So the first thing we have to note about Carnival 2023 is that I got COVID. Finally, almost three years after it stopped being cool or notable or... well at least since it stopped being considered news, I'm getting in on some of this action. Even though COVID is still causing serious health and safety problems all over the country, and even though this still has significant impacts on people's lives, their ability to work, go to school or maybe buy eggs sometimes, "as a nation" we've decided it's time to move on. We've definitely decided it's time to stop helping people, anyway. Good luck out there!
Because I have been a very good boy and dutifully taken all of my shots in accordance with the directives of our Satanic Lord
Fauci Gates Avegno? (I can't keep up with the liturgy anymore. Just tell me which way to genuflect) I am pretty much fine after a few nights' fever and mild coughing. Still, since I'm sitting here writing this on Friday afternoon, which is technically day 4 of the standard 5 day quarantine, I'm probably going to end up observing the first Uptown parades of the season masked and at a distance from the crowd. But if we've learned anything about the Carnival ritual in our many years of observance it is that we don't control the shape of our experience. Rather, we must learn to appreciate it as it comes. There is a subtle art to this. And whatever wisdom or spiritual gratification we might gain, often happens by accident.
Take the new shape of the early, um, pre-parade-season parade season, for example. We'll explore some of the circumstances in a bit but here is something that has happened mostly by accident over the past couple of years. Chewbacchus and the groups that make up a walking parade called Les Fous have been pushed up in the calendar to a weekend they share with the Krewe of Nefertiti now in its second year. This effectively ended up adding a whole new fourth weekend of public parading events to our calendar. Following upon that, the addition of Boheme on Friday, the shifting of 'tit-Rex and Krewe Delusion to that Sunday have greatly expanded Krewe du Vieux weekend. That's pretty cool. Of course the reasons some of it has happened are not necessarily good. But, in spite of the problems, we are getting, in these early weeks, a little taste of what a more diverse, geographically distributed, and locally driven Carnival season can look like. It's the sort of thing we should be consciously striving to make happen.
For now, it seems the only thing we're consciously striving for is more money for police. The approach of Carnival has occasioned a mad scramble by political leaders to appease the latest police shakedown over parade routes. As of this writing we're told there's a plan in place to staff everything using very expensive fill-ins from police and sheriff's departments all over the state. How is that going so far? I don't really know what sort of metrics Chief Woodfork intends to use to determine this. She said it would go perfectly fine.
At a press conference this week announcing the new strategy, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said the city and the NOPD would “ensure that everyone is on the same page relative to policy, procedures.”
Woodfork said at the same press conference the arrangement was reviewed by the city Law Department, the mayor’s chief administrative officer and she expected it would also be reviewed by the consent decree monitors.
“I think it’s going to be perfectly fine,” she said.
I'm told those are actually Orleans Sheriff's deputies rolling their motorcycles over the shoebox parade. But wherever they're from, there's already concern that they aren't going to be up on the brief. We don't hear so much about this now that we're supposed to focus on their staffing crisis. But for many years, the standard bit of propaganda we were fed about New Orleans police at Carnival time was that they were the world's undisputed "masters of crowd control." What does it take to attain such a lofty designation? Not much, apparently.
According to the cooperative endeavor agreement crafted by the OPSO, all supplemental deputies and officers must have an up-to-date Level 1 LAPOST Basic Training certification, which is completed in Louisiana, and two years of job experience. There will be no special training.
Notice also that because this says visiting police are "independent contractors" under the supervision of the Sheriff and not the NOPD, there's really no argument to say they fall under the directives of the federal consent decree governing that agency.
Deputies and officers in this capacity are being viewed as “independent contractors” of the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office. They will be assigned by that agency, but will wear the equipment, badge, uniforms, and weapons issued by their home parish. At all times, the officers will be considered employees of their home department and subject to the laws and regulations of those departments.
Of course Woodfork thinks it will be perfectly fine. She's barely got anything to do with any of it anyway. From the looks of things, all she's responsible for is checking the vibes. Just like us, actually!
And how is that going, anyway? So far... it's been a mixed bag. We took our first real sampling in the Marigny on KDV night under a portentous full moon.
Now first of all before we say anything else, from a pure vibes aspect, it is difficult to beat the sound and feel of being at this parade.
However, sound and feel aren't the only reasons people go to see Krewe du Vieux. They also go for the jokes. KDV isn't the only parade known for topical satire by any stretch. But it does have a reputation for cleverness and sophistication (even in spite of its scatological enthusiasms) that sets an often emulated standard. Does KDV itself always live up that standard? Not really. This year's reviews were not only mixed. In some regards they were downright polarizing.
The primary complaint had to do with representations of Mayor Cantrell and Sheriff Hutson by several sub-krewes. The mayor of New Orleans and the elected Sheriff, being the low down good for nothing politicians that they are, are obviously fair game for pointed satire. But when your japes are informed by right wing memes and racist stereotypes, as was the case with at least two of the floats I saw, then you're less likely to score any points against your intended quarry than you are to just make a lot of people mad. Peter Athas explains this here in a re-cap post following his march in the KDV sub-krewe SPANK.
While we did an anti-racism theme there was controversy over floats depicting two Black elected officials: Sheriff Susan Hutson and Mayor Cantrell. They’re both fair game, but it’s possible to kick down when mocking public figures. That’s what two sub-krewes did with a highly sexualized image of the Sheriff and a blackened caricature of the Mayor. These floats were overtly misogynistic and verged on minstrelsy. I’m not posting pictures but the floats came from LEWD and Seeds of Decline if you want to google them. And yes, the sub-krewes have silly names.
I don't mind posting the pictures. This is LEWD's float.
The inspiration for this one apparently comes from this story about the newly elected sheriff learning to ride a horse for the first time. So to begin with, it's a deep cut reference to something few people watching will have even seen. Secondly, there's really nothing there to make fun of per se. Person who is new to a job is learning to do this one small ceremonial aspect of it. Nothing wrong with that. Meanwhile, there's been plenty to criticize about Hutson's actual performance in office so far if you really want to go after her. This horse thing is just trivial. So even if we wanted to argue that the.. um.. undignified representation of her person is merited by the force of a pointed political attack, well, it isn't. It's just transgression for its own sake which, as Athas also points out here, is just trolling.
He also mentions the Seeds float going after the mayor's much publicized trips out of town. I actually think that's a fair topic insofar as the conferences and junkets she's jetting around to are often lobbying events for the privatizing leeches who end up making questionable business deals with her administration. Of course, nobody makes that point about it. Rather we get facile tedious complaints about "first class travel at taxpayer expense." Still, even Seeds' less than great handling of the issue did lead to this "for mayoral induced nausea" barf bag coming into my possession. And I can't say I won't need to use it at some point.
On the other hand, this float from the sub-krewe of Space Age Love was basically a rolling advertisement for the mayoral recall plastered with references and epithets pulled right out of right wing Facebook comments. "LaToylet," "LaToya The Destroya" etc. They're playing all the hits.
Bad taste, unfunny, and promoting a reactionary political agenda funded by an ultra-wealthy owner of a shitty restaurant franchise. It really doesn't get much worse than that. I found out later that Rick Farrell (the shitty restaurant owner in question) paid to reserve some party space near where the parade lines up and had recall canvassers set up to collect signatures. There's probably not much he krewe could have done to keep that from happening. But they could have chosen not to roll this advertisement for an active political campaign in their parade.
Anyway, you can see why people are upset. But it's not all bad news. Because Krewe du Vieux is a federated amalgamation of the sub-krewes that make it up, there are going to be wild inconsistencies in its presentation. You can see the worst of its worst elements right alongside some of its best giving their very best. Here is Krewe of Underwear's float about the growing
censorship of reading materials. It put a bunch of books on a BBQ pit.
This was C.R.A.P.S. float criticizing the Dobbs decision. They made a big uterine monster puppet.
The aforementioned SPANK did a riff on famous right wing crank and Rock 'N Bowl owner John Blancher being a "Rock 'n A' Hole" which was also clever. I didn't get decent enough photo of their float but here they are.
Maybe the problem here, then, is that people need to be more specific about what it is they're mad at? Or maybe that's also missing the point.
The following is a passage from a 2016 general history of Medieval Europe by Chris Wickham Here he is describing the late medieval emergence of civic ritual in urban places (such as carnival celebrations, for example.)
Rituals are polyvalent, for a start: they regularly take on different meanings for participants from those intended by organizers, often several different meanings at once. One general meaning of all these processions and other events was a celebration of the civic identity of the participants, which was frequently fully explicit, and also marked by dances and jousting in the days before and after the more formal religious ceremonials. They were also, of course, intended to support local power structures and social hierarchies, as with the Pope's Easter Monday procession in Rome, which represented (among other things) his local sovereignty, or the particular festivities at Carnival and on St. John's day which Lorenzo de Medici developed around 1490 in Florence to showcase his charismatic authority. Conversely such rituals were also the foci for contestation, as, earlier in Florence, the opposition between urban aristocratic jousting and guild processions. Any procession could be disrupted, indeed, to make a political point: that was how internal civic crises often started.
"Celebrations of civic identity," are complicated things. They can be
elitist and subversive at once. They can express a political point of
view and its opposite at the same time. They can reify existing
hierarchies while suggesting the possibility of their overthrow. Carnival
is a public exhibition and participatory social catharsis that is as
much felt as it is spoken. It's no surprise that it will touch on
social and political issues that concern us as a collective. But it is
not, nor can it ever be, a logical linear argument about anything.
Instead the experience is better understood as a dream or a vision. And
even the visions we share together can take on widely varied shades of
meaning. For the most part, we can only let them happen and draw from them what we can.
So what can we draw from KDV 2023? Well for one thing, if you want to do local political satire, you should be a little more plugged in to local politics than, say, the average casual fan of the Newell Normand show. But I think what's happening in some of these sub-krewes is more of their membership live out of town or even out of state these days than when they were a younger and truly "alternative" local art event. So it's no surprise they aren't getting too far into the local news beyond what's most loudly and salaciously broadcast via the laziest media. Heck, even most of the better content in this year's parade was mostly ripped from the headlines of the national culture wars. Obviously this doesn't apply evenly to all the sub-krewes or their individual members, but it does seem like KDV, as an institution is aging away from its counter-cultural roots toward its cable-news brained dotage.
There's still some things they can do about that. Given the growth of the pre-season and the proliferation of new groups born more or less in KDV's image, maybe it's time for KDV to think more consciously about its responsibiliy as the elder statesman here. At the very least, the main "mothership" krewe could take more interest in ensuring the overall quality of the content. The structure of their organization makes that complicated. And, of course, nobody in the DIY art krewe wants to be the art police. But maybe having someone around to say, "Ok but do we need four different floats this year all making the same, 'LaToya sure flies on planes a lot' joke?" would help smooth things over a bit. Because the whole parade's reputation takes a hit every time stuff like this happens.
We've already said, there's only so much control anyone can exert over the fever dream of our civic celebration and the chaotic visions it produces. That doesn't mean we can't have rules and laws that ensure its continuance. That's not really a contradiction. But it can be a fine line to walk. Is J.P. Morrell walking it?
New Orleans City Council President JP Morrell is preparing significant new reforms for the way the city permits and treats Mardi Gras krewes in the future, ranging from forcing out some old-line parade krewes to giving walking krewes like Chewbacchus and krewedelusion the same sort of protections and rights that “traditional” parading groups like Rex and Zulu now enjoy.
“You can't really regulate Mardi Gras,” Morrell said in an interview with Gambit. “We're just trying to make sure the city gets a good return on Mardi Gras.”
Morrell said he’s already introduced legislation requiring the mayor's Mardi Gras Advisory Committee to determine which krewes will be permitted by June 15 each year.
"You can't really regulate Mardi Gras," he said while literally proposing a new set of Mardi Gras regulations. If that's not a perfect encapsulation of the spirit of Carnival, I don't know what is. But what is J.P. actually on about here?
For “traditional” parades — primarily krewes that feature floats with riders and that roll the final two weekends of Carnival, Lundi Gras and Fat Tuesday — perhaps the biggest change Morrell hopes to see is the advisory committee to weed out underperforming parades. Traditional parades are the primary subject of the city’s Mardi Gras ordinances
“We've heard rumors for years that there are krewes that are not financially solvent, that are kind of leasing their space to other krewes who are on the waiting list or simply don't want to go through the process,” Morrell said. Others have simply not provided the sort of spectacle and artistry residents expect from Mardi Gras parades.
Such a process could also allow for the city to handle other types of bad actors. For instance, it could create a mechanism to oust Nyx, which has been plagued by controversies, including members throwing racist beads in 2019, their krewe captain posting racist comments on social media, a lawsuit from five members alleging fraud and abuse and the decision to hold a ball in Biloxi in 2021 as a protest of sorts against the city’s COVID-19 restrictions. Similarly, Druids have come under criticism in recent years for crossing well over the line of satire into racist tropes and other insensitive themes for their floats.
“There needs to be a mechanism where there's some curation on behalf of the mayor's Mardi Gras advisory committee to go through the krewes post-Mardi Gras and go, well, how was the parade this year? Did it live up to expectations? Does their roster actually match up with the amount of riders they say they have? Are they financially solvent? All these things are things that they should be doing,” Morrell said.
I see some good thoughts expressed in that article as well as some things that sound questionable. We'll need to learn more about what he wants. I'm not excited about the idea of the city getting too heavily involved in reviewing the content of a parade, for example.
Are going to end up with something like this?
Last weekend's KDV discourse demonstrates that parade content moderation can be a dicey proposition. You want to believe J.P. when he says he's sticking up for the little guys and the independents. But it's less comforting to see him prominently uphold the highly problematic and Disney IP heavy Chewbacchus as his standard bearer. We know J.P. loves him some Disney-owned cultural products. Is that what we want out of Mardi Gras, though? Whose tastes and preferences would this review board enforce?
In this MacCash story, J.P. also asks if there are too many parades.
“Do we need a cap?” asked City Council president JP Morrell
rhetorically during an interview last Friday. If not, he said, maybe we
should approve other krewes.
As first reported by The Gambit,
Morrell hopes to rewrite the city’s Carnival playbook. In addition to
allowing for more parades, he’s considering the possibility of retiring a
few. Since the city pays most of the cost to present the parades,
Morrell argues, there should be certain standards.
expansion and contraction of Carnival will be managed is still in the
research and development mode. Morrell said the real work will begin in
the spring, with an eye toward future Mardi Gras seasons.
The article goes on to point out, though, that despite the fact that the number or Orleans Parish parades is already capped at 30, two new parades have been added to the calendar in recent years. How did that happen? Well, let's see, one of them is the Legion of Mars which takes the morning Saturday slot this year. Who are they?
Despite the cap, sometimes new krewes do manage to cut in line. This year, the Legion of Mars, a krewe composed of veterans, first responders, police officers and their families, was permitted to lead off the parades on Feb. 11.
The other is the Krewe of Nefriti which began parading in New Orleans East last year and is now a fixture of that new "accidental" fourth week of parades we talked about at the top of this post. What's going on there?
When her fellow NOPD sergeant Zenia Smith, who was also a former Nyx member and who also lives in the East, founded the all-female Krewe of Nefertiti in 2020, Turner joined immediately.
Nefertiti is the East’s only parade. It’s for the neighborhood folks who maybe can’t easily get to the Uptown parades, or maybe don’t want to.
It’s the kind of parade where people watch from their own front yards, kids run along with the 13 floats, and the high school bands come from the neighborhood. Nefertiti is devoted to public service. It’s exactly the kind of parade that wants a detective sergeant as queen.
Ah ok so you get a permit above the cap if you are a cop parade. Got it.
So it looks like we'll be discussing all this stuff at City Council after Mardi Gras this year. It doesn't necessarily have to go poorly. But I remember the time Councilmember Cantrell convened a Mardi Gras review task force and the only thing that came out of that was they tried to ban Tucks from throwing T-P rolls
I do think we need to have some serious talks about how to promote a
more accessible and local focused Carnival season. Rather than capping the number of parades or overly scrutinizing their format and content, why not let's talk about breaking up the Uptown mono-route and put more diverse styles of parade into the city's neighborhoods. If J.P. really does want to recognize groups like Boheme and Chewbacchus as the equals of Carrollton or Muses, then doesn't that mean it's okay for the "big" parades to loosen their style up a bit if they want to? Do we really need to jam them all down St. Charles three and four at a time? Who does that benefit?
Too often the way our
newspaper writes about Carnival and the way our politicians seek to
regulate it begins and ends from the perspective of what's best for
police and for tourism ownership. But, according to the Arthur Hardy guide, "Mardi Gras is a party the city throws for itself."* That's the thing we need to protect. Regular people rarely have a voice in that.
For several years pre-covid I was doing this bit where I pretended to rank the uptown parades
each year based on a tongue in cheek matrix of highly subjective
categories of experience. The real point of that exercise, though, was all parades are fun and each
one does something different. We can't and shouldn't hold them all to the
same standard. They each represent a different aesthetic and set out
to do something particular to their idiom. Stacking them up every
year was nonetheless fun because it demonstrates the varied and textured
experience of Mardi Gras. I'd hate to see that crushed by too much
standardization. J.P. should call me and I will show him my
Obviously there were no rankings in 2021 because there were no parades. And last year I didn't do them because last year
was all more about feeling the vibes after a year off. I might bring the
rankings back this year since this is going to be an issue. I'm not sure how inclusive they will be, though, because, well, I've got the COVID. Whatever I get of this weekend's parades will be short bits seen from a distance. I'll have to make do with the actual fever dreams in the meantime.
* My favorite line from the book. It's in the Q&A every year. It appears on page 20 of this year's guide.