NEW ORLEANS — Robert Davis, a retired sixth-grade teacher at New Orleans' McDonogh Elementary School, had just finished a free meal of Salisbury steak, mixed vegetables and blueberry pie, served at the Doubletree Hotel here for people made homeless by Hurricane Katrina.
It was pleasant last Saturday night, he recalled, so he decided he would take an "evening constitutional" down Bourbon Street. His plan was to pick up a pack of Kool cigarettes and head back to the home of friends he was staying with here.
Davis, 64, never made it to the store. He did make it to national television, however, on the receiving end of what he called a "sucker punch" from a New Orleans police officer with whom he had exchanged harsh words.
"I did say he was very rude and unprofessional," Davis recalled Tuesday. "So then -- bam! He just smacks me upside the head, and then he throws me to the ground. One of them gets a knee into me. It was all really out of line."
Davis is at the center of a videotape played over and over on television news in recent days. In the tape Davis, who is black, is shown being beaten, kneed in the groin and finally slammed onto the sidewalk by two white police officers.
A third white officer is shown launching into a profane tirade against a television news producer for the Associated Press whose cameraman was filming a segment about the return of nightlife to New Orleans' French Quarter.
The three officers, Lance Schilling, Robert Evangelist and S.M. Smith, have been suspended without pay and charged with battery, and they received public criticism from Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who said of the beating Davis received: "Whatever he did, he didn't deserve what I saw on tape."
As the officers' case unfolds in court and officials here worry about whether it may damage the city's strenuous bid to rebuild its tourism economy, the man on the receiving end of the blows insists he is mystified by the whole incident -- and irate at the police account that he was drunk at the time.
"I haven't had a drink in 25 years," Davis said.
Davis was sent to a local hospital, where he was treated for a fractured cheekbone, a broken nose and a black eye.
Then he was sent to jail.
Police officials said the officers' case and Davis' -- he is charged with public intimidation, public intoxication, resisting arrest and battery on a police officer -- would be dealt with in court and that they would have no further comment.
The Associated Press said neither the producer nor the cameraman would comment.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson embraced Davis on Canal Street on Tuesday and told reporters it was "self-evident" that racism was involved in the incident.
However, Davis himself said he was not so sure, and his lawyer, Joseph Bruno, said of the incident: "This is not an indictment of the whole department. It's about a few bad eggs who need to be gotten rid of."
Davis said the incident began when he approached a black police officer on horseback to ask him about details of a nighttime curfew.
When a white officer who was not on horseback intervened, for reasons that are not clear, Davis complained of his rudeness, at which point the encounter turned physical.
"The black officer just stood by," Davis said. "He didn't intervene to tell the other guys I was clearly no threat."
The name of the black police officer has not been released.
Davis said that though he could understand that the white officer was taken aback by his criticism, he remained dumbfounded by the inebriation charge. He said he had stopped drinking in 1980, after he blacked out from a night of heavy drinking.
"I had a Thunderbird at the time," he said. "I came downstairs, the thing had two flat tires, and I had absolutely no recollection of how I got home. I knew I had a problem, so I just stopped."
Davis, who has a master's degree in education from Xavier University in New Orleans, said he had not used drugs since college.
A longtime friend of Davis' supported his account of being a non-drinker.
"I've known Bob for more than 20 years," said Paul West, 67, a fellow former schoolteacher. "I've spent a lot of time with him, a lot of weekends. He doesn't drink, period."
The FBI said Tuesday that it had opened a civil rights investigation into the beating incident, and the Justice Department said it was monitoring the situation.
The FBI has sent a team of four agents from outside the region to conduct the investigation.
"They will do an investigation of the entire incident, provide the results to the Department of Justice, and then their civil rights division will make a determination relatively quickly" on how to proceed, including whether to bring charges, said FBI spokesman Richard Kolko, adding that the bureau investigation would probably take only a few days.
Kolko said two FBI agents at the scene of the beating were there because they had responded to a request for assistance from the New Orleans Police Department.
"The two agents got there basically at the end of the incident," Kolko said, adding that there was "absolutely no indication" that the agents had done anything improper.
Times staff writer Richard B. Schmitt in Washington contributed to this report.