Best of the Beat Heartbeat Award: Mary Howell

Mary Howell: Best of the Beat Heartbeat Award Recipient. Photo by Greg Miles.

Mary Howell. Photo by Greg Miles.

For more than three decades, attorney Mary Howell has been at the frontlines of police misconduct and civil rights litigation in New Orleans. She has represented plaintiffs in the Algiers police rampage of 1980, the killing of Adolph Archie in 1990, and the execution of Kim Groves by order of policeman Len Davis in 1994. What most people do not know about Howell, however, is her efforts on behalf of the New Orleans music community as well. For such efforts, OffBeat Magazine is proud to give her the 2011 Heartbeat Award.

Howell was born in a rural town in southeastern Missouri. She graduated from LSU, then went to Tulane Law School, and once there, the music of New Orleans made an impression on her. “I remember listening to Babe Stovall in Jackson Square, and I always considered that a blessing,” she says.

Her interests in civil rights and music led her to represent street musicians and try to eradicate the archaic laws and ordinances that prevented them from making a living. Some of these legal decisions were among the first to protect music as a form of speech. “We’ve gotten four city ordinances and one state statute declared unconstitutional,” she says. “The latest one, a state statute that prohibited the playing of a musical instrument more than 55 decibels and within 50 or 100 feet of a hospital or church—I think some legislator looked at a speed limit sign and thought, ‘We’ll use that number.’ The sound engineer, when we took him all around the city following Mardi Gras parade routes and second line routes, said, ‘A law like that would end life in New Orleans as we know it.’ That was the most recent one.”

Howell looks at the streets as essential to the music of New Orleans. “It’s a critical question of streets and byways being used for public performances, and it’s not just the music,” she says. “The streets are critical venues not just for the expression of the cultural life of the community, but they are venues for the passing on of the tradition, and for people being able to continue and develop their art. That’s where the convergence of the First Amendment and civil rights and the cultural life of our community come into play, probably uniquely here in New Orleans.”

Howell has represented clubs such as Cafe Brasil and Donna’s, and helped craft the ordinance that governs the music around the St. Louis Cathedral. She also helped on the lawsuit that the ACLU brought on behalf of the social aid and pleasure clubs over increased permitting fees. Despite progress on these fronts, the issues remain. “I’m always amazed how this stuff keeps coming up periodically,” she replies when asked why the city seems to have such trouble dealing with its native music and musicians. “I think it is being afraid of that which you can’t control. Unfortunately, the tension between freedom of expression and government control is a constant tension in our society at large, and you see it played out particularly in these little vignettes. Also, the street performers are frequently working class people or they’re poor people. They often offer convenient and vulnerable targets.”

But there have been triumphs. The social aid and pleasure clubs prevailed in their lawsuit against the city. It is easier for street musicians to ply their trades in New Orleans. Howell also notes, “We’ve made a lot of headway with the Mardi Gras Indians. I was involved in representation after the St. Joseph’s Night event [when the police forced Mardi Gras Indians to get off the streets and take off their suits in 2005] and that’s another thing I feel good about. We’ve come a long way with Captain Bardy in the 6th District Uptown. Last St. Joseph’s Night was really successful. It was the one of the few that I can remember where we didn’t have incidents. We’ve established the importance of legal observers, and I think we’ve been able to play a really positive role in that and facilitating that situation.”

As she reflects on her work, Howell thinks of it as a privilege. “I have the honor of knowing the musicians and playing a small role in providing some space there,” she says. “I look at musicians like Troy and Glen Andrews, Ingrid Lucia and the Flying Neutrinos, and I’ve represented some of them since they were kids. I’ve watched them grow up and they’ve become wonderful artists and they’ve done wonderful things in the community. I don’t want to overstate this, but to some extent the music and the culture is, ultimately, irrepressible, in that it will continue and it will prevail. If I have contributed to that in any small way, it would be in fighting to insure that there is some breathing room, some space for this to happen and that governmental efforts to suppress the culture are stopped wherever possible.”