Celebrating, in Spite of the Risk

Wednesday, May 15, 2013 2 comments


NEW ORLEANS — Each year in the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day, when the members of the Original Big 7 Social Aid and Pleasure Club drew up the sheet outlining their parade’s route through the back streets of town, they would include a warning: “Leave your guns and foolishness at home.”
Each year, that is, until this year. Things seemed to have gotten better, they figured. Maybe the warning was no longer necessary.
Only 20 minutes into the parade, as legs had begun to loosen and the members in their cream-colored suits danced before a brass band, it became terrifyingly clear that it still was. A young man, identified by the police as 19-year-old Akein Scott, stepped away from a street corner and fired with seeming indifference into the crowd, leaving 19 people on the ground with gunshot wounds, 3 of them in critical condition.
The police have released no motive, but people here by and large figured that it was the same old story: a young man with gun and a complaint spotted a rival and attacked.
When shootings like this happened in the past — and they have, sometimes deadly but almost never as brazenly — they often prompted a debate about street culture and violence, about the rolling crowds that form on such occasions and how much they may be to blame for what goes on in their orbit.
Several years ago, prompted by one of those shootings, the New Orleans police raised security fees for marching clubs so high that it seemed the tradition of these parades, put on for more than a century by black working-class New Orleanians, might be seriously curtailed, or end for good.
This time seems as if it will be different. Since Sunday afternoon, the mayor and the police chief have repeatedly and emphatically divorced the shooting from the occasion that it ruined. They have called the parades a crucial part of the city’s culture and even a bulwark against its seemingly ceaseless violence, an argument marchers have been making for years.
“The layers of this thing are really important, and that’s to understand what the origin of the violence is, what it’s connected to and what it’s not connected to,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who has long made a case for what he calls the city’s cultural economy. “This didn’t have anything to do with second lines, and it didn’t have anything to do with the rich cultural heritage of New Orleans.”
Sunday’s event was a so-called second line parade, the “second line” referring to all those who join in along the route and follow behind the band, making more of a rolling party than the kind of parade one simply watches. They take place nearly every Sunday between September and May, in the poor and working-class back streets of the city.
Such parades are put on by social aid and pleasure clubs, which function as inner-city relief societies, delivering groceries to shut-ins, buying football uniforms and pooling resources to pay for life’s unexpected invoices, like medical emergencies and funeral costs. They also put on parades once a year in the neighborhood they represent, with the brass bands, Technicolor suits and stops at drinking holes along the way. The parades can cost thousands of dollars, even tens of thousands.
For decades, they happened off the bureaucratic radar, without permits and largely unknown to anyone not directly attached to the marchers. For many New Orleanians — black and white — the parades were, and still are, surrounded by an air of menace.
“I never got involved in second lines,” said Willie Green, the drummer for the Neville Brothers, who grew up just outside New Orleans. “It was always too scary for me.”
But club members, who mostly live in the neighborhoods they parade in, are intimately familiar with how dangerous New Orleans can be. Edward Buckner, the president of the Original Big 7, lost a 26-year-old son to gun violence four years ago. Joe Henry, who started the Original Pigeontown Steppers, parades in a wheelchair, having been shot on Mardi Gras Day when he was 12. A cousin of his was murdered. 
“The list goes on and on,” said Tamara Jackson, the president of the city’s Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force, who lost her father to gun violence. Neither Ms. Jackson nor others deny that violence has marred the parades, but they say this is a function of where the parades take place.
New Orleans Police Department
In this image taken from video, a young man in a white shirt is seen shooting into a crowd of people at the Sunday parade, injuring 19, 3 of them critically.
William Widmer for The New York Times
A local musician, Kenneth Terry, with his arm around Jason McMaster, a member of the Original Big 7, at a rally on Tuesday protesting against violence.
William Widmer for The New York Times
Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke to local residents on Tuesday near the site of Sunday’s parade violence.
William Widmer
A look at part of the route of the 2011 parade.
 “We try to nurture our neighborhoods, but that’s also where drugs and crime exist,” she said. Before her club’s given Sunday, she walks the route with a plea: “If anyone has scores to settle, please don’t settle them around our parade.”
In the first years after Hurricane Katrina, when the city was reconstituting itself and violence was spiking, the police and the clubs tangled. After shootings near or at two processions in 2006, the police raised fees to 5 and in some cases 10 times the $750 charged for Mardi Gras parades. The second line clubs sued.
While this battle went on, however, the city was changing.
Outsiders moved here with an appetite for an amorphous thing one might call “authentic New Orleans,” and they met residents newly appreciative of traditions that, without effort, could have died out. The HBO series “Treme” gave a primer to people who had no idea what a second line was. Parade routes were publicized online, so outsiders no longer needed to rely on luck or inside connections to know where they were happening.
Journalists also championed second line culture, among the most ardent of them a woman named Deborah Cotton, who arrived from Los Angeles months before the storm but began diligently chronicling the city’s street traditions, mostly for The Gambit, the city’s alternative weekly. She also has fought claims that violence is tied to second lines, pointing out that shootings have happened at Mardi Gras parades with few people making a similar connection. 
The second line clubs themselves, which had reached an agreement with the city over the fees, began banding together more closely. In a post-Katrina survey conducted by Frederick Weil, a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University, members of social aid clubs were found to be “more civically active, service oriented, and trusting than even the rich or well educated.”
Negotiations with the city and the police began to go more smoothly under the Landrieu administration, club members said.
“We actually sit down with the members and we negotiate,” said Cmdr. Bob Bardy of the Police Department’s Sixth District, a part of town where relationships with parade promoters had historically been tense.
Richard Anderson, president of the Single Men social aid club, said that Commander Bardy had suggested that his club’s parade avoid certain bad spots altogether or that it keep moving in dangerous places where they might have planned a stop. The strategy has largely worked.
“We hadn’t had a shooting in a while,” Mr. Anderson said.
Then Sunday.
One of the most seriously injured in the shooting, Ms. Cotton remains in the hospital in critical but stable condition. Mr. Buckner, for his part, wants to march again, after some time for healing. “It breaks your heart, man,” he said.

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