Another case of police murder in New Orleans

April 11, 2016

Daniel Werst reports on organizing efforts to win justice for Eric Harris, a Black man murdered by New Orleans police in February.

SOME 50 people marched through downtown New Orleans on March 29 to demand justice for Eric Harris, a Black man murdered by police on February 8, the day before Mardi Gras.

This was the latest in a series of protests about this killing led by a committee of activists involved in Take 'Em Down NOLA, the campaign to force the removal of Confederate statues in the city, especially members of the Black Youth Project organization, together with Harris' family members.

Harris' relatives have bluntly demanded that the two cops who shot and killed Eric be arrested and charged with murder, and this was the loud demand of everyone marching on March 29.

ERIC HARRIS was 22 years old when he was killed, and the father of a young child with his partner Tyshara Blouin. On February 8, he was accused of threatening his ex-girlfriend at Oakwood Mall in Jefferson Parish, across the river from New Orleans.

When he was approached by an officer from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office (JPSO), Harris and Blouin drove away, starting a car chase into central New Orleans. The chase ended when Harris crashed the car and came to a halt.

Standing up in New Orleans to demand justice for Eric Harris
Standing up in New Orleans to demand justice for Eric Harris (Daniel Werst | SW)

After the collision, two Jefferson Parish cops, Kenneth Bonura and Henry DeJean, opened fire into the driver's side of the car. Both Blouin and a witness in the area who heard the shooting estimated that the police fired approximately 20 shots. Four of those bullets and two more bullet fragments hit Harris, killing him.

Since the shooting, the cops have claimed that they shot and killed Harris because he reversed his car toward them, threatening their lives. However, video footage from a nearby building shows that the vehicle reversed about two feet, immediately stopped and then moved back where it had been.

Following the shooting, JPSO head Newell Normand told the media that the two deputies started firing upon seeing the car's reverse lights come on. By Normand's own account, the car was 60 feet from the officers. The car was damaged from the crash and flanked by police with drawn guns. The JPSO reported finding a handgun in Harris' car, but admit that it was never pointed at police.

Tyshara Blouin has said from the beginning that her partner never reversed the car. Blouin, the only non-police witness directly at the scene, said that Harris didn't touch the gearshift, that he was stunned from the crash, and that he barely had time to ask if she was hurt before he was killed.

The sheriff's deputies cannot seriously claim that they were in danger. These two officers murdered Eric Harris. Only racism and a system of impunity could shield cops who fired 20 bullets for the "crime" of being in a vehicle that rolled two feet after crashing.

Since the killing, JPSO has entirely supported Bonura and DeJean. A spokesman for the department crowed to local reporters that neither officer would even be put on desk duty because the department did not suspect them of doing anything wrong.

This attitude is unsurprising. The department does not use any cameras, either body-mounted or in its cars, to record officers' actions. Last year, the city of New Orleans forced its cops to wear body cameras. In response, Sheriff Normand said that he didn't want cameras because they would lead to "Monday morning quarterbacking."

One week after Harris was killed, amid media coverage and protests, JPSO arrested Tyshara Blouin, and charged her with being an accessory to Harris' actions and with drug possession. She was the key witness to the fatal shooting and had publicly accused the deputies of lying about killing her partner in self-defense. Many believe that her arrest was intended to intimidate--or, failing that, smear her.

New Orleans police are under federal monitoring through a so-called consent decree that created new rules for use of force after a long history of police shootings of unarmed people. The rules mandate that NOPD cannot fire at a person simply to stop a moving car. This essentially stops police from claiming that they fired because a car was being used as a weapon. A number of cases in which police have shot drivers on this pretext show that the claim is so difficult to substantiate that it can be used as a convenient excuse.

Because Jefferson Parish has more permissive rules than NOPD, and because its force is widely seen as particularly abusive, protesters are questioning why the sheriff's deputies were able to operate freely inside New Orleans.

IN THE latest demonstration against this police murder, protesters gathered at the huge downtown column, capped with a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The city's anti-racist movement has been applying pressure to get all of these monuments to white supremacy and slavery removed. Last December, the City Council voted 6-1 to remove four of the most prominent, but due to a string of lawsuits, threats to companies that might remove the statues, and inaction by the city, they are still in place.

The Lee statue has been a rallying point for several demonstrations since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the start of this protest, organizers tied up banners against racism and police violence all around the base of the column.

Several of these banners were created by a group of female prison inmates who were taking part in a celebration of Black History Month. This celebration was encouraged by the prison administration--until these women painted banners focusing on police violence against Black people, including one about Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old killed last year by a Chicago cop.

The main speaker at the start of the march was from the Black Youth Project, who commented that the New Orleans action was part of the same struggle as in Chicago against prosecutor Anita Alvarez and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The speaker also gave an update on the long series of hearings and bureaucratic decisions about whether the city would remove the Confederate statues, and stated that we shouldn't be surprised when elites defend racist symbols and obstruct popular demands.

From the Lee statue, the demonstration set off toward the downtown federal building. The chants were simple: "What do we want? Justice! Justice for who? Eric Harris! When do we want it? Now!"

Almost immediately, the marchers passed through the filming location of the TV show NCIS. As the march went through, it shut down activity on the set. The protest then stopped at a park where there is another racist statue honoring John McDonogh, the slave owner who donated funds to create a municipal school system shortly before the Civil War--intended, of course, for white children only.

Finally, the demonstration arrived at the federal building and rallied briefly outside. Organizers spoke, demanding that the federal prosecutor in New Orleans intervene to bring charges against the two cops who killed Harris. Organizers have also questioned NOPD officials at hearings on the shooting. It is clear that the so-called investigation of the killing by NOPD and federal officials cannot be expected to focus on the facts.

This march brought people together who see this killing as one more brutal event in a system that constantly targets Black people. It connected the fight against monuments symbolizing slavery to the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement.

The movement needs to focus on reaching out to the many New Orleanians who agree with our demands and can be drawn into action. Only a much larger force of people refusing to accept police violence can achieve justice for Eric Harris.

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