Police Put St. Louis' Worst Hoof Forward

We don't have Rodney King in St. Louis to ask us why we can't all get along. For the moment, though, we've got Ilana Herzberg.

Herzberg is an 18-year-old Brazilian student who is in town for an eight-week program at Webster University. She also furthered her education last week at the Soulard Mardi Gras.

It seems young Ilana had an unexpectedly equestrian experience.
"We were there at the parade and everything was fine -- no fights, nothing bad going on, just everyone having a good time -- when all of a sudden the cops came on horses and started pushing everyone to the sidewalks," she told me Monday. "There was nowhere to go, but they kept pushing and pushing anyway. I fell down, but some people helped me up. They had the horses pressed right up to our faces. One was even up on the sidewalk.

"It was frightening."
Welcome to America, land of the free, home of the brave. Come, let us show you the world's greatest democracy in action. But careful, don't get stepped on by the police horses.

What Herzberg witnessed in Soulard last Tuesday was described in the media as a near-riot. Really it was more of a small stampede -- with Fat Tuesday partygoers involuntarily cast in the role of cattle -- and from most eyewitness accounts, the shepherding police wreaked far more havoc than the drunks did.

Had the police restrained their urge to keep women from publicly baring their breasts (now there's a turnabout for you), the Mardi Gras celebration would have gone down peacefully in the books as just one more tiny little example of the decline of Western civilization.

But no, not with Chief Ron Henderson doing a bad Teddy Roosevelt impersonation. Henderson personally led the charge in Soulard -- an act of unabashed grandstanding -- and as a result, hundreds of innocent bystanders like Herzberg were terrorized (and in some cases injured) to teach a lesson to a few rowdy ladies and their drunken admirers.

Yo, chief, "show us your tits" didn't start the Spanish-American War. And the Rough Riders didn't use Mace on unarmed civilians.

The best-case police story is that rocks and bottles started flying at them when they were just doing their thankless job to protect lives and property, forcing them to take proper steps -- reluctantly, calmly and consistent with all codes of professional conduct -- to encourage the crowd of drunken lawbreakers to disperse. Right. And the defendants began to strike the fists of the police officers with their faces.

Were the crowds blameless? No. Were lots of people drunk and acting stupid? Yes. Were the police placed in an extremely difficult situation? Maybe.

But was a larger social purpose served by "enforcing the law" about public decency at an event embraced by hundreds of thousands as a celebration of boorish behavior? Absolutely not.

It is thoroughly understandable if residents and business owners in Soulard wish to reevaluate the ever-mushrooming Mardi Gras festivities to protect the interests of their historic neighborhood. But there's little evidence that the majority of them are nearly as concerned about nipping partial nudity in the bud, so to speak, as our suddenly prurient police protectors.

To the extent the event brings with it serious crime, such as car-window smashing, break-ins and other incidents of vandalism, firm police response is obviously in order. But no one's complaining that the police were too rough on vandals. Indeed, if more attention were paid to them and less to peaceful (albeit public) drunks, everyone would be happier.

Perhaps most disconcerting of all is Henderson's boorishness about the whole thing. Henderson is unjustifiably proud of the police work last week, and the only changes he's talking about are the ones he says that the Mardi Gras organizers must make to his satisfaction next year.

Yet talk to the police in charge of the real Mardi Gras, in New Orleans -- which we did in this issue (see page 9) -- and you realize that there's more to professional crowd control at an event of this nature than figuring out ways for people not to be allowed to become drunk.

In effect, Henderson suggests that St. Louis can't handle a giant street party. A more appropriate question is whether, under his leadership, the police can.

A little perspective is in order here, which is why I chose to share Herzberg's version of what happened in Soulard.

I don't know Herzberg personally, but she's a good witness for a number of reasons. One, her experience was up-close and personal. Two, she seems to have no ax to grind, with no lawsuits or other self-serving actions pending. Three, she's not a publicity-seeker: She didn't approach us or other news media but, rather, was referred to me by a friend who vouches for her credibility.

Finally, and most important, Ilana is a veteran of numerous Carnival celebrations in her home city of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The fact that this 18-year-old kid will be returning home rolling her eyes about St. Louis ought to give us pause.

To hear her tell it, Soulard Mardi Gras doesn't come nearly as close to replicating Carnival as its revelers might hope. For one thing, she says, Carnival is vastly larger and much different, especially in the breast-baring department.

Herzberg talked more of fully clothed groups of competing students rather than women flashing for beads when asked to describe Carnival, although she also noted that there is far more violence attendant to the celebration than we have here. Flashing, it turns out, is more of an American Mardi Gras custom than an international pursuit.

In any event, the Soulard experience left her a bit puzzled.
"I thought it was ironic to come here and see all this," she says. "In all the years at Carnival, I never saw anything like women flashing to get beads or the police charging with horses and hurting people.

"I didn't get the point of why they were doing it.

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