Short story from Jeff Rasley

Anarchy and a Police Riot during Mardi Gras

An excerpt from A Hitchhiker’s Big Adventure

I spent most of the rest of the day sitting on the river bank watching barges and freighters pass up and down the Mississippi. I felt reluctant to return to Daniel’s apartment. The bread and soup lunch was surprisingly filling, and the water the nuns supplied helped cleanse the alcohol from my system. I was content to sit and watch the river traffic and to observe the people who strolled along the river walk.

There were two grifters trying to prey on passing tourists. One of their scams, Daniel warned me about. It’s the classic, “Where’d ya git dem shoes? I’ll bet ya a sawbuck I can tell ya where ya got dem shoes.” It was amusing to see the reactions of the intended marks. Some must have been warned about the scam, because they replied, “On my feet, here in the City of New Orleans. Now, you give me a sawbuck!” Others acted offended and refused to pay. But several of the people who took the bait were good sports and gave the hucksters five dollars.

Grifters were not the trouble that was coming my way. When I drifted back to Jackson Square, I struck up a conversation with a couple longhairs dressed all in black, black Ts, black loose-fitting cotton pants, and black Army boots. They were cool guys, small, lithe, and quick-witted. After they got comfortable with me, Jake and Jess informed me that they were anarchists, and they were here to disrupt Mardi Gras. “We’re going to stand up against The Man,” Jake declared. But they weren’t specific about what their plans were. Jess said, “We’re going to make our point through random acts of vandalism.”

That should have set off an alarm bell, but I was in a weird state of mind. Chick, my tormenter from last night, and his rich real estate father -– they were The Man. Chick humiliated me, and had seemingly turned Daniel against me. So yeah, I’d like to get revenge. And these guys were intelligent, articulate, and likeable. I wasn’t sure how seriously I should take their talk about “disrupting the capitalist system supporting Mardi Gras.” But I decided to hang out with them and see what they’d get up to.

A fourth guy joined our posse. Ben was sitting in the grass within earshot of our discussion. He seemed an unlikely fit with the anarchists. Ben was a huge dude with an open, honest face. At one point, he just broke into our conversation and informed us he was a little drunk and a little high from drinking and smoking pot all day. He said he was on a bender because his girlfriend broke up with him. This big, sweet guy was desperate for someone to hear his tale of woe, and we just happened to be sitting near him. In the course of his monologue, we learned that he was an offensive lineman at Louisiana State University.  Jake whispered to Jess, “We can use somebody this big, for sure.”

So we gave Ben encouraging looks to finish his story. It ended in sorrow, because his girlfriend, Gloria, dumped him for some rich Sigma Chi. Since we listened sympathetically, Jake, Jess, and I became Ben’s best friends.

After it got dark, Jake and Jess said to come with them, because there was a parade that would be coming down Decatur Street, and they planned to disrupt it. That sounded crazy to me, but Ben said he was up for anything. So, Ben and I followed Jake and Jess the one block over to Decatur St.

Big crowds lined both sides of the street. There were lots of drunks in the crowd, but there were also lots of regular tourists and some families with kids. Jake explained that this parade was a big deal because Phil Harris, the 1972 King of Mardi Gras, was riding in it. “That’s why were going to disrupt it. Stop the King’s Parade, and that’s a real statement against the system!” he enthused.

“Who the fuck is Phil Harris?” Ben asked.

“I think he’s a comedian,” I said. “He used to have a radio show my parents listened to, if he’s the guy I’m thinking of.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jess said quickly. “The power elites that run this city pick some random celebrity to be King Bacchus of Mardi Gras each year. He’s just a running dog of the real capitalists.”

“Hah! Running dog, I like that,” Ben said jovially and slapped Jess on the back.

When the first float was a block away moving slowly toward us, Jake yelled, “Now!” He and Jess ran out into the middle of the street. They both started shouting, “Stop the parade! Streets are for the people! Stop the parade! Streets are for the people!” They waved their arms encouraging others in the crowd to join them. People started streaming into the street and took up the chant, “Stop the parade! Streets are for the people!”

Ben grabbed my arm and excitedly said, “Come on, we gotta get out there!” With his big hand locked on my arm, he pulled me into the street. But I didn’t join in the shouting. I had a sinking feeling this was not a good idea. Within a few minutes after the demonstration started, I heard the clatter of horses’ hooves on pavement.

Twenty mounted cops swinging billy clubs charged into the mass of people in the street. Horses trampled demonstrators, and cops cracked heads with their clubs. I backed away up onto the sidewalk, but Ben stood his ground with clenched fists. The gentle giant transformed into his warrior-football persona. He yelled at a mounted cop, “Come on, you motherfucker!” The cop swung his foot-long baton and missed Ben’s head, but landed a blow on his shoulder. That enraged Ben further. He grabbed the cop’s leg trying to dismount him. By then, about thirty more police on foot attacked the protesters. While Ben was struggling with the mounted cop, one of the cops on foot ran up behind him and smashed him in the back of the head with his baton. That stunned Ben. He let go of the cop’s leg and turned toward the one who hit him. That cop drew his baton back and then whacked Ben in the middle of his forehead, splitting it open. He tottered and fell back on his butt. He was sitting upright but looked completely dazed.

It was mayhem with mounted and on-foot police wading into the packed crowd with their billy clubs. Wounded and scared people screamed and bellowed in pain and rage. Cops cursed the protesters as they leveled blows at heads and torsos. It didn’t matter whether you were trying to scramble away and get out of the melee in the street. If you were in range of a cop’s baton, you got whacked with it.

As soon as I heard the clatter of hooves on pavement, I backed out of the street and onto the sidewalk. I watched the carnage in open-mouthed horror. When the horse patrol arrived swinging their batons, Jake and Jess pushed their way through the crowd and sprinted away. I guess they accomplished their goal, because the parade was disrupted and rerouted off Decatur onto Dumaine Street. 

Just after the foot patrol arrived, two paddy wagons pulled up. Bloodied protesters beaten by the cops were pushed or thrown into the paddy wagons. Anyone who got caught in the street by the police got pummeled and then arrested. A few of the cops even came over to the sidewalk and whacked some people for just standing there. But they didn’t arrest anyone on the sidewalk.

Two cops took Ben by the arms and hauled him into a paddy wagon. I’m pretty sure he was unconscious. He’d be lucky if he just had a concussion. I was afraid that he might have suffered permanent brain damage. I doubted he’d ever play football again.

A few yards from where I was standing on the sidewalk, a well-dressed elderly man bleeding from the ear shook his fist at the cops and yelled, “I’m a taxpayer in this city! How dare you! How dare you!” His grey-haired wife was trying to pull him away. She looked beseechingly at me, as if I could stop his bleeding or should help her pull him away.

I just stood there in shock, a silent witness to the police brutality and to the deviousness of the anarchists who lit the fuse. Were other anarchists in the crowd that poured into the street? Jake and Jess were the only ones I noticed dressed all in black. The other “protesters” were probably just a bunch of people who came out to see a parade and then got caught up in the excitement of the moment. Did they really take to the street, because they wanted to take a stand against The Man? The guys who actually fought back against the cops, for the most part, looked like angry-hippie-radical types. So maybe they agreed with the point Jake and Jess wanted to make. But I think most of the people who got trampled by the horse patrol or bludgeoned by cops were probably just out to drink and have a good time that evening.

When it was over, there was blood in the street mixed with trash and vomit. As I walked back to Daniel’s apartment, I felt like a zombie, numb.  

A Hitchhiker’s Big Adventure: On the Road from Indiana to Key West and New Orleans, by Jeff Rasley is exclusively available on Amazon.