NEW ORLEANS — Two days after the New Orleans Police Department suspended three officers without pay for allegedly assaulting 64-year-old Robert Davis and an Associated Press cameraman on Bourbon Street, witnesses claim two NOPD officers threatened a charitable organization and a CityBusiness reporter.
NOPD public information officials were not immediately available to comment.
On Monday, a coalition of nonprofits and community groups officially opened Welcome Home New Orleans, a makeshift camp in Washington Square in Faubourg Marigny offering free medical care and hot meals.
Throughout the day, returning locals, city workers and members of the military poured into the park for plates of red beans and rice and cold drinks.
The New Orleans Jazz Vipers arrived at noon with their brass horns and guitars and resurrected the romping sounds of jazz long gone from this battered section of New Orleans.
Dee Anne Domnick, director of Barefoot Doctors’ Academy, a Lacombe-based, nationwide network of midwives and medical professionals, was clearing dead branches and debris from the park when Rob Savoye, chief technology officer for the Barefoot Doctors’ Academy, came running in her direction.
“They’re trying to evict us,” Savoye shouted. “They’re trying to kick us out.”
Two NOPD officers standing inside the park entrance had demanded to see a permit for use of the square.
Domnick said Dr. Evangeline Franklin, chief of clinical services for the New Orleans Health Department, gave them verbal permission.
When she asked the officers to identify themselves, the officers refused. When a CityBusiness reporter took two pictures of the confrontation, the officers ordered him to erase the photos.
Even after the reporter identified himself as a member of the press, the officers insisted he hand over his camera or risk arrest.
“We don’t care what you’re doing or who you’re with,” said the younger of the two. “You better erase those pictures of us now.”
He then forcibly removed the reporter, who had refused to erase the photos, from the park.
“In a situation like this, where the whole system is topsy-turvy, you don’t go insisting on permits when people are offering free health care and food in a disaster situation,” Domnick said. “The (older) officer was trying to bully us and I thought my life was being threatened.”
The badge number of the older officer was 1419, Savoye said.
Barefoot Doctors’ Academy and the Rainbow Family of Living Light, a national coalition focused on community building and alternative lifestyles, arrived Thursday in New Orleans. The groups have provided free health care and food to thousands of people in Louisiana and Mississippi since hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit.
They use their own money, credit and donations. Everyone involved, including the medical professionals, is a volunteer.
Savoye said the groups mobilized when New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin allowed residents to re-enter the city.
"We wanted to be here to welcome the locals back to the city,” Savoye said. “There is a definite need for medical care and food and we’ll be here as long as the need exists.”
Domnick said she worked through every possible state and city agency to secure the rights to set up in Washington Square.
After contacting the New Orleans Emergency Operation Center she received a call from Dr. Sandra Robinson, deputy director of the New Orleans Department of Health, followed by a call from Franklin.
“I let (Franklin) know where I wanted to do it and she gave us permission to set up at Washington Square,” Domnick said. “I asked if she had the authority to grant us permission and she said she did. I said we needed the gates unlocked and later that same day the gates were unlocked.”
For the next five days, members of the Barefoot Doctors’ Academy and the Rainbow Family cleared trash and debris, cutting and clearing dead branches from park trees.
“We’ve saved the city at least $5,000 in clean up costs,” Domnick said.
The trouble started near 5 p.m. Sunday, when the older officer demanded to see a permit. Savoye said they had permission from the New Orleans Department of Health but the officer became irate.
“I could see this extreme kind of anger in him,” Savoye said. “Any of these guys still on the job have to be maxed out so I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt but he was screaming at me and telling me to shut up.”
Willow Kennedy, a Jackson Square musician who lives next to Washington Square, witnessed the initial confrontation.
“I saw the officer come up and get right in their faces,” Kennedy said. “It was a pretty hot confrontation and he did the typical cop thing and said, ‘You’re leaving in 24 hours or you’re going to jail.’ That’s what went down.”
When the police arrived Monday the New Orleans Jazz Vipers cleared out, worried their instruments would be confiscated.
Outside the square, while the NOPD officers waited for a permit, Bill Moore, an international Teamsters Union representative based in Washington, D.C., sat next to a tractor trailer packed with donated water and orange juice to be delivered to the Barefoot Doctors’ Academy.
“I’ve never been anywhere where a police officer would never even identify himself,” Moore said. “The older cop said they better give him the information he wanted because he had a gun. I don’t think the younger cop liked that he was acting that way.”
Once members of the Missouri National Guard arrived, led by Capt. Chris Moenster, the NOPD officers left within minutes.
“I don’t think you’ll see them again,” Moenster said after speaking with the officers. “They’re overwhelmed and over-shocked. We’re working with the police and it’s been a good working relationship so far with very few conflicts.”
Moenster said the officers were concerned about the debris piling on the sidewalks from the cleanup.
“From what I’ve seen, this place looks 100 percent better since the (Barefoot Doctors’ Academy) got here,” Moenster said. “People keep asking us where they can get a hot meal and now we’re going to send everyone here.”
Moore said the impact the Rainbow Family and Barefoot Doctors’ Academy have had on Washington Square has been dramatic.
“Those people cleaned up that whole area and did a heck of a job,” Moore said. “If this happened (in Washington D.C.) they would be giving these people accolades — not harassing them.”
As the sun set, Felipe Chavez, a member of the Rainbow Family, lifted the barbecue lid and sprayed chicken pieces with water through a thick, savory smoke, preparing the evening’s free meal. He took the day’s events in stride.
“If they confronted us the right way without all of that intimidation attitude it would probably work out a lot better but instead they stick their chests out and say we’re not supposed to be here,” Chavez said. “They should be serving the people, not beating the people up. They shouldn’t be in law enforcement if they can’t control themselves."•