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May 12, 1998

Squaring Off

by David Underhill

Mardi Gras...a couple weeks of sanctified weirdness in the streets...cranking up and up to the Fat Tuesday culmination...the one day (as distinct from the other 364) of officially acknowledged misrule in Mobile.

But this year's blow out featured a blow out of somebody's brains -- by an off-duty policeman in civilian clothes. He too was partying. That included drinking. Driving through the crowded downtown, he tangled verbally with some pedestrians. Maybe he flashed his badge and shouted Police! as he emerged from the car. He surely pulled out a gun. And fired it. Suddenly a young man lay dead on the day of misrule.

The police chief fired the shooter. But a grand jury decided he should not be tried for any crime. As in the O J Simpson case, the dead man's family has begun a long trek through the courts seeking monetary compensation for his death.

Two days before this highly publicized shooting, members of the Mobile police department were involved in a non-lethal fracas that has attracted little, if any, public attention. Perhaps it was a stray incident that reveals nothing except an unraveling of frayed nerves, officers and Mardi Gras celebrants alike. Or perhaps it is a symptom of something amiss inside the department that also accounts for the Fat Tuesday shooting.

Whatever the explanation, several of the young citizens swept into the affair wanted their story told. Some agreed to the use of their names; others did not. A few said they feared retaliation by the police if their identities were divulged. But all of them gave generally similar accounts, while differing on certain details.

Joe Cain Day, February 22...the people's Mardi Gras it's sometimes called...a y'all come parade and party for tens of thousands throughout downtown...needn't be a member of any expensive, semi-secret masked society to participate fully...Bienville Square, the Mecca of the event lately...gravitate there to share the levity with whoever you find.

A cluster of teens and twentyish -- some from Mobile, some from the burbs across the bay -- was doing this. They recognized each other by name, face, attire. One describes their clothes as trashy, hippie, punk, homemade. Distinctive, yes, though hardly outlandish by Joe Cain Day standards.

But something about this loose grouping attracted the eye of the law. Most who spoke to the Harbinger say they sensed a hostile surveillance, felt pressured, and were hassled by the cops.

Jason Flack sketches the mood of the big gathering in Bienville Square that day as "festive." Yet when he and a friend went to inspect some commotion in the crowd and then were walking away, cops followed them saying, "We heard you yell, 'Fu*k the pigs!'" Flack insists that "we absolutely did not say that," but these cops were drawing back their fists as if winding up to punch. He remembers one lawman offering this service: "We'll kick your asses with our bare hands," a maneuver difficult to picture. Flack says this episode was "so frightening I dared not ask for a badge number or name." He and his friend briefly departed the square, assisted by police shoves in the back.

Some members of the group don't profess such innocence. They concede making "smart assed remarks" -- in response to provocations, as they view it. These police abuses included, they say, volleys of profanity, pushing, and occasional kicks in the back to propel from the square whoever had become the latest target of official ire. In protest and defiance of this treatment some guy screamed out, "Police brutality!" they say, and was arrested for his ill-timed exercise of free speech.

Another span of friction sparked two more arrests. Richie Garner, about to finish junior college at Faulkner State and soon to enroll at Auburn, came across the bay to mingle and party with this circle of friends. Along with others of the group, he says the cops "started messing with" some girl who appeared too young for the beer she was drinking.

According to Garner, they were cussing her, saying they were "sick of your kids' sh*t. You all think you own everything."

Garner had a goofy inspiration, "to lighten the situation," he says. He asked the officers if he could take a picture with them. Instead of saying Cheese and smiling, they threatened to arrest him for public intoxication and interfering with the police. He walked off, 60-70 feet he recalls, but "they came after me, yelling and cussing," while he backed away. He says Mobile's Finest were shouting: "Fu*k you. Get the fu*k out of here, you mother fu*ker. Fat fu*k. A**hole." Others in Garner's group recall similar bursts of language from the police.

They also confirm his account of the arrest. Garner says he replied to the cops that he had a right to be in the square, like anybody else. "I pay taxes. I pay for you to protect it."

The police countered this civics lesson, he says, with: "Bullsh*t, mother fu*ker. You don't own the city. We own the city." (A friend of Garner's recalls the response as: "You don't pay sh*t. You don't run this city. We do.")

Garner says, as do some of the others, that a cop brandished a fist at him. He turned to run, and the blow hit him on the back. Then this officer "jumped on top of me," says Garner. "I fell down. He was on top of me, strangling me with his hands. I couldn't breathe. I was choking."

Five or six more cops piled on, Garner and others claim. They say a couple officers were pushing down, hard, on the backs of his knees with billy clubs. Others were handcuffing him. "One was stepping on his head," says a buddy of Garner's.

Then they "kicked and pushed me across the square," toward the police command post, according to Garner. The cuffs were so tight his hands turned blue, he says. And "I kept falling down," because the pressure of the billy clubs had put his legs to sleep. The cops propped him against a horse, and the officer in the saddle advised him that "if you fall down and get trampled it's your own fu*king fault." An older policeman, who appeared to be in charge, then "came up and cussed me out," Garner says, in the same language the younger ones had used. He was charged with public disorder, failure to obey an officer, and resisting arrest.

As Garner was being wrestled into arrest, a cop pushed a friend back from the scene. "What the fu*k! Why'd you push me?" this high school student said. Swiftly, he too was on the ground and under arrest for similar charges. On the advice of "elders and my boss" he plead guilty "for the sake of not dealing with it." His sentence: several hundred dollars in fines and court costs, plus 30 hours of community service.

Garner, however, hired a lawyer and decided to stand trial in Mobile municipal court. Judge John Coleman convicted him on all counts last month. The magnitude of his fines, court costs, and community service has not yet been settled.

But the opinions of Garner and the several witnesses he had ready to testify are settled. Garner admits, "I'm not the best kid on the planet, not a model citizen." Yet he refuses to believe that he deserved what happened to him in Bienville Square or in court.

Garner thinks the judge regarded him as guilty before the trial began. So the judge didn't call to the stand every witnesses who came to swear that Garner hadn't resisted arrest; rather, the police had attacked him. Blane Roberts says "the judge wouldn't let us talk." Another recalls judge Coleman remarking, "Let's get this one over with. I know what I want for lunch." And he accepted the word of the two cops who testified, although Garner and his pals all say the officers lied about what occurred in the square on Joe Cain Day. They even denied the use of any foul language.

This experience makes these young people express degrees of disapproval of the police and the court ranging from dismay to disgust, to fear, to fury, and onward toward hatred, with occasional references to a "police state." Also sarcasm.

Jason Flack confesses -- without apparent regret: Exiting the courtroom as the twisted trial ended, he passed near the policeman who had been Garner's chief tormentor in the square and witness against him in court. "Lies," Flack whispered, just loud enough for the cop to hear. "I was hoping to cause somebody to lose some sleep," he admits, without directly calling the man a liar. The cop grabbed him by the arm and hauled him back to the judge. Flack didn't deny uttering "lies." Judge Coleman pronounced him in contempt of court and sentenced him to five days cleaning up at the stables of the police department's mounted unit. So far, Flack has dodged this duty, thanks to the intercession of an older acquaintance who has a friendly connection with the judge. But Flack swears that if this chore had befallen him, "I intended to spell LIES in a big pile of horse sh*t."

Less amusing is the report by another supporter of Garner. Near the end of the trial the whole group assembled in front of the judge for a scolding about their disrespect of the law and the police. This teen stood farthest to one side, from where he could see part of the area behind the judge's bench. He says a cop with "buzz cut" hair stepped through a door and stopped before reaching a point where the judge would see him.

He pulled out a blade somewhat larger than an ordinary pocketknife and pointed it toward Garner and company. Then he lifted it to his throat and drew it sideways in a slicing gesture. Once more he pointed it toward Garner, then put it away. He did this with a quiet, smirking sort of laugh, the young citizen asserts. A few people nearby -- maybe lawyers or court personnel -- also snickered, he says.

Garner and the others didn't see this mini-drama. They were focused in amazement on the judge's lecture. But they soon heard about the knife scene from the one who did see it, and they believe him. That helps explain why some statements quoted in this article have no names attached.

(The Harbinger invited both the Mobile police department and judge Coleman to tell their versions of these events for inclusion in this story, but neither had responded by press time.)

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL