Early on Sunday morning, 40 or so members of the Original Big Seven Social Aid and Pleasure Club began their annual Mother's Day parade. The Original Big Seven, originally formed in a housing project that was torn down after Hurricane Katrina, is one of the city's big second-line groups. Second-lines are a staple in black neighborhoods there: loose, jazzy, rolling dance parties featuring jazz musicians that wind through the streets for almost any occasion — funeral processions, weddings, holidays, regular old Sundays; they're loud and a whole lot of fun.
That's pretty much how it was this past Sunday as the Original Big Seven and their onlookers snaked through the city.
As the parade slowed at an intersection, a gunman stepped from behind the crowd and began opening fire, leaving 19 people injured.
"Everyone is breaking and running, we're scared to death," recalled Big Ed Buckner, the leader of the Original Big Seven. "People are falling on top of people. We had babies out there. We had children — two 10-year-olds [were] hit."
"People had come to have a beautiful day," Buckner said. "Now when they think about Mother's Day coming, the only thing they'll be able to think about is May 12, 2013."
Police released a video of the shooting, and on Monday night said their prime suspect was 19-year-old Akein Scott. [UPDATE: Scott, who was out on bail on gun and drug charges, was arrested on Wednesday night.] All the people who were shot are expected to survive.
This isn't the first time violence has been associated with a second-line parade. In 2006, three people were shot after one passed by. In 2010, a woman was shot and killed in the city's 7th Ward not long after another second-line parade wrapped up. The violence's proximity to the parades prompted some local journalists to begin linking the violence to "the culture," as people in the second-line community call it, and many wondered whether the second-lines should be shut down or reined in.
It's a refrain you hear a lot after events featuring people of color have been marred by violence — Brooklyn's West Indian American Day Parade, Washington D.C.'s Carnival, Philly's Greek Picnic. A shooting at a concert venue in Madison, Wis., led the club's owners to ban hip-hop acts.
But second-lines are different. "We're like the guts of the body of New Orleans," Buckner said. "We're the stuff that makes the body work."
Andre Perry, a public-policy professor at Loyola University, said the tendency to link second-lines to violence makes people in the social aid and pleasure clubs defensive. "What people don't want ... is to see the culture attacked, and that's been the historical knee-jerk reaction to second-line parades," Perry said.
One of second-line's most vocal defenders has been Deb Cotton, a popular local columnist and documentarian. After the fatal 2010 shooting, Cotton wrote:
"... 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."
In an unfortunate coincidence, Cotton, who was chronicling the Original Big Seven's second-line on Sunday, was one of those shot, and she remains hospitalized.
"The tragedy of this is that Deb has been steadfast about saying that second-line culture is an asset to the city and that parades not be lost in our quest to end violence," Perry said.
(The city's mayor, Mitch Landrieu, also defended the second-lines. "It's my opinion that the social aid and pleasure clubs are not the problem. ... They are what's good about this city, and add to our rich heritage and culture," he said. "Just because some ill-advised kids used these as an opportunity to shoot each other, it has to be stated clearly that it's not the clubs, or anybody that has anything to do with them.")
And second-liners point out that they live in a poor, violent city — for decades, the Big Easy has consistently had one of the highest homicide rates for a major American city — which they say makes the services they provide even more vital.
"My club and most clubs, we're doing things with youth around the city," Buckner said. "We don't promote that."
Added Buckner: "You can't jump up and [sing] and dance with a gun on your side."
One in seven black men in the city is either behind bars, on parole or on probation. Perry said that rate of incarceration has made residents in the city's black neighborhoods wary of sending even more men to prison and criminalizing more inhabitants.
"The conversation always swirls around defending the image of New Orleans or defending the image of the black man and not protecting the collateral damage that comes from these things," he said. The perpetrators of these shootings should be sought, but Perry says that fixing the other stuff — joblessness, the city's schools — might make this kind of violence less likely in the Big Easy.
"We can't get caught up in this structural vs. individual arguments," he said. "I mean, it's both."
Buckner says he hopes to do another second-line as part of a march against violence. "We want to make sure that the New Orleans cultural community does not stand for this type of violence," he said.
In communities that are battling all these other issues, is it any wonder that people are flocking to defend these big, vital celebrations of life and living?