The Price of Parading
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Image: Struggling to Make It
Katy Reckdahl

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.

"Why is it up to the police to determine the pace of these traditional, sacred events?" Regis asks.

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 BellSouth 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?

Originally published in the November 2006 issue of offBeat magazine. Copyright © 2006 by Katy Reckdahl. Reprinted with permission.