A gunman opened fire on a Sunday afternoon six years ago, at a second-line parade meant to mark a homecoming of those scattered after Hurricane Katrina. Three people fell, wounded in the crossfire.
Following the tragedy, public debate raged around a question that had been festering for decades: who should be blamed for the inherent contradiction of New Orleans, that the city’s lauded beauty is so often spoiled by its infamous violence.
Mayor Ray Nagin and the Police Chief Warren Riley pointed their fingers squarely at the social aid and pleasure clubs, the centuries-old organizations that take to the streets in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods for parades nearly every weekend. Some on television pondered whether New Orleans might be better without them altogether. The city hiked permitting fees, and the battle ended only after a year of litigation and a consent decree.
“Somebody had to be blamed, and they didn’t know who to blame, so they blamed the clubs,” said Edward Buckner, president of the Original Big 7 Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
So after Sunday’s mass shooting at a Mother’s Day second line — where 19 revelers were injured during a parade held by Buckner’s group — artists, musicians, and fans of the second lines braced to see what the city’s response might be.
Within 24 hours, both Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas held news conferences to publicly support the clubs. They called them sacred — innocent victims of the senseless violence that occasionally erupts along their routes.
This time, city officials blamed a far more complicated array of culprits for the intractable rate of violent crime: poor education, few decent paying jobs, bad parenting, no mental health or substance abuse programs, sparse recreational activities. Forsaken children, taking their aggression out on the streets.
The clubs, like the churches and community centers, might be the only way to save them, some said at public meetings this week.
Members of the second lines, and those who have advocated for them for years, said Tuesday that they saw the city’s immediate response as turning point — a sign that the Landrieu administration will be more accommodating than previous city leaders.
“What struck me was that for the first time, we heard a unified voice say that these are important cultural events and that we should all be invested in protecting them,” said Carol Kolinchak, an attorney who filed the 2006 lawsuit against the city on behalf of the Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force.
Before Hurricane Katrina, the city charged around $1,200 for police escorts for second line parades. That changed on Jan. 15, 2006, when three people were shot at the tail of a second-line parade hosted by the task force.
The city hiked the price for second lines, to more than $7,000 in some cases. Many within the community believed they were trying to price the clubs out of existence.
The task force sued.
After a year of litigation and pressed by the judge, the parties reached an agreement. It set a price cap for the clubs at $1,985 per four-hour parade, meant to pay for 10 police officers, Kolinchak said.
Mardi Gras Krewes pay, comparatively, less than $1,000 for larger, longer parades.
Violence happens routinely at those parades, too, the mayor noted Monday.
It always has.
“If violence is endemic to the environment, which it seems to be in New Orleans, then it’s going to break out whenever you have a large group of people,” said Bruce Boyd Raeburn, director of Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive. A parade, he said, is merely a convenient, high-profile way of settling a score.
“Things have deteriorated, but that doesn’t have anything to do with second lines,” he said. “People are getting more desperate, young people are feeling more hopeless. It’s another way of saying that they hate society — society has abandoned them, and they’re going to inflict as much pain back as they can.”
The earliest media coverage of city parades, from the early 20th century, include accounts of violence in the crowd, Raeburn said. Then in 1970, trumpeter Al Hirt was hit in the mouth by a brick launched from the crowd at a Carnival parade.
Social divides are equally as ingrained.
A 1918 newspaper editorial described jazz as low-class music and a shame to the city, Raeburn said.
“So much of the culture here is produced by African heritage people,” Raeburn said. “That means that the city is at once extremely dependent on them, but they are also the people that have the most difficulty economically — they are at the so-called bottom of society that’s so often identified as a problem.”
In a tragic twist to Sunday’s shooting, one of the most devoted advocates for second lines, and one of the most vocally critical of the city and the media, was among the most seriously injured. Gambit blogger and activist Deborah Cotton was gunned down on Sunday and remains in serious but stable condition.
“Since she moved here in 2005, Deb Cotton chronicled the social aid and pleasure club culture and brass bands in a way that no other writer in town has done,” Gambit editor Kevin Allman said. “She was a reporter and an advocate at a time when others were not, when the city was coming down hard on musicians.”
Cotton wrote often about the inequities the black cultural communities face in the city. Frederick Weil, a Louisiana State University sociologist who studied community revitalization after Hurricane Katrina, said that social aid and pleasure clubs actually represent the highest level of good citizenship and civic engagement. Yet they remain situated in some of the most-violent neighborhoods in the city, giving the community the perception that one beget the other.
Weil compared the phenomenon to rampant blight. His research has shown that the neighborhoods where the highest amount of recovery funds were spent remain the most blighted. It’s not because the money did no good, he concluded — it’s because the blight problem, like the violence problem, was so severe to begin with that the good is hard to see.
“The second line is the coping mechanism to maintain hope in the face of that violence. It’s what makes people want to be here despite the danger,” Raeburn said. “To blame the second line is kind of like shooting the messenger.”