The city is stifling free speech — and threatening a unique part of its culture — by charging steep fees for police escorts at the jazz-and-parasol processions called second lines, the ACLU alleged in a federal lawsuit Thursday.
"If we don't get some relief from the court, this tradition will be taxed out of existence," said Joe Cook, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Louisiana.
Police raised fees from about $1,200 to about $4,000 this year after two second-line parades were marred by gunfire. One person was killed and several others wounded.
The fees are so excessive they will infringe on clubs' First Amendment rights by preventing them from holding parades, the ACLU argues.
Franz Zibilich, an assistant city attorney, said that the cash-strapped city is in a no-win situation because it would be blamed for not providing more officers at the processions, and that it needs to raise fees to pay for them.
Second-line parades and their sash-wearing, parasol-twirling participants, mostly members of the working poor, are enmeshed in the city's musical and cultural history.
"In many cases, you have fathers and grandfathers marching with the boys, and I think they do a great deal to strengthen family bonds," said Jason Berry, a New Orleans music writer.
The parades, which usually take place on Sundays and feature brass bands and wild dancing, sprang from New Orleans' jazz procession tradition and inspired Louis Armstrong. They are often organized by black social groups and wend through neighborhoods, drawing people out of their homes and onto the streets.
The clubs, which range in membership from a handful to over 100, often pay for their annual blowouts by holding fundraisers.
Terrence Williams, one of several second-line members attending a news conference with the ACLU, said his three-man group, the New Generation Social Aid and Pleasure Club, will have a hard time coming up with the fee for its Dec. 10 parade.
He said social clubs shouldn't be held responsible for the criminals who cause violence at the events.
"If they want to shoot somebody, they're going to do it; that's the bottom line," Williams said. "But don't penalize us for it. We didn't do it."