Last Thursday afternoon, beneath sprays of crepe myrtle and strings of barbed wire, hundreds of people gathered outside the walls of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office (JSPO) across the river from New Orleans. In the heat of the Louisiana sun, protesters carried signs with the names of men killed by the JSPO, whose cases they contend have not been subjected to proper investigation. The familiar call and response of “no justice, no peace” and “hands up, don’t shoot” were chanted in between prayer and demands for #JusticeforDesto.
On May 27 — two days after the murder of George Floyd — local welder and rapper Modesto Reyes was shot down by police following a traffic stop in Marrero, a suburb of New Orleans. Though an incident report has yet to be presented, a statement made by the JSPO confirms that a car chase took place, followed by a foot chase. According to an eight-second video from a taser camera pulled by one officer, when Reyes tripped and then attempted to get back up, an officer yelled “gun,” before shots were fired at Reyes, ultimately killing him.
The protest, which swelled for three hours and shut down traffic underneath the Westbank Expressway, is reported to have been the first large-scale demonstration in a New Orleans suburb. Participants expressed anger and despair at the death of Reyes, as well as a spate of violent incidents carried out by the JSPO in recent years that have attracted little attention in the national media. Many were also present to demand that the JSPO begin wearing body cameras, a policy practiced by the New Orleans Police Department, but eschewed by the adjacent JSPO.
One woman at the protest carried a sign listing the names of fifteen black men who have been shot, beaten, and/or killed by the JSPO in recent years. Among the names were Reyes, Chris Jospeh, Daviri Robertson, Eric Harris, Leo Brooks, Don White (who was killed by the Kenner Police in Jefferson Parish), and Keeven Robinson.
“We have our own George Floyd right here in Jefferson Parish, says Michelle Charles, a local public defender referring to Keeven Robinson, a twenty-two-year-old whose death on May 18, 2018 was ruled a homicide by compressional asphyxia. Though the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office had promised to deliver its ruling once shelter-in-place orders were lifted on May 16, it has yet to do so. It’s been reported that the officers involved — David Lowe, Jason Spadoni, Justin Brister, and Gary Bordelon — have all had civil rights suits brought against them prior to the Robinson case.
“We do not get treated the same way,” says Charles, citing a 2016 incident in which Ronald Gasser, a white man, shot and killed former NFL player Joe McKnight, a black man, in an incident of road rage in Terrytown, Louisiana. Former Sheriff Newell Normand was criticized for releasing Gasser from custody without charging him and subsequently being “slow-footed” to press charges as one report described. Charles, who worked on McKnight’s case with his family’s attorney helped to organize the Thursday protest which was sponsored by the Village Keepers, a group committed to assisting victims’ families, and aided by the New Orleans chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America as well as Take ‘Em Down NOLA, which advocates for the removal of symbols of white supremacy.
At another protest on Saturday morning held at the Frank Lemon Playground in the suburb of Jefferson, Daviri Wallace, a freshman in college, tearfully addressed the crowd. His t-shirt read “My father’s life mattered” in silver letters. Wallace is the son of Daviri Robertson, an unarmed man who was shot and killed in an IHOP parking lot alongside Chris Joseph by plainclothes JSPO detectives when Joseph allegedly put his car into reverse, backing into an officer.
This protest, organized by Gaylor Spiller, the president of the Jefferson Parish chapter of the NAACP (she was not representing the NAACP at the event) was held to bring attention to the families of the men who have been killed, who are fighting for recognition of excessive force used by the JSPO. “Black folks are still being treated as though they are not human,” says Spiller who is independently investigating five of the aforementioned shootings. “I’m hurting that the whole world has not seen what we’re experiencing in Jefferson Parish. I’m bringing out the truth,” she said.
On the afternoon of Monday, June 8, Ronald Haley, one of the attorneys working with Modesto Reyes’s family confirmed that the family had not yet seen the taser camera footage, despite its disclosure by the JSPO to a group of citizens and some members of the media. Nor had the family been contacted directly by police. “I think there’s more to it than an eight-second video,” said Haley. “I think it would give perspective as to whether or not Mr. Reyes had a firearm.” Haley says his team has spoken with three eye witnesses to the shooting who all reported that Reyes was holding a cell phone, not a firearm, and that one of the officers involved had been in the neighborhood earlier in the day on May 27, “goading citizens to start some stuff.”
Haley questions why one officer would pull a non-lethal weapon while another would pull a gun. “I think this is another call for why officers that patrol the streets absolutely need to have functioning body cams,” said Haley. “That trust and accountability should paramount any cost that would be weighed on a particular sheriff’s office or police department.”
At demonstrations across New Orleans last week, posters with drawings of Modesto Reyes were carried through the streets alongside portraits of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Locals referred to Reyes as “Desto,” (the name under which he recorded music) and recall him as a talented artist who had miraculously survived the May 12 collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel construction site in New Orleans, where he had been working when the building crumbled. It’s a tragedy noted by protesters that Reyes could survive that catastrophe, but couldn’t survive a simple traffic stop.
Throughout the rally last Thursday, protesters called for Sheriff Joe Lopinto to emerge from the building in the distance, which is named for Harry Lee, a notoriously racist figurehead who served as the parish’s sheriff from 1980 to 2007. As the crowd grew and the chants persisted, a hundred yards away, beyond the barricades of the JSPO, a statue of the former sheriff Lee loomed. The gates remained locked. The parking lot was empty. Nobody appeared to be at work that day.