The arrest and alleged abuse of an activist has pushed local relief
workers, who have complained of harassment since the early days after Katrina,
to demand a solution so they can get on with their vital work.
In their efforts to help the struggling residents of New Orleans, local relief
activists say they have become a target for police harassment.
"We'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, 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 didn'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 we're just gonna kill
him, we're just gonna shoot him and throw him in the river, no one will ever
Griffith'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.
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
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. We'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.
"I'm 65 years old and in all my entire life, I have never, ever been arrested,"
Doucette said. "I've never been handcuffed. That was my freedom. But the
other night, they stole that from me... They violated me, and I was just trying
to help some people, and they gave me a false charge.
"They didn't hit me," Doucette continued, "but they took my
dignity, they humiliated me. They put me in that funky costume that they have
in there... That ain't me. It was nasty dirty, but they made me put it on. They
fingerprinted me; they took my picture.... That's what they are doing to black
people. They are picking them up and charging them with anything and everything...
A black man doesn'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
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 let's work together to establish an efficient means of documenting the police."
Jessica Azulay is a co-founder of PeoplesNetWorks and an editor at