'Not about to start censoring' floats, Spanish Town parade board member says in response to outcry

Baton Rouge’s signature Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade provoked controversy for the second year in a row, with critics saying its risqué style of humor went too far this past weekend.

This year’s most offending culprits were jokes about race, as at least two floats parodied the “Black Lives Matter” movement with “Pink Lives Matter” slogans, which reference the parade’s pink flamingo mascot.

One float featured a drawing of a flamingo being beaten with a police baton. The flamingo had an “I can’t breathe” sign strung around its neck, mimicking the words of Eric Garner, whose 2014 New York City death at the hands of police officers sparked protests about police brutality and helped kick off the nationwide “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations.

“It’s very easy for people who may not be enduring the weight of these types of incidents to make light of it,” said Donney Rose, one of many black writers who said this year’s parade crossed too many boundaries. “But when you belong to a group or demographic to where that could be your reality at any point in time, you don’t find the humor in it, you don’t find the satire.”

The Spanish Town parade has become known for its crude humor and not-exactly-family-friendly atmosphere during its 36 years. Floats often poke fun at politicians and hot-button issues, often with sexual humor thrown in the mix.

Unlike most other parades, Spanish Town is a compilation of independent krewes who align their float decor with an annual theme — this year’s was #PinkParty.

“We’re aware of what’s going on, we’re sorry if anybody’s offended, but we have no official position at this time,” said Doug Cossman, a board member of the group that oversees the Spanish Town parade and ball, the Society for the Preservation of Lagniappe in Louisiana. “And we’re not about to start censoring anybody’s free speech rights.”

East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who represents the district where the parade runs, said she did not attend the parade and has not received direct complaints about it yet. Wicker said she was disappointed in hearing some of the details of the parade, adding she might be interested in re-examining what requirements parades must meet when they go through the permitting process.

Southern University law student Shelley Moore said she was more excited than usual for the Spanish Town parade this year after missing it for the past few. Moore said she’s even ridden in the parade in the past.

But the first float she saw had Confederate flags done in rainbow colors plastered all over it. She said she tried to tell herself that it was just one float and that it would get better, but it didn’t.

More Confederate flags followed, and then a “Pink Lives Matter” float, and a float with a joke about “Freddie Gray Goose,” a reference to a black man whose 2015 death after being arrested by Baltimore police resulted in indictments of police officers and violent protests in Baltimore.

“Everybody knows that racism exists, but it’s not always in your face like that,” Moore said. “It’s one thing to make fun of politicians, and it’s a totally different thing to make fun of people who have been killed.”

Moore said she was also offended by a quote on a float that said “I prefer to call rape surprise sex.” Last year’s Spanish Town parade also upset some with jokes related to sexual assault.

In 2015, former “Sons of Guns” co-star Stephanie Ford said a Spanish Town Parade float made fun of her alleged sexual abuse at the hands of her father, a particular insult because the float was carrying Baton Rouge police officers.

Her complaint prompted an internal BRPD investigation, as the float’s theme was “Easy Targets” and it showed photos of Ford and her father, who has been indicted on charges of raping two pre-teen girls. One officer received a letter of reprimand.

Moore said the lack of respect for both black people and women in this year’s parade left her reeling, so much so that she later wrote a blog called “A Piss Poor Parade” that has been shared more than 7,000 times on Facebook.

Local black activist Gary Chambers wrote about Moore’s recounting of the parade on his website dedicated to local black community issues, The Rouge Collection. He called the parade “racist trash” in his widely shared post.

“As a father, I haven’t taken my 6-year-old little girl to a parade this year because I don’t want to explain to her why the white people are walking around with a flag that isn’t the American flag,” Chambers wrote. “I don’t want to tell her at 6 years old that racism is alive in Baton Rouge and that some people think it’s funny to make fun of dead black men, because when she looks at me, her father, I’m a black man … and then my little 6-year-old daughter will wonder if her daddy is a target.”

Moore said she left the parade early and cannot imagine a future scenario when she attends again.

Rose, who also wrote a letter to the editor to The Advocate that was circulated on social media, said his decision to attend another Spanish Town parade in the future hinges on how the people who oversee the parade respond to the outcry. He said he did not believe that krewe members intended to be malicious with their float themes.

“At the very least, pointing it out gives the krewe something to think about and say to themselves, ‘Do I want to be purposefully offensive to the neighbors in my community?’ ” Rose said.

Cossman said he does not know whether the board that oversees the parade will issue an opinion about the parade, but he said they are not responsible for the content of the floats. Krewes that ride in Spanish Town are like independent contractors, he said.

Cossman also said anyone who believes the parade is racist in nature should look no further than last year’s Spanish Town parade, which honored on its first float murder victim Shelby Holmes, a black man killed in an unsolved shooting. Holmes, posthumously named king of the parade, donated his organs and Cossman ended up on the receiving end of his kidney donation.

“It’s kind of short-sighted,” Cossman said about the complaints this year. He also mentioned the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the parade organizers give to charities each year.

Metro Councilman John Delgado, who rode in this year’s parade, said parade organizers need to take responsibility for the content of the floats. He said the organizers determine which krewes are allowed to ride each year, meaning they should not absolve themselves of responsibility past that point.

But while Delgado called the racial jokes in this year’s parade “in poor taste,” he said he respects the First Amendment rights of the people who made them.

“I can’t cherry pick which speech I like and allow that and what speech I don’t like and not allow that,” Delgado said when asked if the Metro Council could intervene in some way.

Christopher Frink, the king of this year’s Spanish Town parade, said he also was offended by the “Pink Lives Matter” float that rolled in front of his. But Frink agreed that it’s up to individual krewe members to make good judgments about what to portray on floats, rather than censoring them.

“Every year, there are floats that poke fun at politicians or public figures that I like, but they didn’t cross the line like some floats did this year,” Frink said.

Tom Sylvest, one of the judges of this year’s parade, also said the people in the parade likely did not intend to cause so much offense at what they thought would be funny and edgy.

“Satire is not for amateurs,” he said.

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