During this year’s Carnival celebrations in New Orleans, two 58-year-old locals were run over by parade floats and died. On Feb. 19, Geraldine Carmouche fell between the wheels of a tandem float at the Nyx Parade, and on Feb. 22, Joseph Sampson was crushed by a tandem float in Endymion.
The most recent New Orleans float-related fatality had been in 2008, when a section of the “Captain S.S. Eddie” — the same float involved in the 2020 Endymion death — rolled over a rider who was in the process of dismounting.
Mayor Cantrell reacted to these two deaths with Strong Executive Action, issuing an immediate, unilateral ban on tandem floats for the remainder of Carnival 2020. This meant chopping up many of the season’s most majestic, iconic floats. Krewe captains acceded.
On Thursday, Feb. 27, an assortment of government officials, krewe captains and civic leaders met for an hour behind closed doors to begin hashing out possible policy reactions to these deaths. “[T]he krewes seem to agree that something needs to be done,” according to an ominously passive-voice WWL-TV piece titled “Krewes expect changes to parades in 2021.”
It remains to be seen who will decide these changes and whose agenda or vision of “safety” will be served.
The Wall and the Wonks
Clark Brennan, Captain of Bacchus, wants to build the wall. According to WWL, Brennan would like to see barricades erected along the entire parade route. Bacchus, for those struggling to keep straight our local oligarchs, is the krewe that Steve Scalise masks up to ride with, the krewe that this year waved a Trump flag off one of its floats.
On Ash Wednesday, the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate ran two letters to the editor on the subject of float safety. Both came from residents of Metairie, Louisiana, that reliably generous source of opinions on what New Orleans needs. One of the letters, from a gentleman who works in “Golf Sales,” echoes the Brennan doctrine: “The entire parade route must be lined with barricades that will not allow anyone to get near the floats.”
According to this mindset, the problem is the hoi polloi being allowed too close. The unwashed masses must be corralled like cattle, contained and managed, directed and enclosed in their designated Free Shit Zone to gratefully receive plastic bounty from the ruling-class riders. This is an old-school, traditional approach to control.
The other letter on the subject came from James Guilbeau, also of Metairie. James lists his job as Systems Analyst — that perennial Onion vox-populi profession — and has a different fix in mind. He blames the deaths on poor float design: “An example of good design is modern streetcars that have metal skirts on front and sides that are within a few inches of the pavement.”
This is also, broadly, the approach endorsed by City Councillor-at-Large Jason Williams, who told WWL-TV, “This doesn’t need to be city leaders making this decision… Get some citizens involved, some experts, engineers.” Williams proposes, as an example, a high-tech intra-sectional barricade bridging the apparently deadly tandem floats: a barricade that, if touched, would trigger a kill switch and stop the floats in their tracks.
Williams — who celebrated giving away whole blocks of Canal Street to Sonder as a victory — is heir to the Mitch Landrieu/Mike Bloomberg “technologist” approach, in which citizen behavior is controlled not by the clumsily visible — big metal barriers — but by the more atomised mechanisms of the “disruption” and “innovation” type. If we just yield authority to the wonks, the engineers, the experts, the bright young entrepreneurs, they’ll innovate a solution, no matter the issue!
The Routes of the Problem
History guides us to guess that, like innumerable laws and ordinances before them, any additional decrees will be loudly trumpeted and then discarded, ignored or at most selectively and inconsistently enforced, as were the handful of Carnival-specific rules new for 2020.
There are other possibilities. In an Ash Wednesday Bayou Brief piece titled “The Cursed Carnival?” Peter Athas writes, “Mayor Cantrell has chosen to focus on over-large tandem floats as the root of all evil. She’s wrong: people are the problem, not floats.”
I’m with him on that. Athas, however, blames “anti-social behavior,” exemplified by the territorial tarping-off of parade-adjacent real estate, and the consolidation of parade routes. “The solution to many of these issues is to spread the parades out to the neighborhoods.”
I agree with Athas and others I’ve read on Twitter that dispersing parades more broadly, on more routes and in more neighborhoods, is a good idea. Among the reasons I agree is that doing so at least acknowledges what I consider the crux of the crisis: the size of the goddamn crowds.
Every year the crowds grow. We’ve already had to give up our homes and our neighborhoods; they’ve been replaced by hives of short-term rental to accommodate the endless increase in tourists… but there’s no upper limit. The market and the state are working together to create a monstrosity, an infinitely scalable Mega-Gras that the limited actuality of New Orleans cannot survive.
Spreading the attendees more thinly among more routes is just a stopgap. It will buy time, but if our tourism industry continues to metastasize, sooner rather than later we’ll be back to the claustrophobic rats-in-a-cage dynamic Athas and the local Twitterati rightly decry. There’s more people every year, and only so much New Orleans.
Back in the day, an on-again-off-again New Orleans graffiti artist best known for the tag “Stay Punk Do Crimes” once improved a McDonald’s billboard next to Hank’s on St. Claude with the truism “Tourism is a Cancer.” I think of that phrase often.
Mardi Gras brought New Orleans 700,000 visitors in 2006. It’s at least doubled since then. Multiple news organizations cite 1.4 million as the number of yearly Mardi Gras tourists these last few years, though it’s not clear to me where (or when) that figure originated. Since AirBnB hollowing out the city has made so many more tourist accommodations available, I’d expect the number has grown significantly past that.
The New Orleans tourism industry is thriving. It’s determined to keep attracting more tourists here; to succeed it must endlessly expand. Unfettered growth is the raison d’être of this powerful and heavily taxpayer-subsidized culture-extraction industry, the cause championed in its glossy promotional publications and schemed on in its secretive boards and colloquies.
Our city’s beautiful old streets are no wider than they ever were — certainly not to any degree commensurate with the growth of the masses filling them for Mardi Gras. As the yearly influx doubles and redoubles, the ancient, creaking infrastructure of New Orleans bows, groans and begins to give way.
Jamming 1.5 million humans into the same party space that struggled to accommodate half a million in 1970 is, put simply, unsafe. Like the workers killed in the Hard Rock Hotel, this year’s Carnival deaths can be viewed as not anomalous or exceptional but natural, built-in byproducts of an insatiable tourism industry that’s rendered our so-called city leaders handmaidens to its greed. The sloppy rush and corner-cutting on the deadly hotel was itself likely driven — though we’ll never know precisely to what proportion — by its profiteering developers’ declared desire to have it open by Carnival season.
Any so-called solutions that promise safer parade routes must admit and address this reality: New Orleans cannot physically accommodate our rate of tourist growth.
Keeping a mere 500,000 people safe from floats or anything else is much easier and very different than keeping safe a million, a million and a half or two million. After all, dying is something people do. As with anything people do, gathering a larger crowd improves the odds of someone doing it.
“Safety” is a loaded term. In New Orleans these days, it has a very specific meaning: shielding private property and tourists from consequences in a city of hellacious material inequities. For example, “safety” serves as justification for the 90 additional high-tech surveillance cameras the city wants to buy with Entergy customers’ recovered money, cameras that will feed into the dystopic Real Time Crime Center. “Safety” was the excuse for bringing in state troopers to rough up young Black men on Bourbon Street. Safety is why we made all those important changes in the wake of the drunk driver killing cyclists after Endymion 2019… well, that might not be a good example. Safety is a relative concept.
In light of today’s safety concerns, let us look to 1981, an unusually deadly Mardi Gras. Two children, ages 8 and 3, were killed by floats on Mardi Gras day by what the UPI characterized as “surging crowds.” The older of them tumbled off a ladder at the Elks parade, and the other fell under a Zulu float at the disembarkation point. In the wake of these deaths, Mayor Dutch Morial created the Mardi Gras Advisory Committee, which (as Arthur Hardy points out in his recent column for the Times-Pic) still exists today — though the only evidence I can find of its existence lately are studies it commissioned on Carnival’s “economic impact.”
Also on Mardi Gras 1981, the St. Augustine marching band, which in 1967 became the first Black marching band allowed to march with Rex, boycotted the centennial of Rex over safety concerns. Specifically, they chose to boycott after Detective John Walters, a 10-year NOPD veteran, put his gun to the head of a St. Augustine band chaperone during Bacchus and then opened fire into the marching band, hitting a 17-year-old drum major in the neck and a bystander in the groin.
Contemporary reporting by the UPI tells us, “Several racial flare-ups involving marching bands have resulted in injuries and arrests on parade routes this Carnival season… Another high school band marching in a Carnival parade was attacked by a group of spectators who smashed their instruments… Since then, school officials have surrounded many marching bands with chaperones.”
As we await the latest pronouncements from whatever magisterial body decides it’s in charge of Mardi Gras these days, we might also study what some feared would be the unsafest Mardi Gras of all: 1979, the year the NOPD went on strike during the height of Carnival. As a result of this strike, the biggest New Orleans parades, including Rex, Comus and Zulu, cancelled altogether; others rolled in suburban parishes instead of New Orleans.
Some tourists stayed away or followed the parades out to the burbs. According to a New York Times write-up of the events, “Mardi Gras 1979: Lot of Spirit but a Little Less Fat,” city leadership feared “unpleasant things might happen in the French Quarter, traditionally the epicenter of Mardi Gras revelry.” Mayor Marc Morial “urged citizens to stay away from it.” The result was a more local Mardi Gras than the city had seen in years.
Some National Guard were present, but they didn’t enforce laws regarding nudity, lewd conduct or drug use. A few “Carnival veterans” the Times talked to believed “this year’s crowd in the Quarter was the scruffiest in some time,” and cited as an example of the unbound climate “a live scene that might have been out of a pornographic movie… staged on a hotel balcony.”
Many who were there say it was the best Mardi Gras of all time, and it wasn’t confined to the Quarter. In a Jan. 2018 Advocate column by the immortal Smiley Anders, a visitor from Lafayette also recalls it as the “best Mardi Gras ever.” Of this so-called Mardi Gras without parades, Smiley’s correspondent says, “I was in an impromptu parade that eventually grew to about 15 vehicles. The lead car was an Oldsmobile convertible with a trunk full of beads.” They began by Audubon Park and rode around the city all day, stopping at bars.
Mardi Gras Belongs to Us
Sticking with New York Times coverage, those interested in Carnival history should dig up a fascinating capsule from the Feb. 10, 1970 edition, “New Orleans Ends the Most Violent Mardi Gras Season in Years With 600 in Its Jail.”
The article’s explanation of our traditions includes many intriguing tidbits: “The leading krewes exclude Jews, Negroes and Italians. Negroes and Italians have formed their own clubs. Jews, especially those important in the city’s economic structure, traditionally leave town on Mardi Gras.”
A rundown of Carnival 1970 violence mentions Al Hirt getting hit by a brick and beats the same dog-whistle crime-out-of-control drum that autocrats like Jeff Landry still rely on today, bemoaning “four white persons stabbed and wounded by Negro youths, all during carnival activities.”
It also talks about a certain kind of tourist, described by local papers as a “hippie herd,” invading the city. Absent any AirBnBs to accommodate all these bohemians during Carnival, NOPD “arrested more than 200 young persons for the crime of sleeping in the open air on the banks of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.”
The police chief then was Joseph I. Giarruso, a notorious Jim Crow supercop whose career lowlights included personally punching out former state Sen. Henry Braden at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and presiding over the Rev. Avery Alexander being dragged out of City Hall’s whites-only cafeteria. He was also the grandpa of current District A City Councilman Joseph I. Giarruso III.
The elder Giarruso is nobody I’d lionize, but I do think his attitude towards Carnival tourists is an edifying contrast to what we see today. He took a hard line on the “thousands of the undesirable element” that swarmed New Orleans for Mardi Gras 1970.
“This is not their city, it is our city,” the Times quotes him as saying. “Mardi Gras belongs to us, not to them. We’d be far better off without them.”
Jules Bentley is a New Orleans writer.
The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Engagement Editor Tom Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.