Monday, July 22, 2013

Going in gangbusters, for some unknown reason

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.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Jury Duty, Day 1

I’ve been called for jury duty four times in my life, the first at age nine. My parents encouraged me to fill out the paperwork claiming exemption, which resulted in a handwritten letter reporting something to the effect of “My mommy says I’m too young to be a juror.” I responded similarly the second time I was called, at age 17. I was called again years later in New York, after I had moved to Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. “I can’t make it,” I told the court. “I’m in a disaster zone.” That seemed to be good enough for them, and I thought I’d be in the clear for a while.

But finally they’ve caught up to me, and I was scheduled to fulfill my civic obligation this morning in New Orleans Civil District Court. Actually I was supposed to go in on June 7th for something called “empanelment,” but the notice also allowed for an online check-in. I took advantage of this second option, which produced a message telling me to report on July 1st. I signed up for email reminders, but I thought to check again on June 30th after my friend A. told me her report date had changed after she had been called earlier in the summer. Indeed, my new date was now July 15th. I checked last night: same deal. [I disregarded the four emails I had received reminding me to report on June 7th.]

Proof of the pudding
When I went in this morning, my jury duty notice was scanned and I was told that I was in Group Three, which doesn’t report until next Monday. “But my notice says I’m in Group One,” I countered. “Well it’s wrong,” the clerk said. Apparently I wasn’t the only one fooled by this numerical trickery: At least 40 other people had filed into the juror pool waiting room with me by the time I got this information.

My boss, who by chance had also been called for jury duty in my pool, asked the clerk why the online portal had told us to come in today, though we were not needed until next week. “You have to call too,” the clerk said. “But it says you can check online,” another potential juror noted. “I don’t know what to tell you, ma’am,” the clerk replied. “You can check online but you still have to call on Friday for Monday.” Right.

Though we were told we were dismissed until Monday, I feared that this information could just as rapidly change as earlier truths had. After all, my friend A. had reported for jury duty on July 1st and having been told she was dismissed, she went back to work the next day only to receive a telephoned warning from the court telling her she was in contempt. And that wasn’t the only indignity: “Jury duty,” A. said, “was 80 angry people in a room with not enough chairs, all crowded around the world’s smallest coffee pot.” I guess they’ll have to look for me at the cafĂ© if they want to execute that contempt warrant. It seems I’ll have my day in court on Monday, maybe!

UPDATE: I called Saturday night to find that the jury is not in need of my duty after all. "Thank you for your service," the nice automaton told me. You're very welcome!