The Price of Parading
After the New Orleans police department tripled their parade fees, second-line clubs say the cost prevents them from hosting parades and infringes on their First Amendment rights, reports Katy Reckdahl in this November 2006 article from offBeat magazine.
Image: Struggling to Make It
Katy Reckdahl

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.

Club members say that friction with the NOPD is nothing new. "They've been raining on our parades for years," says Tamara Jackson.

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.

1 2 NEXT>