This is just appalling. That someone would call the cops, and that the cops would respond in this ridiculous manner,
On the evening of Oct. 1, some two dozen of New Orleans' top brass-band players and roughly a hundred followers began a series of nightly processions for Kerwin James, a tuba player with the New Birth Brass Band who had passed away on Sept. 26. They were "bringing him down," as it's called, until his Saturday burial. But the bittersweet tradition that Monday night ended more bitterly than anything else -- with snare drummer Derrick Tabb and his brother, trombonist Glen David Andrews, led away in handcuffs after some 20 police cars had arrived near the corner of North Robertson and St. Philip streets in New Orleans' historic Tremé neighborhood. In the end, it looked more like the scene of a murder than misdemeanors.
"The police told us, 'If we hear one more note, we'll arrest the whole band,'" said Tabb a few days later, at a fundraiser to help defray the costs of James' burial. "Well, we did stop playing," said Andrews. "We were singing, lifting our voices to God. You gonna tell me that's wrong too?" Drummer Ellis Joseph of the Free Agents Brass band, who was also in the procession, said, "They came in a swarm, like we had AK-47s. But we only had instruments."
The musicians were no longer playing but instead singing "I'll Fly Away" when the cops converged and the cuffs came out. A New Orleans police spokesman claimed the department was simply acting on a neighborhood resident's phoned-in complaint. And the department maintains that such processions require permits.
But when they busted up the memorial procession for a beloved tuba player, arresting the two musicians for parading without a permit and disturbing the peace, they didn't just cut short a familiar hymn -- they stomped on something sacred and turned up the volume in the fight over the city's culture, which continues amid the long struggle to rebuild New Orleans.
In that fight, Tremé is ground zero. Funeral processions are an essential element of New Orleans culture, and the impromptu variety in particular --- honoring the passing of someone of distinction, especially a musician -- are a time-honored tradition in neighborhoods like Tremé, which some consider the oldest black neighborhood in America. For black New Orleans residents who have returned to the city, these and other street-culture traditions -- second-line parades and Mardi Gras Indian assemblies -- offer perhaps the only semblance of normalcy, continuity and community organization left. In a changing Tremé, within a city still in troubled limbo and racked by violent crime, long-held tensions regarding the iconic street culture have intensified. The neighborhood, the breeding ground for much of this culture, has a history of embattlement. And now more of that history is being written.
"I've been parading in the Tremé for more than 25 years, and I've never had to deal with anything like this," said tuba player Phil Frazier, who leads the popular Rebirth Brass Band. He's brother to James, who died of complications of a stroke at 34. "I told the cops it was my brother we were playing for, and they just didn't seem to care. He's a musician and he contributed a lot to this city in his short life."
Katy Reckdahl, a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, had rushed to catch up with the Monday-evening procession when her 2-year-old son Hector heard tubas in the distance. What she didn't expect was a sudden flood of patrol cars, sirens blaring. Her front-page, full-banner-headline report two days later described police running into the crowd, grabbing at horn players' mouthpieces, and trying to seize drumsticks out of hands. "The confrontations spurred cries in the neighborhood about over-reaction and disproportionate enforcement by the police, who had often turned a blind eye to the traditional memorial ceremonies," she wrote. "Still others say the incident is a sign of a greater attack on the cultural history of the old city neighborhood by well-heeled newcomers attracted to Tremé by the very history they seem to threaten."