the five protesters that were arrested that day. They, along with the others, still have active legal cases with charges ranging from minor, such as obstruction of a roadway, to serious, such as resisting arrest and battery on a police officer. Their cases could have long-term effects as well.

“Broadly, the protesters face a wide range of charges, from misdemeanors to felonies,” said attorney Kara Larson. Larson met Durapau through an organization that connects volunteer attorneys with people arrested during the 2020 police brutality protests. “Incarceration is the most obvious impact of a conviction; however, there are other real and substantial consequences of any type of conviction, which include loss of potential employment opportunities, fines and fees, and temporary loss of voting rights for a felony conviction.”

There are also lasting physical and psychological impacts from that day. Durapau still suffers from pain and difficulty breathing through his nose. “He [Durapau] showed me pictures taken right after it had happened, and he visited my office a short time later,” Larson said. “He had clearly sustained serious injuries to his face consistent with being punched or kicked. He was also, understandably, in a lot of fear.”

Durapau said he’s still experiencing intense anxiety and paranoia as a result of the abuse. “For the first two weeks after Nate and I were arrested, I was fucking terrified,” he said. “I thought that they now have my address, they know where I live. I thought that white van would appear on my block, and I would just disappear.”

In addition, both Kumar-Montei and Durapau had their masks removed by JPSO deputies, none of whom were wearing any sort of facial covering, thereby potentially exposing both of them to the coronavirus. “JPSO showed up to the protest unmasked, accompanied by a tank [MRAP]. It is unconscionable to me that JPSO wasn’t wearing masks at that point. This was June 2020!” said Larson. “I think they were angry and took their anger out on the protesters.”

Top: Uma Kumar-Montei; bottom: Loam Durapau

In many ways, the events of June 16 were the culmination of tensions that had been building for weeks. On May 29—four days after the murder of George Floyd—a small group of people gathered at the intersection of North Claiborne and Esplanade avenues in the Tremé. They held signs and chanted to protest the brutal slaying. The next day, over a thousand people marched to New Orleans Police Department headquarters. It was the beginning of daily demonstrations that took place in the city over the course of several weeks.

On June 2, a few days after the first protest in the Tremé, hundreds of people marched up the overpass and onto I-10, shutting down traffic for over two hours. They faced a line of New Orleans police officers clad in riot gear and began calling out the names of Black men killed by law enforcement across the country.

Both Kumar-Montei and Durapau participated in the demonstration on the interstate after hearing about it through the New Orleans Workers Group (now called the Workers Voice Socialist Movement). “There was a unity, a bond between everyone that was there. I felt like we were moving as a group in solidarity together,” said Durapau. “There was a lot of emotion, and it’s a tense environment, but at the same time you’re standing up and facing dead-on an oppressive system and there was a unity there.”

At one point, Chief Deputy Superintendent John Thomas, the NOPD’s second-in-command, took a knee along with his fellow officers. “We feel ashamed for what this officer did to tarnish the badge,” Thomas said into a bullhorn addressing the protesters, a reference to Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis officer eventually convicted of murdering Floyd. For some, it was a sign of police openly acknowledging and condemning an unjust killing at the hands of one of their own. For others, it was an empty gesture intended to assuage the crowd. “Seeing NOPD kneeling on the bridge, it felt really wrong,” said Kumar-Montei. “It didn’t feel genuine. It seemed extremely performative.”

Whatever it was, the moment was short-lived. The next day, thousands of protesters marched through the city’s Central Business District, up St. Charles Avenue, and into the Lower Garden District before making their way onto the CCC. This time, when they met a line of NOPD officers in full riot gear, the mood was one of confrontation rather than reconciliation.

Organizers passed bullhorns to community members who had been hurt and directly impacted by NOPD abuses. They used the opportunity to express their feelings and frustrations. “It was really raw and powerful to hear all of these things being spoken directly to the police, and people were getting emotional and passionate,” said Kumar-Montei, who was again near the front of the police line. “But the police interpreted that as dangerous.”

“It seemed that the police department was confusing understandable Black anger with violence, and grew impatient with it or fearful of it,” said Katie Lamb, who joined the protest where it started at Duncan Plaza. “I did not see any of the young men or women speaking as hostile,” Lamb said, who is also a nursing student at the Louisiana State University School of Nursing. “They were young people who needed to speak their piece to the organization that constantly victimizes and even murders them.”

Despite protesters remaining peaceful throughout the day, NOPD ordered the crowd to leave three times over the course of a few minutes. However, people on the scene, including journalists and legal observers, report that they were unable to hear the warnings. Shortly after 10 p.m., police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd. “From where I stood at the top of the entrance ramp, I could not hear commands,” said Lamb, who was about five rows of people back from the police line. “So for me, it did seem sudden and without warning to see the first canister of tear gas launched.”

NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson initially denied that rubber projectiles were used, despite videos posted on social media showing protesters being hit with them. Months later, an internal investigation confirmed their use and found multiple department failures, including a lack of policies regarding responses to protests and a failure to warn demonstrators before retaliating with tear gas and projectiles. The lack of clear guidelines and policies was cited by Ferguson as the reason none of the officers involved were reprimanded—they didn’t break the rules because there weren’t any.

“The NOPD defended their choice stating they couldn’t let us cross the CCC for safety concerns,” said Lamb. “But I have major, major safety concerns with launching tear gas into a crowd that was essentially trapped on all sides due to the concrete guardrails of the elevated entrance ramp. We couldn’t get away from it all, and there were children present at portions of this demonstration.”

“It was probably the worst pain I’ve ever experienced because it was so prolonged. It felt like I was inhaling sandpaper and I thought I was going to stop breathing,” Kumar-Montei said of the tear gas. “It was completely unexpected. The night before the police took a knee with us. On the CCC, I saw the NOPD tear gas children.”

The chaos on the CCC was the most violent encounter between demonstrators and the NOPD last year. For weeks after, daily protests grew in size, but they all remained peaceful. It’s possible that the NOPD recognized that they handled the incident on the bridge poorly, which was indeed unprecedented and had never before occurred in the city. Though it should be noted that the NOPD regularly controls large and sometimes unruly crowds on Bourbon Street and the many parades held in the city during Carnival season—and they do it without tear gas or rubber bullets.

The NOPD may have also been influenced by the federal consent decree that had been in place since 2013 after the United States Department of Justice issued a report alleging civil rights violations and other misconduct by the NOPD, described in a report by a senior official at the DOJ as “serious, wide-ranging, systemic and deeply rooted within the culture of the department.”

The night the NOPD gassed protesters, on the other side of the bridge, JPSO deputies and Gretna police officers were staged in a parking lot just past the parish line. A JPSO helicopter hovered above the New Orleans Uptown area on standby. They were waiting for protesters to enter Jefferson Parish, where there’s no consent decree and there are no body cameras. What JPSO does have is a history of violent abuse, especially towards people of color.

“I’m hesitant to laud NOPD’s handling of the protests when its handling still resulted in tear gas being fired on protesters,” said Larson, Durapau’s attorney. “That said, when I heard about the protests in New Orleans, I was like, ‘Some people might be arrested.’ When I heard about the protests in Jefferson Parish, I thought, ‘Some people are definitely going to be arrested.’”

An attorney representing other protesters arrested on the Westbank on June 16 said that people are much more likely to be assaulted and injured by JPSO than by NOPD. “The individuals that chose to protest in Jefferson Parish were courageous for choosing to stage a protest there,” they said. “I’ve handled criminal cases in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. JPSO threw one client down the stairs. Other clients have been the victims of illegal searches and seizures. It feels like the JPSO operates without consequences. There are no body cams and no accountability.”

Many of the charges against the protesters arrested by the JPSO are still in screening, meaning the District Attorney’s Office hasn’t yet decided whether or not to prosecute the cases. Their attorneys are calling for all charges to be refused. They believe that none of the protesters should be prosecuted for any offense arising out of the protest. But given the JPSO’s violent history and Gretna’s reputation as the “arrest capital of the United States,” the future of their cases remains unclear.

photos by Julie Dermansky

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