New Orleans; Nov. 13, 2005 – In their efforts to help the struggling residents of New Orleans, local relief activists say they have become a target for police harassment.
"Weâ€™re not here for any confrontation," said Malik Rahim, co-founder of Common Ground Collective, a grassroots organization. "We are only here to serve the community." Rahim was addressing a press conference Friday after police arrested a volunteer working with the group.
Ironically, the volunteer, Greg Griffith from Ohio, had been monitoring the police when they arrested him.
Griffith said that he saw several police and immigration authorities "harassing" three young black men on Thursday night outside the community medical clinic where he volunteers in the Algiers neighborhood. A long-time activist with Copwatch, a loosely knit network of local groups that monitor and document police misconduct, Griffith went outside to videotape the exchange. He said the police let the three men go, but then proceeded to grab a man two houses down who had just walked out of his house.
"At that point we asked them why they were arresting him and what the charges were, and they told us to mind out own business," Griffith said. "I asked one of the officers what his name and badge number was and almost instantly he and two ICE [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] cops came at me. He grabbed me, twisted my arm behind my back and slammed my face into the back of the cruiser."
Griffith said a police officer came to the back of the cruiser, took his cell phone, twisted his arms and slammed his face into the plexiglas barrier.
Griffith, whose account was corroborated by two witnesses, told The NewStandard that the officers took his video camera, slammed it on the ground and kicked it across the street. "They justified arresting me by saying that I broke a police cordon or crossed a police line," he said. "There was no police line and I didnâ€™t cross one in any situation anyway." Griffith said that the police searched him without consent and found his pocket-knife and accused him of having an illegal weapon. "And they proceeded to say I was resisting arrest as they were slamming my face into the cruiser."
Griffith said that he was using his cell phone in the back of the police car when one officer saw him making the calls and came to the back of the car and took his cell phone, twisted his arms and slammed his face into the plexiglas barrier in the back of the cruiser.
In the car ride to the police station, the officers started joking about shooting him in the back and throwing him in the river, Griffith said. "They turned the radio up and started saying stuff like, "Yeah weâ€™re just gonna kill him, weâ€™re just gonna shoot him and throw him in the river, no one will ever know."
Griffithâ€™s ordeal increased alarm among fellow relief workers and community activists. "When did it become illegal for a person to document what the police is doing?" Rahim asked rhetorically at the press conference.
The Common Ground activists stress that relief workers are not the only ones being harassed and arrested.
Rahim said police have constantly harassed the volunteers. "It has gone from members being pulled over and harassed to [being] threatened that if we are double-parked in front of our distribution center that that is not [just] grounds for a ticket, that is grounds for arrest," he said.
"Our only goal is to offer two things to the residents of New Orleans," Rahim said. "One, hope. And, two, to teach them by our example the importance of civic responsibility. And if that is a violation of any law in America then we need to go and revisit our Constitution."
At the press conference in front of the New Orleans Criminal Courthouse Friday, activists demanded a meeting with the acting superintendent of police and an immediate end to the harassment they are facing and asked that officers who have been documented abusing people be taken off the job. They also called for an independent civilian review board with authority to make changes in police policy and conduct.
Spokespeople for the police could not be reached for comment on this story, and officers would not comment on the record after numerous visits to various police stations.
The Common Ground activists stress that relief workers are not the only ones being harassed and arrested. Stories of police harassment and seemingly false arrests are common in post-Katrina New Orleans.
"The reason we are doing what we do as Copwatch is because young black men and people in general here are being arrested indiscriminately by the New Orleans police department," Griffith said. "They are not being afforded their legal rights. Weâ€™ve been coming to the court and asking for transparency, and we have not been given access to the process."
Chief Alfred Doucette, a prominent New Orleans musician, told reporters that he recently attempted to intervene in the police harassment of some volunteers who are working in the Treme neighborhood, and the police arrested him, accusing him of disturbing the police and unauthorized use of a vehicle.
â€œA black man doesnâ€™t have a chance in this town.â€ --Chief Alfred Doucette, local musician and volunteer
"Iâ€™m 65 years old and in all my entire life, I have never, ever been arrested," Doucette said. "Iâ€™ve never been handcuffed. That was my freedom. But the other night, they stole that from meâ€¦ They violated me, and I was just trying to help some people, and they gave me a false charge.
"They didnâ€™t hit me," Doucette continued, "but they took my dignity, they humiliated me. They put me in that funky costume that they have in thereâ€¦ That ainâ€™t me. It was nasty dirty, but they made me put it on. They fingerprinted me; they took my pictureâ€¦. Thatâ€™s what they are doing to black people. They are picking them up and charging them with anything and everythingâ€¦ A black man doesnâ€™t have a chance in this town."
At the press conference, Brandon Darby, another volunteer with Common Ground, said, "We have a commitment to help the people of New Orleans. And it is that commitment that forces us to deal with the issue of police harassment in this city."
Darby suggested that using video cameras to monitor police activity was one way to deal with the harassment. "On that note," he continued, "we put a call out to everyone in this country to bring their cameras and come down and letâ€™s work together to establish an efficient means of documenting the police."