Something called the Gang Squad Unit has been active in New Orleans lately, with local media gratefully reporting all the gangbuster success stories this and other NOPD taskforces - one is called the Violent Offenders Warrant Squad - have produced in conjunction with federal authorities including the ATF, the FBI and the DEA. Hallmark raid-focused policing tactics such as the use of flashbang grenades and aggressive arrests have produced deadly results in other cities, and the New Orleans version is proving (unsurprisingly) to be violent in its own right.
My work with New Orleans youth has cultivated my own suspicion of what constitutes a so-called gang, as many school districts here consider "gang fighting" - an expulsion-worthy offense - any fight that involves more than two students. By this logic, a kid who tries to help his friend in a hallway scuffle becomes labelled a gang-member and receives enhanced disciplinary measures.
Similarly, gang busts on the adult level in New Orleans seem like trumped-up wholesale arrests of suspected criminals and their affiliates, usually family members and friends. Reported gang-related activities include consumption and sale of marijuana, possession of firearms, and hanging on the corner- nothing particularly uncommon in New Orleans.
Police conduct during gang-related arrests has demonstrated violence and a downright denial of human dignity for suspects involved. This approach is evidenced in the recent roundup of slain toddler Briana Allen's relatives while they gathered grieving the death of their family matriarch. [This same woman reportedly had been forced - despite her ill health - to wait outside in the rain while police investigated Briana's 2012 murder.] In this most recent instance, men of the family were made to lie face-down on the ground in front of the house while the law enforcement agents conducted their raid.
A few weeks ago, on June 18th, I was leaving my house to go to work when I noticed that my car was boxed in by a number of police cars, both marked and unmarked. The cars were parked askew on the roadway, despite the availability of curbside parking up the block.
I glanced across the street and saw a group of men in blue polo shirts and what looked like large firearms strapped to their khaki pants. Crowded together on the second-floor porch of my neighbor's house, they busted in the door, pushed their way inside, and shouted something like "Get on the floor!"
I looked around and saw another neighbor watching the activity. "What's going on?" I asked. She shrugged and anxiously looked up at the porch.
A few moments later, one of the uniformed men returned to the porch. I called up to him, "Hey, what's the deal here?"
"Nothing, ma'am, just executing a warrant," he told me.
"Oh. Well, I need to go to work and my car is boxed in here," I said, gesturing to the impromptu parking lot.
"You're going to have to wait til we're done here," he told me.
"I really need to leave now. Can you please help me out here?" I asked.
Though I hadn't left the sidewalk in front of my door, he said, "Ma'am, please step back."
"Sir, I just need to go to work," I tried to reason with him." Can one of you move your cars please?"
Despite the absence of police tape or other visible boundaries, the cop said, "Ma'am, I'm not asking you again to step back from the perimeter. Step back, or you're going to jail!"
At this point my neighbor started laughing. "Huh? For what?" I asked.
"Just calm down, ma'am," the officer said. "We're doing our jobs here."
"I understand, but I'm trying to get to my job," I pleaded. "How long are you going to be?"
"As long as it takes. Calm down, ma'am."
"Sir, I'm being very calm," I told him, and I truly was, despite having been threatened with incarceration. "Can I please talk to someone who can move this car, please?"
Another man came down off the porch and crossed the street to where I was standing. Identified by his uniform shirt as "Det. Holmes" of the "Gang Squad Unit," this officer put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Ma'am, what's the trouble here?"
At this point, I started getting nervous. "Please don't touch me, sir," I said. "I don't like this."
"Oh," he chuckled. "Okay."
"I don't think any of this is funny!" I told him, my voice quavering. "I'm seriously just trying to get to work and I can't get my car out."
"Alright ma'am, just let's be calm here."
"I'm very calm, sir." And with a burst of chutzpah, I asked him to apologize for touching me without my consent.
"Yes," he said, continuing to laugh. "I'm very sorry ma'am. Now we're just doing our jobs. I apologize for the inconvenience."
"I understand you're just doing your jobs, but you're preventing me from going to work and doing mine."
"Yes ma'am, and we appreciate your patience, but we are just trying to protect your safety."
"You know what makes me feel safe?" I countered. "Going to work and being able to pay my bills. Now can you please move your car?"
Apparently swayed by my logic (or a really strong desire to get rid of me), the officer acquiesced and went to park one of the unmarked cars in a more appropriate spot.
"Watch the perimeter!" I called to my neighbor as I drove off. She laughed nervously.