Copping an Attitude

Riot police led by St. Louis Police Chief Ronald Henderson bring a violent end to 1999 Soulard Mardi Gras festivities

The way Michael Garcia remembers his brutal hazing, he couldn't take one step without being accosted and summarily flailed. "They told me to get on the sidewalk, I got on the sidewalk. They told me to get off the sidewalk, I got off the sidewalk. They threw me on the ground, kicking me and punching me," he recalls.

As Joseph Lane watched the assault, he thought the young man might die of his injuries. Garcia, an 18-year-old high-school student from Arnold, begged for his life, says Lane, as his attackers continued to bludgeon him with flashlights and truncheons.

Lane couldn't call the police for help, because the police were already there -- they were the perpetrators of the beating.

"For a half-a-block, they literally kicked and beat this kid and kept spraying him with Mace," says Lane, a 46-year-old organic gardener from Chesterfield. "He couldn't see. He was blind. He couldn't walk. He couldn't do anything."

When Lane implored the cops to stop the senseless battery and complained that the victim's civil rights were being violated, one of the officers turned on him. After repeatedly dousing him with a chemical spray, Lane says, the officer sarcastically asked him: "Now what do you think of your fucking civil rights?"

Garcia -- the first victim -- was charged with second-degree assault against a law-enforcement officer (however, the charge was later dropped). The incident is one of many acts of police violence that reportedly occurred last Tuesday night after the annual Light Up the Night Fat Tuesday Parade in the Soulard neighborhood. None of the attacks appears to have been random or spontaneous in nature. On the contrary, it seems the police participated in an organized assault on the crowd, using indiscriminate force to clear the streets. St. Louis Police Chief Ronald Henderson -- who commanded his ranks on the scene -- denies that the department used any inappropriate or excessive measures.

"The judgment was made not from my desk -- I was out there with the officers the whole time," says Henderson, who facetiously refers to the Mardi Gras mayhem as the "love fest." Last Friday, Henderson expressed confidence in himself and the behavior of the officers under his command: "I think the crowd was getting out of control and something needed to be done to take control, and that's what we did. If the police would have done nothing, the headlines would have read that we stood by and let them destroy the neighborhood and took no action."

Interviews with paradegoers indicate the police incited the raucous revelers to riot, however. By all accounts, the center of the disturbance was located around the intersection of Ninth and Geyer streets, adjacent to the 1860's Hard Shell Cafe and Bar. Thousands of celebrants, many of them intoxicated and underage, were drinking in the street. The crowd became more enlivened when a number of young women, who had been hoisted onto the shoulders of their male companions, exposed their breasts. In exchange for displaying their mammary glands, the women were showered with souvenir necklaces. The exhibitionism is a relatively innocuous Mardi Gras tradition. Witnesses described a boorish but mostly amicable throng.

But the spirit of the gathering changed sometime between 9 and 10 o'clock, after one or more motorcycle police officers drove into the middle of the revelers, causing people to stumble and fall over each other.

"They (the motorcycle police) went right through the crowd," says 23-year-old James Chrismer, who accompanied Lane to the event. Chrismer, who says he was trained in crowd control in the Marine Corps, thinks the police mishandled the situation. "There was just nowhere to go. There were young people there getting trampled," he says. "They just started bum-rushing people." In the pandemonium that followed, rowdies pummeled one motorcycle cop and damaged at least three vehicles parked along Geyer Street.

Ken "Elvis" Picker says that when he and a friend tried to aid a waitress who was trapped inside her car, two officers manhandled them. The incident occurred outside of Molly's bar. "The police smacked the guy who was in the parade with me in the mouth, backhanded him," says Picker. "The police officer on my side poked me in the chest." Vandals then smashed the windshield of the vehicle and dented its hood. Instead of arresting the responsible parties, the police themselves went on a rampage.

"Basically, they were out of control; they just weren't acting professional," says Paul Smith, referring to the police. Smith, a 30-year-old Englishman who is visiting friends in Soulard, attended the famed Carnival in Brazil last year. But his Latin-American experience didn't prepare him for the way St. Louis' finest chose to honor this year's pre-Lent fete. "The police were just spraying Mace indiscriminately -- they were really assholes," says Smith. "They were making the problem spiral. They were aggravating people rather than calming." Instead of "pulling the troublemakers out, they were running around knocking people in the head."

Asked why the police had not been more tactful in removing the rabble-rousers, Henderson scoffs: "Walk through the crowd, cherry-picking them out -- is that what you're saying? Yeah, right. I'd like to see you do that."

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