The story is sadly familiar: A celebration on the streets of New Orleans turns into a nightmare when a thug sprays bullets near a crowd and an innocent bystander is killed. We've almost become inured to this, but when it's a child who's slain, the infinite senselessness leaves us all the more dumbstruck and groping for answers.
On Sept. 26, 2-year-old Jeremy Galmon was sitting in a car with his grandmother, blocks from where the Young Men Olympian Junior Benevolent Association's second line had passed earlier, when a gunman or gunmen in another car unleashed a fusillade. A bullet shattered Jeremy's face. Police were on the scene almost immediately and Jeremy was taken to University Hospital, where he died.
It's only human to be furious when something this inexplicable occurs, but some were quick to connect the death of Jeremy Galmon with the second line parade, which was unwarranted and untrue. Galmon's family hadn't been to the parade, and the shooter had no connection with the social aid and pleasure club. It was a random act of violence in a neighborhood — and a city — that sees too many of them.
The same misplaced blame happened three weeks earlier, when a 32-year-old woman was shot outside Sidney's Saloon in the 7th Ward on Sept. 5, and some in the media inaccurately reported it as a murder at a second line (the Black Men of Labor had paraded earlier). Some have even suggested that second lines should be shut down. We disagree totally. The second lines don't need to stop. The shooting needs to stop.
At a press conference on Sept. 27, one day after the Galmon shooting, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas stood with members of the African-American faith community, the second line community and Mardi Gras Indians to ask for the public's cooperation in finding the killers in these cases. Thanks to cooperation between Central City residents and the NOPD, two suspects were arrested by Friday morning. Landrieu also had another message — that the New Orleanians who stage street parades are not to blame for violence that occurs near their celebrations.
New Orleans' social aid and pleasure clubs were initially founded in the 1800s as "benevolent societies," groups that banded together to do community work and cover the funeral expenses of their members. Today, the groups work to strengthen their neighborhoods, providing social outlets for young people, teaching them music and history and how to create the intricate beadwork that makes the Indian suits so beautiful. The groups provide role models for boys in a world where strong role models are in short supply. The second line community has been a force for good and an avatar of pride long before the days when any fool could get an automatic weapon, and they do not deserve to be confused with thugs who murder children.
New Orleanians who reacted angrily when some suggested Mardi Gras should be canceled after Hurricane Katrina were right — Mardi Gras is part of our city's culture. No one suggests eliminating the World Cup in response to soccer hooliganism; nor does anyone suggest that Carnival krewes shouldn't roll because of violence along some parade routes. Central City suffers from a plague of violence, but it's not because Mardi Gras Indians or brass bands brought it there.
After the Sept. 27 press conference, Gerard Dollis, Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias tribe, told Gambit he had been at the Young Men Olympians parade that day and tried to help his elderly father down the street when he heard the shots. "It was the outsiders," Dollis said.
Shereece Harrison-Nelson, a third-generation Mardi Gras Indian, said there was another Indian phrase similar to the familiar "hey pocky way," and that was "two way, pocky way" — "It means, 'You go your way, and I'll go mine,'" she explained.
This problem cries out for a strong partnership between leaders of the social aid and pleasure clubs and NOPD, and it demands that citizens get involved when they see something wrong. Part of the solution is making sure young people learn right from wrong, a job the men and women of the marching groups and the Mardi Gras Indians are uniquely qualified to carry out. A boy who grows up with a tuba or a headdress in his hand doesn't have room to hold a gun.
Two way, pocky way.