Though better known to many for their lively second-line parades, social aid and pleasure clubs are deeply rooted in community service. There were cold drinks, the Rebrith Brass Band, custom-printed T-shirts and dozens of New Orleans' social aid and pleasure clubs gathered at Riverview Park Memorial Day weekend.
But this was no second-line parade.
Instead of stepping through the streets, the crowds strolled by booths about housing, jobs, health care and education. It was all set up by the Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force, a consortium of more than 50 clubs fighting to save their traditions and their communities.
"It's right there in the name, social aid and pleasure," says Michelle Longino, a task force leader and member of the Bayou Steppers club. "For years they have not only paraded but done community work as part of a commitment to their neighborhoods. That's how and why they started hundreds of years ago."
The clubs have their origins in mutual aid and benevolent societies created after the Civil War to help pay burial and health care costs for people of color who were not allowed to buy insurance. Post-Katrina, they have focused on getting members back on their feet and back to the city.
Club members and devotees miss their regular Sunday afternoon second lines -- the "church after church" as some calls it -- but most clubs cannot afford to parade right now. Some of the challenges are expected: displaced membership, destroyed neighborhoods and lost jobs. However, there is another, institutional obstacle: increased police fees that threaten to drastically shrink second-line culture.
Violence marred two second lines this year. In January, three people were shot in the midst of crowds at the end of the massive All-Star Second Line parade. A few days later, New Orleans police announced they would increase escort fees for second lines from $1,200 to $4,445 -- a hike of more than 300 percent. Club leaders were negotiating to lower the fees when a second, fatal shooting occurred in March. It happened a few blocks away from a jazz funeral and apparently was the result of a grudge between two young men who were not part of the parade. Police apprehended Jasmine Sartain; he was booked with first-degree murder and now awaits trial.
Longino says dialogue with police has all but shut down. Second-line escort fees now stand at $3,790 for a standard second line with one band, and go up for larger parades.
"The clubs can't control who shows up at their events, so in order for us to protect them, we need more officers," says New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley. The new fees will pay for 20 officers at every second line, including four mounted officers. The NOPD also will provide 12 to 14 additional officers at no charge. In addition, the police may require clubs to buy insurance for their parades, a law that's been on the state books for years but has rarely been enforced. Riley says it is a direct response to citizen complaints of damaged property after second lines.
"At this level almost all second lines are going to have to stop," says Tamara Jackson, a leader in the task force and president of a club called the VIP Ladies and Kids. Jackson says several parades for April, May and June have been canceled indefinitely because of the new fees. The task force has enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union to combat the increase on grounds that the fees are so high they limit freedom of expression.
"We love the increased protection. We do feel safer," says Linda Porter of the Original Lady Buckjumpers Social Aid and Pleasure Club. "It's just the price we have to pay to get that protection that we have trouble with."
The clubs say they are just as upset about the violence as police, perhaps even more so considering the all the time, energy and money they put into the parades. After Katrina, they say second lines offer hope and encouragement that the city and its culture will survive. The task force says rather than punishing the clubs for violence, the police should work with them to improve conditions.
"Violence is a citywide problem," says Jackson, "and each club should not be responsible for problems the city has as a whole." Jackson says most clubs take measures to deter violence. They meet with officers to coordinate parade protection. Flyers announcing the parade routes implore, "Leave all trouble at home." Second-line musicians also call for peace. Take a pre-Katrina song from the Rebirth Brass Band and Kermit Ruffins with the lyric "Have your fun in the sun/Bring no gun to the party."
Helen Regis, an LSU anthropologist who studies second lines and public space, says the peaceful, positive nature of the tradition doesn't seem to have been a factor in the decision to raise fees. That has not necessarily been the case for Mardi Gras krewes, whose parades have also suffered outbreaks of violence.
"When there was a shooting at Muses," Regis says, "no one suggested the krewe was to blame. No one suggested Mardi Gras should be canceled or restricted." Staci Rosenberg, captain of the Krewe of Muses, confirmed that the 2004 shooting had no effect on the krewe's relationship with the police or the city.
Regis sees the new fee structure as part of an increasing "cultural disconnect" between the New Orleans Police Department and social aid and pleasure clubs. She says those who think second lines are just an excuse to party are missing the more complicated reality.
"They are, in part, sacred events," Regis says. On each club's anniversary Sunday, they "remember loved ones who have passed, maybe perform dirges in front of deceased members' homes. Some scholars have compared it to the way Africans remember their ancestors."
The parades have a sacred role in American musical history as well. Artists from Louis Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis have named second lines as a vital source of inspiration.
"Social aid and pleasure clubs are patrons of the arts," says Jordan Hirsh of the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund. He points out that the clubs support brass bands with steady gigs, bring free, live music to poorer neighborhoods and create a forum where up-and-coming musicians can practice their craft.
Club members also see a disconnect in the way images of second lines are used to promote the city, yet the tradition does not get the official recognition or support bestowed on Mardi Gras.
"Every commercial for New Orleans you see somebody with an umbrella dancing with a band," says Jackson. "It's good enough for us to showcase to build tourism, but for us to do our own unique parades, they want to price us out of existence." Jackson and other task force leaders say there are not just cultural but legal issues involved in how second lines are viewed in the eyes of the city.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agrees. Last month the ACLU sent a memo to Police Chief Warren Riley demanding that the new fees be removed immediately. Staff attorney Katie Schwartzmann said that while the fees are authorized under a municipal ordinance, that ordinance is "constitutionally problematic."
"It allows the police chief enormous discretion in deciding when to assess escort fees, and how much to assess," says Schwartzmann. "Imposing fees because of the behavior of a hostile audience is constitutionally impermissible."
The most infamous example of this is the Ku Klux Klan, which has repeatedly won the right to rally and parade on public streets across the United States, despite known ties to violence and a high potential for violent reaction from bystanders.
"What you cannot do, constitutionally, is selectively increase fees based on anticipated violence," says ACLU cooperating attorney Carol Kolinchak.
The clash between New Orleans police and cultural groups asserting their right to the streets came to a head in July 2005, just before Katrina hit, when Big Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana collapsed in the middle of public hearings on alleged police harassment of Mardi Gras Indians. He died hours later. His last words to the public were "I want this to stop."
Reeling from Montana's death, the NOPD at the time promised better community policing and cultural training for its officers.
The ACLU and Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force hope those promises can be renewed. In a follow-up memo to police, the ACLU stated its desire to settle the matter of escort fees out of court.
"The clubs and the police want the same thing," says Kolinchak, who is also a longtime second line participant. "Why can't we sit at the table and get there instead of being treated like part of the problem."
The police have since directed the ACLU to the city attorney's office, and Schwartzmann says litigation will likely go forward by the end of the month. Riley says he is willing to meet with the groups, but it does not seem likely that his department will lower the fees on its own.
"The fees are there to protect lives," says Riley. "Those who are concerned for the cultural tradition need to help raise the money to pay for it."
Some groups have been doing just that. Edward Buckner, a longtime member of Original Big Seven Social Aid and Pleasure Club, was determined to hold his club's 10th anniversary parade in the Seventh Ward last month. He came up with a new route to avoid collapsed buildings, sent thousands of fliers to Atlanta and Houston, and walked the neutral ground every day to get in shape. The club usually pays for the parade with help from local businesses and community fund-raisers. Most of its supporters were from the St. Bernard public housing development, now closed.
"Having to raise all the usual money and then the added amount seemed impossible," Buckner said. He approached the Arts Council of New Orleans, and wound up getting $4,500 to from Project HEAL, a Lafayette-based arts organization.
Others sources of funding have also stepped forward. The New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund will pay for brass bands at several upcoming parades. The Norman Dixon Sr. Annual Second Line Parade Fund, named after the man who helped bring second lines to the Jazz and Heritage Festival, has also been able to offset costs for some parades. However, representatives from these and other groups say they cannot afford to fund an entire tradition for the long term.
The Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force is applying to become a nonprofit organization that could seek larger grants to distribute across the board. Longino says while second lines have been historically autonomous and self-sustaining, outside support may be the only way to keep them going for now.
"It's definitely going to change the face and structure of the tradition in some way," she says, "but we have to be creative and innovative if we're going to save this." NEWS-Secondstory-add 6-27-06
Word count: 401 Decon-Recon FEMA and the city of New Orleans last week released a list of almost 1,500 houses "in imminent danger of collapse," a designation that means the city will bear the cost of demolishing those buildings.
MercyCorps, an international, nonprofit agency, says, however, that demolition not only is wasteful but may be more costly than deconstructing the houses. MercyCorps wants public agencies to help finance viable alternatives such as deconstruction, or hand-salvaging, these houses.
Preston Browning, program manager for MercyCorps recently led a weeklong training program for small contractors in the Lower Ninth Ward. Deconstruction advocates like Browning believe the industry could create local jobs; few New Orleans contractors currently are doing the work.
"Most don't have the mindset to do it," says Willie White, who has been performing "deconstruction for reconstruction" for the past 12 years. White says salvageable materials may include lumber packages, rafters, ceiling joists, studs, sills, piers and chimneys -- enough materials in all that some homeowners would have many of the supplies they need to rebuild on site. This makes deconstruction cost effective, even if homeowners don't receive public assistance for the job. "By the time you factor in salvaging of materials to be reused, you should be well towards a credit," White says.
In a city still filled with debris, deconstruction also would reduce the amount of waste that must be disposed of. "Until you really see the sorts of things that are going to be landfilled, you don't understand," says MercyCorps consultant Chris Beck. If the owner doesn't use them, salvaged materials might go to resale stores like the Green Project or Habitat for Humanity's ReStore, which sell affordable materials to individuals rebuilding their homes.
According to section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, viable alternatives to demolition must be considered for historic houses. Although it is mandated to consider alternatives, not to finance them, FEMA has agreed to reimburse the owners of 61 registered historic homes in the New Orleans area for deconstruction -- a small but important victory for deconstruction proponents.
The Preservation Resource Center (PRC) is working alongside MercyCorps and the National Historic Trust to promote deconstruction. The PRC's first goal is preservation, but the group's executive director, Patricia Gay, says that if the house is beyond repair, deconstruction "should be mandatory." Susan Laarman, a spokeswoman for MercyCorps, notes that in addition to the ecological and economic benefits, deconstruction preserves historic materials and that, in turn, salvages part of our local culture. -- Vi Landry
- Donn Young
- Task force members Tamara Jackson (right) and Richard Anderson helped organize a resource festival to provide the community with information about jobs, education, health care and housing in post-Katrina New Orleans.