If there’s one thing that New Orleans is associated with, it’s music.
So when a well-known local trumpet player was arrested Monday night, following a call from a bookstore owner who said a brass band was blocking the entrance to his store, a furor instantly erupted.
A live-streamed Facebook video that was watched tens of thousands of times and drew hundreds of impassioned comments showed Eugene Grant, known locally as “Little Eugene,” pinned to the ground by a Taser-wielding police officer. The 27-year-old, who is autistic and has developmental delays, was arrested for obstructing a public passage and resisting an officer, police said.
But what sparked the most outrage was where the arrest took place: Frenchmen Street, a bustling corridor of jazz clubs and live music venues where sidewalk concerts by brass bands reliably draw enthusiastic crowds.
Fueling the heated response was the omnipresent specter of race — Grant is black and the business owner who called the police is white — and concerns about how an influx of newcomers and cash is changing the city.
“Frenchmen Street is dedicated to music,” said attorney Cherrell Simms Taplin, who on Tuesday persuaded city prosecutors to drop the charges. “Eugene is a New Orleans musician, and he was doing what New Orleans musicians do on Frenchmen Street, and that’s playing on the corner.”
At the center of the controversy is Frenchmen Arts and Books, which has sat at the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres Streets in the Marigny District since the 1970s, when the black and working-class neighborhood began attracting young white professionals drawn by its historic homes. Until the current owner, David Zalkind, took over last year, it was known as Faubourg Marigny Art and Books, and was believed to be the oldest gay-owned bookstore in the South.
In recent years, the area has become a tourist hot spot where one out of every 10 residences is registered as an Airbnb. Street performers drew people to the neighborhood in the 1980s and made it the music destination that it is today, Zalkind said. But the influx of bars and clubs in recent years means that they have virtually nowhere left to play, since venues that advertise live music often don’t want competition right outside their door. Technically, busking is legal on Frenchmen Street, but city code states that police can shut down a street performance if it’s blocking a public right of way or exceeding the noise limit.
The result, musicians say, is that they’re often hassled by law enforcement at the behest of business owners and forced to move away from busy corners where they can collect the most tips.
“We’re not committing any crime,” Anthony Brooks, one of Grant’s bandmates, told NOLA.com. “We’re not robbing, killing, stealing, jacking. We’re just playing music.”
Zalkind said that he’s the only business owner on Frenchmen Street who actually allows the bands to perform out front for any length of time. But he, too, is concerned about his ability to make money. The bookstore is busiest from 9 p.m. to midnight, he said, but brass bands tend to attract crowds that block potential customers. Visitors like being able to converse with the store’s staff and get recommendations, “but that experience is lost when you have 100 decibels of sound coming through the bookshop,” he said.
Those tensions came to a head on Monday night, when Zalkind called police to ask them to remove the Young Fellaz Brass Band, after weeks of mounting frustrations. He was inside the shop and didn’t personally witness what transpired when police arrived at about 9:30 p.m. but was later told the band initially obeyed officers’ instructions and began to leave. When police drove around the block a second time, however, they found the band had returned to the same corner and started to play again.
Authorities say that Grant hit one of the officers in the chest with his instrument when he was told again to move, damaging that officer’s body camera. He “refused repeated requests by both officers and citizens to calm down,” police said in a statement, forcing the officers to detain him until backup arrived.
On social media, Grant’s bandmates have expressed skepticism about that account. Bystander video doesn’t show what happened before the musician was pinned to the ground, and police haven’t said whether body-camera footage of the alleged attack exists.
“He is one of the nicest, most gentle people I have ever come across,” said Taplin, the attorney who represented Grant in court the following day. Though she hasn’t independently been able to verify if he hit the officer with his trumpet, she said, “it’s hard to imagine him being aggressive.”
Aubrey Harris, a New Orleans-based attorney, said that Grant was thrown to the ground, held in a chokehold and Tasered by officers, sustaining unspecified injuries. At some point in the melee, his trumpet was damaged. (After word the arrest spread, several local attorneys rushed to offer Grant legal representation; he is currently being represented by a third attorney, Megan Kiefer.)
The fact that a musician was arrested on Frenchmen Street was itself “pretty outrageous,” Harris said. But the use of force was especially inappropriate, in her view, given that Grant is “a slight man, maybe 5-3, 5-4, and you can kind of tell by looking at him that he’s got special needs.” She was surprised to hear reports that 10 or more police cars responded to the incident, given that the city has been plagued by slow police response times.
Officials did not respond to inquiries about the use of force, but said in a statement that the New Orleans Police Department “will always celebrate our city’s world-famous traditions and culture, including its music, while also responding accordingly to complaints made by our residents, visitors and business owners.”
After the charges against him were dropped on Tuesday morning, Grant went back to playing the trumpet on the same corner where he had been arrested, this time with a much larger crowd of musicians.
“Understandably, he’s a little sad about what happened, but he’ll tell you the music is in his heart,” Taplin said.
While Grant was in jail, outrage about the incident had spread on social media, with many questioning why anyone would own a business on Frenchmen Street if they had a problem with brass bands and loud music. Taplin said the impassioned response emanated from fears that the city is losing its unique culture, and followed an April incident in which police shut down a street performance during the weekend of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival because of noise complaints.
“It becomes dangerous when the community uses police to resolve disputes that don’t necessarily need police to be involved,” she said. “That’s something that people who are coming in and changing the landscape should understand: There are ways to resolve disputes that don’t involve calling the police.”
Zalkind says he tried to do exactly that. Young Fellaz originally started playing outside his store when it was closed for nine months because of renovations and businesses had popped up on every other corner of the intersection. When he reopened in March, he told the band that they could keep performing there, but only for 45 minutes every day.
What had been a verbal agreement between Zalkind and the band’s leader, Sam Jackson, gradually turned sour. Jackson told WWNO that the band only went a few minutes over the limit, and that the bookstore threatened to charge them for the extra time; Zalkind says they often played for several hours too long, and he was joking about wanting money.
After asking city officials and local arts and business coalitions to intercede in the dispute, Zalkind eventually grew frustrated enough to call the police. He assumed officers would get the band to move elsewhere, and the crowd would disperse peacefully. “If I knew that Little Eugene was going to be tackled, I wouldn’t have made that phone call,” he said.
The vitriol that followed was so intense that Zalkind decided not to open the bookstore on Tuesday or Wednesday, and remained closed on Thursday because of potentially dangerous flooding. In the meantime, he was bombarded with angry phone calls from all over the country and the store’s Yelp page was barraged by 1-star reviews warning people not to shop there. (Yelp later froze the listing and took down the negative reviews.) Commenters on social media pointed to the incident as an example of white people being overly eager to call the police and accused him of being a newcomer who had moved to the city for its traditions, only to destroy them.
“I don’t know why they paint me as a carpetbagger,” Zalkind said. He first moved to New Orleans in 1971, he said, and left in 1994 before returning again in 2009 because he wanted to help rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina. The shop has been there for 40 years, and is itself part of the local fabric, he says, specializing in Southern literature, New Orleans history, and books on art, music and LGBTQ issues.
The people who have labeled him a colonizer and a racist have valid reason to be concerned about the city’s rampant gentrification, Zalkind said, but he argues they’ve chosen the wrong target.
“No one is protesting more and more daiquiri shops showing up, but they are protesting a bookstore,” he said.
Still, he said he’s hopeful that the controversy will force city leaders to figure out how street musicians and small businesses can peacefully coexist.
“Part of opening up a bookstore is to establish a community dialogue,” he said. “And if this is what it’s going to take to get that started, so be it.”
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