By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
Anyone in New Orleans will offer stern correction should you refer to Katrina as a natural disaster: Plenty of unnatural barriers and failures, a great many bureaucratic, are to blame beyond Mother Nature. And anyone involved in the city's culture will point out that new barriers, similarly unnatural, impede the city's ability to rebuild artistically as well as physically. You'd think that New Orleans would welcome back the communities and establishments that anchor its storied culture. But the message implicit in the post-Katrina skirmishes club owners, Mardi Gras Indians, and parade organizers have experienced with city officials is, "We don't want you back." Or at the very least, "We're not going to make it easy."
Just three days before members of the Nine Times Social Aid & Pleasure Club dance their way through the Jazz & Heritage Festival Fair Groundssecond-lining with the Mahogany Brass Bandthey'll be represented in federal court, fighting to protect the century-old tradition from threats to its future.
On April 25, a federal judge will hear arguments on behalf of a consortium of Social Aid & Pleasure clubs, aided by the ACLU, in a lawsuit protesting the city's hiking of police security feesin some cases, triple or more from pre-Katrina ratesfor second-line parades, the regular Sunday events, held September through May, at which members snake through neighborhoods, dancing to brass bands. The suit invokes the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression, claiming that parade permit schemes "effectively tax" such expression. "Should the law not be enjoined," reads the complaint filed in Social Aid & Pleasure Club Task Force v. City of New Orleans, "there is very little doubt that plaintiff's cultural tradition will cease to exist."
"It's a solid, core ACLU issue," says staff attorney Katie Schwartzmann. "We handle freedom of speech cases all the time. But this one is different in that the speech at issue signifies this city and an entire cultural tradition. At some point, I mean, the power to tax is the power to eliminate, right? At some point, if the government can put enough fees and enough obstacles in the way of somebody exercising their First Amendment right, then they're ultimately going to eliminate it."
Second-line parades derive from funeral rituals, transforming mourners into celebrants; the term "second-line" refers not just to up-tempo rhythms signifying spiritual rebirth, but also to the tight-knit communities who follow the musicians, dancing and clapping along. Yet now the very tradition itself appears endangered. For all the ink spilled about post-Katrina New Orleans, surprisingly little has been written about the cultural costs of this ongoing tragedywhat it means for centuries-old rituals and for jazz tradition in general, and what it says about how Americans value our homegrown arts, if we value them at all.
Erosion of our coastal wetlands may have paved the way for the natural disaster that hammered this city. But the least- mentioned aspect of the resulting devastationthe erosion of what ethnographer Michael P. Smith once called "America's cultural wetlands"is of tantamount concern. The resilient African-American cultural traditions of New Orleans, famously seminal to everything from jazz to rock to funk to Southern rap, also contain seeds of protest and solidarity that guard against storm surges of a man-made variety. Erasure of these wetlands exposes many to the types of ill winds that shatter souls.
The brass bandled second-line tradition is particularly and somewhat curiously caught in the crosshairs of violence and controversy now fixed on New Orleans. The wave of homicides that swept through New Orleans in late December and early January claimed among its victims Dinerral Shavers, the 25-year-old snare drummer of the Hot 8 Brass Band and a teacher who had established Rabouin High School's first-ever marching band. Hundreds gathered at the gate to Louis Armstrong Park earlier this year for an all-star second-line, yet not a note was played nor a step danced for two miles. The silenceunthinkable throughout the hundred-plus- year history of this raucous traditionwas a carefully thought-through statement. It addressed the violence afflicting the city, the desperately slow process of post-Katrina recovery, and the enabling power of jazz culture for disenfranchised (in many cases, still displaced) communities. Two miles into that procession, not far from where M.L. King Boulevard meets South Liberty Streetthe statement having been madethe men of the Nine Times club (in lime-green suits and royal-blue fedoras) and the Prince of Wales club (in red suits and mustard-colored hats and gloves) started jumping and sliding to the irrepressible sounds of the Hot 8 and Rebirth Brass Bands. Such scenes underscore what's now at stake, both in and out of court.