Sometime after the Black Men Of Labor Social Aid and Pleasure Club’s parade ended last Sunday, a woman was shot and killed and four others injured in front of a crowd of onlookers on St. Bernard Avenue where the BMOL’s second line had recently passed. The following day, two local media outlets erroneously reported the murder as happening at the parade, citing it as a causal factor in the crime and questioning whether the 100+ year old African American tradition should be allowed to continue. WVUE Fox News reports:
“…a gunman who killed one woman and wounded four others at a second line parade. The shootings have once again raised questions as to whether the tradition, is worth continuing”
But according to Shalanda Goffner, a member of the Lady Buckjumpers Social Aid and Pleasure Club who was on the scene when the shooting occurred, the parade had already moved on around the corner to Rampart Street. Goffner says she had been following the parade but broke away to retrieve her car and was talking to friends at Sydney’s Bar when the commotion broke out.
“Something told me to turn around and I saw people moving fast like a gun was coming out. I pulled my club member across the street and I kept saying ‘Please God don’t let me get shot. Please don’t let be get shot.’ Then I lost my camera. I went back to look for it and saw the lady on the ground dead. I had been standing right near the truck and she was right behind us…The police were there in no time but the parade was long gone. None of the Black Men of Labor were there.”
Fox news reporter Rob Masson went further into blaming second line culture for the violence, insinuating that the SAPC’s court battle with Former Police Superintendent Warren Riley’s over his post Katrina parade fee hike is partially to blame for making parading areas more vulnerable to murders:
“Violence at second lines is nothing new, especially post Katrina. In 2006 alone, there were seven people shot during three different second lines, prompting former police chief Warren Riley to double permit fees to try and beef up security. But Riley’s new fee structure was struck down in court, leaving many feeling vulnerable.”
In response to shootings that occurred at second lines in ’06, Superintendent Riley raised social aid and pleasure club parade permits to six times their pre-storm amount of $1,200, a fee hike that was not applied to White Mardi Gras clubs even though similar incidences of shooting have occured during their parades such as the Muses parade in ’04, the Bacchus parade in ’07, and the Krewe of Crescent City parade in ’09. The ACLU fought and won several cases on behalf of the Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force and parade permits for the SAPCs were eventually reduced to $1,985.
The Fox news article is not an isolated incident of a bias reporter getting it wrong. The local mainstream media in New Orleans has a long history of racial bias against the Black community in general and second line culture in specific. One would think that weekly parades which tie up traffic in large swatches of the city for four hours at a time would at the very least merit local media announcements of parade routes and times. With the exception of this blog, which I published on Nola.com before migrating it here to Gambit online, the local media by and large ignores social aid and pleasure club culture – except in instances when it attempts to equate second line parades with lawlessness. In a city that has a majority Black population, it begs the question of motivation behind the press’ wholesale omission in coverage of a century old African American tradition that hosts annual half day parades every Sunday for nine months out of the year. The fact that these events rarely get positive coverage in the mainstream media is consistent with the attitude of neglect and ostracism that catalyzed these benevolent societies back in the 19th century with their mission of providing assistance and resources to the Black community during segregation.
One need look no further for evidence of the local media’s bias against the Black community than the paper of note: The Times Picayune. While it must be acknowledged that there are some good writers with sensitive professional keyboard stroke at the paper (Katy Reckdahl and Jarvis DeBerry come to mind)- and in this particular case the facts of the murder and the parade were correctly chronicled – discriminatory practices exist that demonstrate a racial bias at the Times.
The monitoring of the comments section is a prime example. The TP’s website nola.com has a notorious reputation for allowing racially charged comments that malign Black residents to fester without restraint, as in the case of the two college students who were kidnapped in ’09 and later found murdered. On the day that these kidnappings hit the press, a colleague of mine and I spent the better part of the day emailing and calling the nola.com office, pleading with them to either monitor the escalating hate speech or close the comment section altogether out of respect for the devastated families of the missing students. They all but ignored our requests – you can read the story and comments for yourself here. Meanwhile, Nell Nolan’s society column which chronicles high brow fetes of the White elite in New Orleans doesn’t endure such hostile defamation of its subjects because the comments section in the column are, as a rule, always closed (see here). This double standard creates an environment where the paper de facto condones readers attacking Blacks but goes great lengths to protect the wealthy White community from the same loathsome violations.
Fox’s news article also quotes unnamed critical sources who, like the reporter, questions whether the tradition should be allowed to continue, further serving to perpetuate stereotypes that the media itself is helping to create. Black Men Of Labor member Gralen Banks says he called WWL News Monday morning to complain after reporter Eric Paulson demonstrated the same bias as the Fox news reporter, placing the shooting at the parade and quoting unnamed witnesses who blamed the parades for the violence. Updated news reports by Maya Rodriquez quotes a critical resident by name and places the shooting timeline after the parade. But in Banks’ opinion, this does little to mitigate the damage done.
“I can’t even really properly grieve for the young woman because I’m so angry that they’re putting this on our culture. No one involved in our club was involved or had anything to do with it…We’re about preserving the African culture, not a culture of death and violence. So why put it together unless you want to put our culture and what we celebrate together with violence and murder?”
Banks, a member of the BMOL since 2000, says his club has been parading for 17 years without any shooting incidences occuring during their second line. “But,” he says, “if a murder happens on Napoleon and St. Charles where Rex parades, no one links it to Rex. So unless you link every crime with every parade that passes by and the name of that club, don’t link our club to that situation.”
Lets revisit for a moment the charge that second line culture is a breeding ground for murderers. New Orleans has the highest murder rate in the country – 174 killings in 2009 alone. When you have a society that parades 40 weekends a year, there’s bound to be a murder that falls on the same day and possibly within the vicinity of the parade – especially when you consider that the host clubs are by nature neighborhood-based groups that live in predominately low-income areas with high incidences of crime. (For the record, it should be noted that the last time a murder took place in the vicinity of a second line parade was over three years ago in 2007, before the police and SAPC task force settled their permit fee case.) In these troubled neighborhoods, you also have a preponderance of churches and police in addition to second line clubs, all attempting to stabilize vulnerable environments where numerous crimes happen. Yet no one blames the police or the churches for causing more crime in these areas. Using the reporter’s bias logic, if you say social aid and pleasure clubs cause crime you may as well say the police and churches cause crime too since they are all in the vicinity where a significant numbers of murders occur.
LSU Sociologist Rick Weil also questions the attitude of the media toward the social aid and pleasure club community. “You have to wonder whether reporting that says the clubs cause violence is illogical or incompletely researched – or even just knowingly biased.” Weil, who has conducted extensive research on community organizations after the storm, refutes these stereotypes in his essay ‘The Rise of Community Engagement After Katrina’. Published by the Brookings Institute and The Greater New Orleans Data Center as part of their ‘New Orleans Index at Five’, Weil’s report cites social aid and pleasure club members as some of the most productive citizens in the city. The report also acknowledges the prevalence of racial bias by New Orleans power elites towards the second line community.
“Perhaps the most striking finding of our large survey is the high level of civic engagement of Social Aid and Pleasure Club (SAPC) members. By the standards of the civic engagement literature, SAPC members are model citizens: they are community leaders; they perform service; they support each other in times of need. But New Orleans elites were not accustomed to viewing SAPC members, who are mostly working class African Americans, as community leaders and generally excluded them from a seat at the table. The elites tried to justify this exclusion by saying that this community was disorganized, that its leaders were irresponsible, that its culture promoted disadvantage and needed to be led from the outside.1 Yet our large household survey shows tremendous strength and organization among SAPC members.
Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs see themselves explicitly as groups that not only lift the spirits of their communities, but also provide concrete services. When the hurricane hit, the Young Men Olympians mobilized its phone list and was able to locate all its members on their cell phones within days.2 Asked to say a few words about what her club does, Sue Press, founder and President of the Ole and New Style Fellas SAPC, reeled off an unbroken, five-minute stream of accomplishments, from mentoring youth, to donating school uniforms to needy families, to holding a voter registration drive at her house, and on and on.3
The Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs perform crucial leadership functions of drawing members of disadvantaged and excluded communities into a mainstream, providing opportunities and reducing the attraction of harmful activities. And bridging this gap benefits the whole city, not only by reducing social problems, but by making the talents and contributions of a large part of society available to promote the city’s progress and enrich everyone’s culture. Forward-looking leadership should recognize these benefits by easing police restrictions and fees for the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs’ parades and showing them the same respect, as community leaders, shown to the “official” Mardi Gras Krewes that parade on St. Charles Avenue.
A recent summer event hosted by Shalanda Goffner’s club exemplifies SAPC’s mission of lifting up the disadvantaged in the community. The Lady Buckjumper’s 12th Annual Back To School Picnic provided free of charge school supplies for the youth, health screenings, beauty services, food, games and live entertainment by The Rebirth Brass Band.
“We wanna make school a positive thing,” Goffner says. “A lot of people aren’t as fortunate so we try to make it possible for everyone to have (what they need) so its no excuse.”
Goffner also expresses weariness with the criminal element that undermines the efforts of clubs like the LBJs. “I just wish people would leave the foolishness at home. We don’t promote it. Look at bottom of our route sheets – it says ‘Leave the guns and foolishness at home.’ We pay too much money to parade and have a good time for people to come and mess it up.”
The unfortunate murder that occurred on Sunday is not symptomatic of second line culture. On the contrary, its directly attributable to deep social ills that New Orleans has yet to get a firm grasp on: a broken criminal justice system that allows murderers to get off easily and maintains bad cops which in turn undermines resident’s faith in cooperating with authorities; a broken education system that leaves citizens unable to function as adults in the professional world; and a economy based on two sectors that thwart ambition and opportunities – tourism and government. To end the murder culture, one must acknowledge and address the legitimate root problems and depart from racial biases that serve to further marginalize a distressed community. The local media needs to take a hard look at the part they play in contributing to New Orleans’ societal problems and commit itself to being part of the solution rather than being part of the problem.
(Originally published 9-9-10 on Blog of New Orleans)