NEW ORLEANS (AP) — It bore trademarks of a classic New Orleans parade – the blare of brass, the dipping and kicking of dance, the strutting of bodies moving in unison through the streets. But wearing no sequins or plumes, those on parade were propelled by more than breezy revelry.
In a city torn by gun violence, they carried memories of the dead.
Travis Lyons, who has been on both sides of New Orleans’ carnage, had dreamed for years of staging this event. He envisioned it as an anti-violence rally presented as a classic second line, as the sashaying, carefree processions are known in this city where they’re a cultural cornerstone.
And now here they were, gathering in a circle outside City Hall, Mardi Gras so fresh that a stray lemon-colored feather blew past and a forgotten strand of fuchsia beads lay underfoot. Here they were, having buried friends and children and brothers, desperate to see the killing stop.
Pastor Kerwin Lewis stood among a crowd that would later grow to about 100 people. His teenage cousin was gunned down two decades ago while returning from his high school graduation party; a fiancee was shot years later. Offering a prayer, he thought of them.
“Oh God, we are losing a generation,” he intoned. “Oh God, we pray that it comes to a stop.”
Then the band started to play. Feet shuffled. The second line began.
Near the front, 61-year-old Venita Seals wore a red beret and a pin with photos of dead relatives. Asked how many people she’s known who were killed, she stared off, unable to tally. A son, a grandson, a friend shot over $60. She went on and on. She had her home broken into and said she was raped. She found herself needing to carry her .357 Magnum even to take out the trash.
“This is what I got to live with in my mind,” she said. “This is what I got to hold in my heart.”
The paraders moved past gabled roofs and columned balconies and porches with gingerbread woodwork that looked like a starburst and an abacus. Beneath a highway overpass, their instruments reverberated and echoed. Winding by towering downtown hotels and modest homes and a bakery that makes bread for po’boys, they moved along.
New Orleans’ murder rate was more than eight times the U.S. average in 2014, the most recent national figures. Killings in the city increased slightly last year, to 164. Violent crime, often involving guns, has persisted even as officials have tried all types of programs to lower the rate. The blocks around the 1.5-mile parade route have seen assaults and rapes and homicides.
The violence has, at times, spilled over into the city’s parades. Because they can attract thousands, those events can also be a convenient place to locate a rival.
Animosity has sprouted between the social clubs that stage the second lines, Lyons said, with fights breaking out over allegations of stolen dance moves and tussles over whose costumes were most extravagant, whose shoes most eye-catching.
Lyons, president of the Perfect Gentlemen Social Aid and Pleasure Club, saw his event as a show of solidarity. He invited other club presidents to march beside him, putting aside the competitiveness to stand united against the killing.
Fewer showed up than he had hoped, but he vowed to return next year, again spending about $5,000 to fund the event himself.
They marched on in crisp February air, the sounds of horns piercing the quiet of a Saturday downtown. Some clutched bottles and cans in brown bags; many wore shirts with the words “STOP VIOLENCE” in a red octagon.
The second lines share history with jazz funerals, a parade of mourners that typically follows the deceased to the somber sounds of the band. Despite the losses suffered by those who gathered this day, though, the mood was upbeat and the music joyous.
Rosary McCaskill, a 58-year-old fashion designer, wore red shoes that blurred with the speed of her footwork. Explaining why she was drawn to the parade, she spoke of teens’ passing comments about what they’ll do “if” they live into their 20s, resigned to lives cut short by gunfire. She remembered the 26-year-old son of a friend who was shot in the head and killed.
“It really put a dent in my heart,” she said.
A trombone’s slide extended skyward as the throng passed a barren tree draped in shiny plastic beads, purple, gold and green. The hollow sound of a cowbell punctuated the footsteps of marchers, some of whom questioned why attendance was lower than they’d expected, others who wondered aloud how an anti-violence second line could possibly bring a halt to the bloodshed.
But Rodney Richardson, driving a truck near the head of the parade, said those in this special second line were just using a means of communicating as quintessentially New Orleans as gumbo and jazz to project a positive message.
“Even if all of us just reach one kid, that one kid could probably reach another kid,” said Richardson, a 50-year-old contractor and member of Perfect Gentlemen. “You got two times two times two times two times two – next thing you know, it’s not so bad anymore.”
Few spectators appeared; those who did simply took in the parade. A man all in denim crouched low; two sisters looked on with big green bows in their hair. As the gold of the Superdome loomed off to the right, some marchers sucked cigarettes, some stared at their phones.
With bald head and beaming smile, Lyons was a stout force up front.
He got his start around the age of 14, as a lookout for neighborhood drug dealers, shouting “Fire in the hole!” if he spotted a police car. He said he went on to sell drugs himself, quickly finding marketing ploys. His bags of marijuana would come with a mint taped to them. When others were selling cocaine for $25, he said, he’d offer smaller quantities for less so as not to lose prospective buyers. He learned to hustle every dollar he could.
Today, at 48, he’s hustling again. Give people something, he has learned, and they will gravitate to you. He’d covered the fees for permits and musicians and was giving onlookers a show. He just hoped they got the message.
Lyons has been stabbed and shot; a 9mm bullet still in his abdomen sometimes floats to the surface of his belly. He used to be consumed by rage, so eager to inflict pain on enemies he soaked his bullets in garlic to give them extra sting. Asked if he ever killed, he was coy and said he didn’t know.
The anger has diminished with age, but he felt it again when his half-brother, Warren Mayes, was shot and killed, then when the tragedy repeated, taking his oldest son, Toliver. He felt it when his half-sister Ann Mayes was left a paraplegic by a shooting.
Legs kicking, a handkerchief snapping, the second line moved past palm trees and pastel-colored houses, over streetcar tracks. A tuba’s vibrations and a snare drum’s staccato mixed with the high-pitched squeal of a rolling bar’s squeaky wheels.
Anthony Lewis, a 52-year-old McDonald’s manager, bought a brandy and Coke from the blue cart. He grew up on these streets and knew he could fall victim to them. He knows guys who’ve served 30 or 40 years for drugs, robberies and murder. He doesn’t know anyone who hasn’t been touched by the violence.
“Everybody has a story,” he said.
Joe Stern, a 73-year-old college English teacher who leads the Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club, broke into a rhythmic stomp. He was wearing a baby blue bandana and tie-dye sunglasses.
He too had a hard time quantifying those he’s known who’ve been killed – a musician who played with his club, another friend who was stabbed, a club member’s 12-year-old brother. Much of the violence arose from tiny disputes, he said, but all of it weighs on those left behind. He compared its effect on the city’s psyche to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
“You can’t have that many people being killed all the time without it having some kind of emotional impact,” he said. “Some people drink too much. Some people just get a reckless attitude. Some people, they just become numb.”
When Lyons learned of his brother’s death, he remembers his heart sinking and his body shaking. Years later, when the call came about his son, he dropped the phone and cried. He saw a new side of the pain when he sat in a Texas courtroom where another son was found guilty of murder, and he sat across from relatives of the victim.
He knows he may seem an imperfect messenger of non-violence, given his own past. But it earns him credibility with some youngsters, who call him “O.G.” – for old, or original, gangster.
“I know I got to answer. I ain’t no saint,” he said, “but I’m here to teach better.”
Torsos were bending, arms flying, a parasol with black frill twirling. A woman joining the second line carried a container stacked with a rainbow of Jell-O shots. The parade glided by an abandoned house tagged with pink graffiti, a tree growing through one of its shattered windows.
The marchers passed near where a 5-year-old girl was shot and killed at a birthday party a few years ago. Finally, their destination came into view: a green expanse called A.L. Davis Park, where basketball games have ended in gunfire.
Five clusters of shiny red heart balloons tied to a fence marked the end point of the procession – and the paraders clustered for a small ceremony. Barbara Lacen-Keller, founder of the Social Aid and Pleasure Task Force, praised Lyons and presented certificates from the City Council.
“We want the violence to stop. We want the guns to be put down. We’re tired of blood in the streets,” she said to nods from the audience.
After his release from prison, Lyons vowed never to go back. He sold peanuts and washed cars, living clean, he said, and seeking redemption in life. He started a security company, a music label and mortgage brokerage. And he said he actively started trying to stop the violence he once lived.
His eyes glistened as Lacen-Keller spoke, thinking of his slain son and brother.
Just after the final words of admiration were spoken and the participants began to scatter, a string of pops sounded. They turned out to be from a boy’s toy gun.
But the sounds of real-life violence weren’t far off.
While the second line had marched, police logs would later show, two armed robberies had been pulled off elsewhere in New Orleans. A couple of hours later, the city recorded its next shooting victim.