The New Orleans Mother’s Day Shooting was Like a Mass Shooting at a Church

Thanks to all of you who’ve been paying attention to the Mother’s Day mass shooting in New Orleans. I was in the crowd that was attacked in gunfire that left 19 people shot. When my eyes started seeing through the chaos, a bloody semi-circle of bodies arched around me and my people—my partner, my baby, my sister, my nephew, my teachers, my friends, the comrades I organize with, the musicians I dance to, the artists I create with… My community got shot up. This is not the first time this has happened to us, and I doubt it will be the last. I know y’all feel the ripples of this violence—from tangible gunfire in our public streets, schools and movie theaters, to the subtler and slower-killing lashes of economic violence.

This Saturday, June 1, the Original Big Seven Social Aid and Pleasure Club is going to parade again, retracing their steps, and beyond—to the end of the route they never got to complete a few weeks ago. On the eve of the do-over second line, I understand that you cannot ever really do-over a day. Doing-over ourselves is another matter. Over the last two weeks, I have done the rounds with local organizers and neighborhood visionaries. I have combed the national and local press, the lefty blogs, and Facebook searching for comfort, for facts, and for a container to orderly situate both my analytical response and my personal grief. If, like me, you yearn for justice and an end to the violence, there is much we need to do-over: we need better ways of talking about violence and its systemic roots; deeper ways of healing after trauma; and stronger movements to support communities fighting for structural change.

The Big Seven gets a second-try for its second line this Saturday. We also need a second-try at understanding the shooting.  Here’s a few thoughts to get us started:

  1. A Mass Shooting at a Second Line Is Like a Mass Shooting at a Church or a School
  2. There are No Monsters Shooting People in New Orleans, or Anywhere
  3. We Need Less Guns, Less Jails, and Less Racism; We Need More Healing, More Restorative Justice, and More Structural Equity

1.  A Mass Shooting at a Second Line Is Like a Mass Shooting at a Church or a School

I believe that the stories we tell and the words we use matter. As a country, we cannot understand the significance of the Mother’s Day shooting without understanding the cultural legacy of New Orleans.  In the unique historical landscape of New Orleans, opening fire at a second line is like opening fire at a church or a school.  Yes, that’s right—our second lines are like your churches and schools.

Imagine for a moment if 19 people were shot at your church, or your child’s school.  Imagine a shooting at Riverside Church in New York City or an elementary school in Danbury, CT, just down the road from Sandy Hook. Imagine we did not yet know the race of the shooter or the victims. Even if no one died, the attack feels somehow different in our national psyche, right? I do not mean to construct a hierarchy of atrocities; certainly every manifestation of our city’s brokenness desperately deserves our attention. Yet location matters:  second line, church, and school shootings give the pain a particular texture. When violence occurs in sacred spaces where people go to for safety or healing, it adds a guttural urgency to our collective demand that this must never, ever happen again.
Of course that’s not what happened at all with the Mother’s Day mass shooting.

Unlike the Boston bombing, there was no 24-7 media presence here. To be fair, there was some coverage—good coverage, even. But it was buried in the back pages of papers and faded after a few days. Weeks later, I am still getting panicked calls from out-of-state friends as they get wind of what happened.

Are second liners second-class citizens? Is our sacred magic too foreign for the rest of the country to connect with?  If you absorb one morsel from this piece, let it be this: the New Orleans second line tradition is deeply rooted in the sacred. Jazz funerals, the original second lines, date back to the nineteenth century. During those processions, which still happen today, close family and other mourners occupy the “main line,” followed by a “second line” of mourners, and others who join in. After the body is “cut loose,”—either interned in a cemetery in the city or driven to one further away—the brass band plays upbeat music to help celebrate the life of the newly deceased.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, free and enslaved people of African decent gathered at Congo Square on Sundays to connect with the ancestors, dance, drum and trade goods. It is not a coincidence that today’s Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs roll on Sundays. Nor is it a coincidence that second lines have—like temples, mosques, churches and other places of worship – carved out a space in the political imagination of some people as safe zones. Historically speaking, second lines have never been immune to violence. But the old, ritualized Sunday tradition has a solid anchor in the sacred.

Writing about the survival of Sunday dances in the Anglo-American era, historian Ned Sublette found that “there was never any question whether there would be a dance on Sunday, because there had been a dance on Sunday in New Orleans as far back as anyone could remember.  To this day, Sunday is the day for black street music in New Orleans, because it always as been.  It’s parade day, the way Monday is the day for red beans and rice.” 

Second lines are our schools, too—a vast, outdoor classroom where young people learn second line songs, dances and music. Children as young as three tote cowbells, tambourines, trumpets, and whistles alongside the band.  I saw a young boy last weekend with a piece of cardboard with three dots on it he was using to mirror the trumpeter.  There is a subtler cultural transmission that happens, too… something you feel inside yourself on a spirit level. It is the transmission of an energy that reverberates with the power of centuries of cultural resistance.  Although most second lines are not overtly political—no protest signs, no blowhorns, no list of demands—there is a visibilizing, dignifying radicalness to the ritual of Black folks occupying public space in this way.  Today’s second lines are a mobile reincarnation of yesterday’s Congo Square.

The Original Big Seven’s annual Mother’s Day second line is like Christmas Day for my family. During the four hours we roll through the Seventh Ward, I literally see just about everyone I love in New Orleans. My husband, Leo Gorman, has been parading with the Big Seven since 2007. His former students line up to take photos with him. Some bring him Gatorade or pickle juice (don’t ask—he swears it helps with the cramping). He obliges with lots of splits on rooftops and hours of aerobic dancing that rivals the caloric output of marathon runners. This was an extra special year for us, as my nine-year-old nephew made his debut as a club member. It’s been particularly heartbreaking to accompany a fourth-grader in his fear, anger, confusion and sadness. It’s the second shooting he’s been at this year.

Usually, the day after Mother’s Day, club members begin debating, with mind-blowing passion, the colors for the following year. As Mother’s Day approaches, they procure alligator-leather shoes and obscure colors of socks. Club members perfect new dance moves and step up the fundraising. Each member throws down a thousand dollars or more per year for parade fees, the band, and two sets of the finest (“the cleanest”) clothes, shoes, fans and streamers. It seems like there is a funeral almost every year for some club member or close relative—when that happens, as has been happening since the first benevolent societies hundreds of years ago, each club member chips in for burial expenses and a jazz funeral.

In 2007, the Big Seven started their parade (“came out the door”) at Endesha Juakali’s gutted house across the street from the St. Bernard Public Housing Development. Most of the Big 7 came up in the St. Bernard, once the city’s second largest housing project. The city leveled the St. Bernard in 2008 despite strong protests from residents. Usually, clubs come out the door somewhere more put-together, but that year was different.  Coming out of a gutted house was a statement about the post-Katrina housing crisis.  Since that battle was lost and the St. Bernard was demolished, the Mother’s Day parade has became a beautiful reunion for former St. Bernard residents, many of whom were pushed out of their old neighborhood during the rebuilding process.

This Saturday we’ll start the day off at Ed Buckner’s house, the President of the Original Big Seven. We’ll stop at barrooms and businesses that support the second line community. And yes, we’ll second line to the intersection of Frenchman and Villere where the shooting took place. We won’t debate the absurd mischaracterization of this mass shooting as, in the words of the FBI, “strictly an act of street violence in New Orleans.” We know that it is deeper than that. Deep like church is deep; like school is deep; like family is deep. The upbeat rhythms will melt into a slow dirge, traditional mourning songs played to honor the deceased. The entire crowd will surrender to a slow, rock-step cadence. I probably won’t be the only one to shed a couple of tears. 

This is another way that the second line is church: we all come together, we lift up our blessings in joyful celebration, we memorialize the dead, and by the end of the day, something shifts. Perhaps this is why this shooting has rattled us in a different way than the hundreds of other horrific shootings that’ll happen this year.

Please, join us this Saturday for a glimpse of what second lining is really all about. Maybe the tuba will do it for you. Maybe it’ll be a dance with a stranger, a memory on a corner, or a hug from an old friend on the sidelines.  Wherever you need from your God, the second line will take you there.  This is how the second line heals. I hope to see y’all on the street. Can I get an amen? 

Read part two of this reflection: There are No Monsters Shooting People in New Orleans

Editor's note 5/31/13 1:54 pm CT: We posted a draft version of this piece in error this morning, under the title "A Mass Shooting at a Secondline is a Mass Shooting at Church
". Here's the final version, as the author intended it. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Photo by Michelle Gorman.

Nikki Demetria Thanos is a mother, Popular Educator and attorney who believes in building strong, base-level movements to fight for racial and economic justice. Her partner and nephew are members of the Original Big Seven Social Aid and Pleasure Club. From 2001-2005, she worked to strengthen cross-border organizing on drug and trade policies between the U.S. and Latin American social movements.  Nikki is the author of “A Handbook for Social Justice Activists Thinking About Law School” and co-author of Trouble in Paradise: Globalization and Environmental Crises in Latin America. She created the puppet-theater production, The Drug War Roadshow, in 2006.  She currently works at the intersection of law and organizing from her home in New Orleans.