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The Price of Parading

In early October, members of the Family Ties Social Aid and Pleasure Club strutted through downtown New Orleans in fresh new blue outfits. Under the day’s hot sun, sweat poured off foreheads and some suits wilted a little. Still, the club was prepared to keep up their fancy footwork for the standard second-line parade length—four hours. But the New Orleans Police Department shut them down 30 minutes early, they say, with no explanation.

Nearly two hours earlier, the club had been dancing its usual route, following Basin Street to Orleans Avenue, then crossing under the bridge for U.S. Interstate 10. Over the years, this massive bridge has become sort of a brass-band cathedral—musicians use the bridge’s acoustics to amplify and echo every note. Whenever a procession passes underneath, drummers step up their rhythms and horn players point their bells skyward and start playing high riffs. As if on cue, the crowd’s second-liners yell in response and thrust their arms in the air. But during the Family Ties parade, the ritual was disrupted. As is typical, when the crowd felt the bridge’s shadow, they slowed and the trumpet players lifted their horns heavenward. But the band’s riffs went unheard when two NOPD squad cars switched on their sirens to hurry the crowd along. Small children covered their ears as ear-piercing sirens echoed off the concrete.

“When a parade stagnates, it can create a dangerous situation,” explains NOPD spokesman Sgt. Jeff Johnson. “The sirens, lights, and the vehicles in general are used to protect the participants. It’s the police department’s responsibility to move the parade along, because the streets along which the parade is rolling can’t be closed for an extended amount of time.”

Club members say that friction with the NOPD is nothing new. “They’ve been raining on our parades for years,” says Tamara Jackson, a founding member of the uptown club VIP Ladies & Kids.

What is new after Katrina is that the NOPD has tripled its rates since the hurricane and now charges nearly $4,000 for the favor. “They’re trying to price us out of existence,” says Jackson, president of the New Orleans Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force, which has been trying to re-negotiate the parade fees for nearly nine months.

NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley increased the fees shortly after the All-Star Second Line Parade, hosted by the task force and 32 social aid and pleasure clubs. Hundreds of social aid and pleasure club members and three brass bands returned home for the January 15 parade, which wound through traditionally black downtown neighborhoods. (One Uptown NOPD captain refused to let the parade pass through his district and so the parade had to scrap plans to also march through Uptown.) Club members wearing ReNew Orleans t-shirts dedicated the parade to returning residents’ needs, including housing, jobs, and health insurance.

After the parade was over, club members socializing in front of the Zulu Club on Broad Street and Orleans Avenue got word that a shooting nearby had wounded three people. Bystanders say that the shooting was prompted by a pre-Katrina grudge about a jacket.

A few days later, NOPD’s Riley announced in a memo that, in the interest of public safety, he would be bulking up the numbers of officers assigned to every second-line and raising the fees accordingly, from approximately $1,250 to $4,445. The task force met with Riley and asked him to re-consider. At first, he agreed to lower the rate to $2,200. Then, in mid-March, as a crowd waited in Central City for a funeral procession in honor of a member of the Single Men Social Aid and Pleasure Club, Jasmine Sartain allegedly shot and killed 19-year-old Christopher Smith. A nearby police officer shot Sartain in the leg when he would not surrender his weapon. Family members reported that the two had a long-held feud about a young woman, and that Sartain had, they said, shot Smith once before and left him for dead in 2004.

“When they shot each other before, that wasn’t caused by a parade,” says Tamara Jackson. “This time wasn’t either; they just decided to settle their score.” She emphasizes that Riley’s preferred number of NOPD officers were present at this procession, which leads her to believe that the proposed solution is not only expensive but ineffective.

NOPD’s Johnson disagrees. “I don’t believe anybody could predict that gunman,” he says. “Could the same thing happen at a Mardi Gras parade? Yes, in fact, it did at the Muses parade two years ago. My captain was eight feet away from where the shooting took place, and we had an entire contingent of police along St. Charles Avenue. But no detail can prevent a shooting. All we can do is try to prevent it by making sure that a parade moves smoothly and doesn’t stagnate.”

Jackson notes that the predominantly white Muses parade rolled on despite the shooting, whereas black second line parades are usually halted after an incident. She also believes that the NOPD’s assertion that second-lines breed violence is unsupported by data. The task force has asked for statistics that compare violence in neighborhoods on days with and without second lines, she says, but they haven’t received anything.

She is disappointed that after the March shooting, parade fees once again increased, this time to $3,760, and this increase stuck. After task-force negotiations failed, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana sent a demand letter to the NOPD on behalf of members of this city’s social aid and pleasure clubs. In a May 16 letter signed by ACLU staff attorney Katie Schwartzmann and cooperating attorney Carol Kolinchak, the ACLU stated that the NOPD could avoid litigation only by rescinding “the unreasonable and excessive fees presently being charged.”

“As you are no doubt aware, the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans and the accompanying Second Line Parades are an integral part of our rich culture and heritage,” wrote the ACLU. “We are aware of a number of clubs that have already cancelled their parades due to this increase in fees, and there are many others that will have to cancel if the fees are not changed.” The ACLU’s position is that the fees at their current rate prevent social aid and pleasure clubs from hosting parades and infringe on the First Amendment rights of club members.

This First Amendment claim has an interesting New Orleans connection. Back in the late 1970s, attorneys Mary Howell and Bill Rittenberg filed Bowman v. Landrieu in federal district court, alleging that a city ordinance that banned street musicians from parts of the French Quarter denied musicians “their rights to free exercise of speech through the playing of music.” Judge R. Blake West agreed and issued an injunction blocking enforcement of the ordinance. The decision was one of the first in the nation to protect music as a form of speech. It has now become common for courts to also interpret dance and other kinds of art and performance as protected speech.

But fees are only part of the issue. The NOPD’s role in these parades needs clarification, says Louisiana State University anthropology professor Helen Regis, a member of the task force who has written about second-line culture. The sirens at the Family Ties parade were not an isolated incident, she says. “All second-line parades have at least one dirge to honor members of the club who have passed since they last paraded.” Often, when the parade slows, the NOPD escorts get impatient and switch on their sirens, ruining the dirge. “Why is it up to the police to determine the pace of these traditional, sacred events?” Regis asks.

There seems to be hostility toward the second-line tradition, she says. Regis says that it’s “not unusual” for squad cars at the tail end of the parade to hit pedestrians. Some cars, she says, drive up and push paraders with their bumpers; Regis herself has had her foot rolled over at a parade. “It’s difficult for me to understand as an observer if this is due to individual officers’ behavior or general police policy,” she says. NOPD’s Johnson says that he knows of no such contact and emphasizes that, in general, officers have respect for the clubs and any other group they escort.

In her academic work, Regis argues that each club, whether it be made up of 60-year-olds or 20-year-olds, is expressing what it means to be black in New Orleans today. “When the NOPD interferes in unnecessary ways,” she says, “they’re interfering with that expression.”

Jackson agrees. On one hand, the tradition gives her and other VIP club members an excuse to step down the streets of Uptown wearing apple-martini and pink outfits. But they’re always aware of the history behind it, she says. “Our ancestors incorporated benevolent societies for us to take care of our own—they put together their money to pay for each others’ doctors’ visits and provide for proper burials. This is our heritage, our African American heritage.”

It is a sore point for Tamara Jackson and other club members that city leaders don’t seem to care about the fee hike, even though they will, at the drop of a hat, hire a second-line club for their own causes. “When the city holds a special event, they always ask a second-line club to be present. Are we an attraction for violence then?” asks Jackson. “When Bell South airs a commercial with a person jumping with an umbrella, are we an attraction for violence? At Jazz Fest, social aid and pleasure clubs parade through the grounds every hour. Are we an attraction for violence then?