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Police On The Rampage in New Orleans: New Orleans on a hair-trigger
by Tim Harper    Toronto Star
Entered into the database on Saturday, September 03rd, 2005 @ 19:31:53 MST


Untitled Document

'Stop the car right now,' reporter told. `Back up, or I'll shoot'

I wheeled the car around and headed back to the scene of the shooting, looking for Toronto Star photographer Lucas Oleniuk, when the officer turned, spotted me and pointed the shotgun right at the windshield.

"Stop the car right now. Back up, or I'll shoot," he screamed.

A couple of others cocked their weapons and trained their guns on the car, purpose in their eyes.

Instinctively, I raised my hands above the wheel and gunned the Pontiac in reverse over fallen tree limbs and debris in the street.

This was our indoctrination into a Big Easy that'll never make a picture postcard.

Minutes earlier, as Oleniuk and I first saw downtown New Orleans looming after a long odyssey to get into the locked-down city, he shouted at me to stop when he spotted armed officers crouched behind a cruiser, training their guns on an apartment block.

His welcome to the besieged city came the second he left the vehicle when three shots rang out — a quick "pop-pop-pop." Oleniuk stumbled behind a lamppost for protection and began shooting photos.

In seconds, as many as 40 officers sped to the scene, most in marked cars — but one in a Kinko's van — some of whom set up behind Oleniuk, their guns aimed over his left shoulder.

Others, guns drawn, shouted at me to get out of the way.

Realizing he was in the line of fire, Oleniuk raced for cover behind a cruiser and worked alongside a group of police as they fired into the building.

After 15 minutes, the last of more than 350 images shot by Oleniuk depicted officers delivering a fierce beating to the two suspects, an assault so fearsome one of the suspects defecated.

Realizing their frontier justice had been captured for posterity, the police turned on the photographer, one ripping a camera from his neck with such force it broke its shoulder strap.

Another grabbed a second camera and, somewhere in the melee, Oleniuk's press pass was ripped from his neck.

The officers fumbled with the cameras, finally pulling out the memory cards with the photos.

Oleniuk pleaded for the return of his cameras, was rebuffed, then, after retreating about a block, approached them again and asked for his cameras back.

One of the officers who had been hunkered down with Oleniuk during the 15-minute shootout said he could have his cameras, but when he asked again for his pictures, he was gruffly told: "If you don't get your ass out of here, I'm going to break your motherf---ing jaw."

In the chaos that is New Orleans, police menacingly pointed loaded weapons at me four times, and Oleniuk and I watched later when four officers armed with machineguns, after first demanding to know where we were going, turned on an approaching cab and screamed at the Hispanic driver to get his hands off the wheel or they'd open fire. When he wouldn't do so immediately, it appeared for a split second that he would be shot on the spot.

Mercifully, his shaky hands finally appeared above the dash.

Because New Orleans is under martial law, police need no reason to stop and search anyone or pull them off the street. There's no doubt they see journalists as an impediment to their efforts to regain control of their city. But they have also been shot by snipers and looters in the nighttime chaos, and anyone who drives through this city these days knows what it's like to get a little twitchy.

As one navigates ravaged New Orleans from the east, through Kenner and Jefferson Parish, past the airport and toward the French Quarter, driving flooded streets till the filthy water gets too deep, then trying alternate routes, it is the human toll, not the physical toll, which worsens.

First, there is a single barefoot man walking aimlessly along Airline Highway. Then others slogging through the floodwaters of Metairie. Then families trudging dispiritedly along the roads of Kenner. Then, by the time you get to Napoleon and St. Charles in New Orleans, close to 100 sit silently in the middle of debris, watching the strange car navigate among the downed trees in their neighbourhood.

Later, down St. Charles, some try to stop you to ask for rides — "I have a baby ..." — others glare sardonically, while others peer at the car blankly.

Through downtown, toward the French Quarter, the refugees congregate in groups of 10 or 20. Some have guns, some have crowbars or iron bars, and, mindful of carjackings, you dispense with the hurricane etiquette of treating darkened intersections as four-way stops.

When you park on Canal St. to get a sense of the enormity of the refugee flow as people come down the Interstate overpass, many pushing shopping carts or luggage racks, you sense the desperation. You park close to where others are parked and you regret that you can't pack them all in your backseat and get them out of there.

And you wonder where the relief workers are.