Old habits are said to die slow, but it seems like racist traditions die even slower. Baton Rouge’s annual Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade is a perfect example. Filled with offensive costumes, customs, and a history of racist and sexists displays, the city’s 36 year tradition has people calling out its organizers for the highly-offensive imagery. The parade took place over the weekend with floats and images poking fun at the #BlackLivesMatter movement and mocking the deaths of black men who have been unjustly murdered at the hands of police such as Eric Garner and Freddie Gray.
The event organizers, known as the Society for the Preservation of Lagniappe in Louisiana (SPLL) describes itself as a non-profit corporation with the purpose to “undertake, develop, support and operate charitable, cultural and educational activities to unite all segments of the Baton Rouge community in the promotion of preserving and enhancing Baton Rouge and Louisiana traditions” yet the group’s yearly Mardi Gras offering seems more like an opportunity for its predominately white male membership to spew insensitive and crude jokes.
Saturday’s gathering featured rainbow colored Confederate flags, a “Pink Lives Matter” float (referencing the organization’s flamingo symbol), a float with a drawing of a flamingo being beaten with a police baton and holding an “I can’t breathe” sign strung around its neck mocking the murder of Eric Garner, as well as a float with a joke about “Freddie Gray Goose” making light of the life of Baltimore police brutality victim, Freddie Gray. Though the group characterizes their antics as satire, not everyone is buying it.
Many in the area have spoken out about this year’s highly-offensive parade, and in 2015, former “Sons of Guns” co-star Stephanie Ford alleged that a Spanish Town Parade float (featuring local police) made fun of her sexual abuse at the hands of her father. The float’s theme was “Easy Targets” with decorated photos of Ford and her father, who has been indicted on charges of raping two preteen girls. Her complaint prompted an internal BRPD investigation, but only a letter of reprimand was given to one of the officers involved.
Black Southern University law student and blogger Shelley Moore aired out her frustrations with the Mardi Gras tradition in a piece titled “A Piss Poor Parade” writing, “Parades are public events, for public enjoyment. The ENTIRE public. If Spanish Town was for “whites only”, someone should have posted a sign. I’m sure some residents still have a sign or two stored, just in case. But since there was no sign, and no notice that my blackness would be under attack, it shouldn’t have been. I shouldn’t have had to look at the black children around me and wonder if they recognized what they were seeing. I shouldn’t have had to feel like an outsider in my hometown.”
Local activist and writer Gary Chambers shared his thoughts about the event on his website, The Rouge Collection dedicated to local black community issues, and explained that Baton Rouge has a long way to go in terms of racial injustice, proven by “the lack of medical facilities and economic development in north Baton Rouge, which is mostly black, or the median income of blacks in Baton Rouge – $39,000 for blacks and $90,000for whites”. According to Chambers, the parade’s “satire” only highlights these issues.
Baton Rouge is deeply rooted in subtle racism every day. Subtle racism gives way to BOLD racism, which is exactly what was on display at the Spanish Town Mardi Gras parade. Call it satire, call it a joke, but there is absolutely nothing funny about unarmed dead black men in the streets of America.
Thus far, SPLL members have been extremely indifferent to the responses and backlash caused by the parade. In a comment to local paper The Advocate, board member Doug Cossman stated, “We’re aware of what’s going on, we’re sorry if anybody’s offended, but we have no official position at this time. And we’re not about to start censoring anybody’s free speech rights.”