In a Facebook video posted on Monday night, an NOPD officer is seen holding a man down with his knee, taser in hand, on the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres — a hotspot for outdoor brass band sets.
That man was Eugene Grant, according to an NOPD spokesperson, and he was arrested on Monday night for obstructing public passages and resisting an officer. He’s a trumpet player with the Slow Rollas Brass Band, although on the night of his arrest he was playing with the Young Fellaz Brass Band.
Grant is also autistic, according to his mother, Betty Grant.
“I don’t think it’s fair for them to put their hands on a disabled person like that,” she told WWNO. "It was definitely too rough."
His bandmates described him as a “sweet guy” who “just loves to play music.”
“He's a trumpet player known on Frenchmen, known around the city,” said Damien Thomas, who plays with Young Fellaz and was there on Monday night. “And of all the people there they arrested him. It was kind of messed up because they were handling him bad. They slammed him to the ground.”
One of his bandmates from Slow Rollas, Anthony Brooks, says that antagonistic interactions with the police are unfortunately routine for the band.
“We have to go through that all the time,” Brooks said. “I'm just tired of these police. How can we raise a family, you know? … We're not criminals man. We're just doing our job."
The video doesn’t show how Grant ended up on the ground under the officer’s knee, but according to an emailed statement from the NOPD, officers were responding to a call about a public disturbance and were trying to move people off the street.
“Eugene Grant struck one of the officers in the chest with his instrument, damaging the officer’s body-worn camera,” the NOPD statement said. “After striking the officer with his instrument, Grant refused repeated requests by both officers and citizens to calm down, forcing the officers to detain Grant until backup arrived.”
The Times-Picayune |The New Orleans Advocate reported on Tuesday that prosecutors dropped all charges against him, according to Grant’s lawyer.
Ultimately, even the man who called the police in the first place, David Zalkind, regretted what happened to Grant.
“I find out later that they tackled Eugene,” he told WWNO. "It was the worst possible situation."
Zalkind said that while he was the one to call the police, the situation was indicative of a larger problem that he said the city has yet to grapple with: the “overdevelopment” of Frenchmen Street.
Zalkind, who said he moved to New Orleans in 1971, owns Frenchmen Arts and Books, which occupies one of the four corners of the Frenchmen-Chartres intersection. The book store used to be called Faubourg Marigny Art and Books. Founded in 1977, it’s an establishment often lauded for being one of the oldest LGBTQ book stores in the South.
According to Zalkind, he took over the store last year as the health of the former owner, Otis Fennel, started to deteriorate. It was closed for renovation for over nine months and only recently reopened earlier this year.
“I think what happened last night was a defining experience for Frenchmen street,” said Zalkind. “It's just the result that now all the corners are filled and the brass band has no place to play."
Sam Jackson, the head of Young Fellaz, said that when they first started playing as a band over a decade ago, they would play on the empty lot that would later become Dat Dog. After the Dat Dog was built, they moved over to the then-shuttered Cafe Brasil. Last year, that space was taken over by Favela Chic, after which they were forced off that corner too, according to Jackson.
At that point, Faubourg Marigny Art and Books still wasn’t open.
“So that was a logical place for the brass bands to go,” Zalkind said.
But on March 1, the store reopened as Frenchmen Art and Books. It is open until midnight every day of the week. The fourth corner was occupied by the Praline Connection until it was purchased in late 2018 and transformed into a Willie’s Chicken Shack. For the first time in the band’s lifespan, all four corners were occupied by businesses.
At that point, Jackson came to Zalkind to ask his permission to keep playing on the corner in front of his book shop, according to both of them. They struck a deal: the band could play for 45 minutes every night.
But the band started slipping over the agreed time slot. Zalkind said they would play for two or three hours. Jackson said they only exceeded the time by a few minutes.
"What happened last night is the culmination of a series of conversations that have occurred over the last four months, which prompted me to finally call the police,” Zalkind said. “As of two weeks ago I was just fed up with it.”
Jackson sent WWNO screenshots of a text message conversation between the two men from June 25 and 26. Jackson was out of town, but apparently the Young Fellaz Brass Band wouldn’t stop playing after the allotted time. Zalkind said he would charge the band $10 a minute for every minute they played over the 45 minute threshold.
Zalkind told Jackson that the band played half an hour over the limit — $300 — and they now had to “find another corner.” Jackson said they wouldn’t pay, and explained that 45 minutes wasn’t enough time to finish a set and make enough money.
Zalkind told WWNO that the loud music right in front of his store was exacerbating his vertigo and was a long term health hazard for his hearing.
If there’s one thing that Jackson and Zalkind agree on, it’s that the saturation of businesses in the area is clashing with the outdoor brass band tradition.
“Since we were kids we've been doing this as a unit,” Jackson said. “And we've never been harassed until these guys start renting these properties on Frenchmen."
Without a traditional venue, he said, they often get the short end of the stick when dealing with the property owners and law enforcement.
“We’ve been getting an increasing number of reports of street performers being stopped by law enforcement not just on Frenchmen St, but also on Bourbon St, Royal St, and outside of Jazz Fest,” said a statement from Ethan Ellestad, the executive director of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans. “The NOPD owes Eugene an apology and law enforcement needs to reassess how they are dealing with performers in general.”
For Zalkind, there is a clear connection between the area’s development and the escalating rifts between the bands, business owners, and police.
“It's changed since the days that the brass band was on that street when it was wonderful and there was nothing else happening and they played,” he said. “But now the street is developed. And it's like everything else, things change."
Zalkind said he loves brass bands, and wants to see a resolution, but that the city will have to come together and take the problem seriously. One idea he suggested: making that area of Frenchmen a vehicle-free plaza at certain times so that the band could play without being forced so close to businesses.
Critics of Monday night’s police action are also talking about the need for policy changes. And they want to make sure that musicians have a hand in designing a new protocol, not just property and business owners.
“Who is organizing and what is the next step?,” asked DJ Soulsister on Twitter on Tuesday.