Born and raised in Louisiana, Mardi Gras is reasonably a big deal to me. Between the mass consumption of delicious king cake, the rolling of debaucherous parades, and the all-around heart-warming Cajun revelry, Mardi Gras has come to be one of my most beloved holiday seasons. But as the holiday approaches this year, I can’t help but feel conflicted.
As a Baton Rouge native, there aren’t very many parade options in my hometown–at least not in comparison to New Orleans. The most attended parade in the Red Stick is the largest and longest-running Spanish Town parade. For those who can’t travel to New Orleans during the Mardi Gras season, Spanish Town parade offers the most comparable experience Baton Rouge has to offer in terms of size, length, and amount of throws.
Donning a pink flamingo mascot, the Spanish Town parade has made a name for itself with its raunchy and satirical themes, often involving a plethora of sexual innuendos and political commentary. It makes sense, coming from a neighborhood associated with Baton Rouge’s art and queer communities, that the parade would try to push buttons and scandalize the morals of our majority Red city. However, what happens when this community event isn’t inclusive of the entire community? How should we respond when it actually contributes to the very culture that a “progressive” parade should be resisting against?
Many Baton Rouge residents have publicly criticised the past two years of the Spanish Town parade for going below and beyond being “offensive.” In 2015, one float named “Easy Targets,” attempted to shame a local victim of childhood sexual abuse, Stephanie Ford. Ford co-starred in Sons of Guns, a reality TV show based in Louisiana, with her father Will Hayden, who now faces sexual assault charges against two preteen girls. Prior to the parade, Ford had recently disclosed that her father also attempted to sexually abuse her as a preteen. With a poster that donned an altered image of her face and a caption that read, “a face only a daddy could love,” this particular krewe, which included BRPD officers, seemed to think that a victim of childhood sexual abuse was an appropriate and easy target for their float. You know who else thinks women and children are easy targets for exploitation and gratification? Child predators and rapists.
While one float in the 2016 parade also seemed to think that sexual assault is a joke, displaying a sign that read “I prefer to call rape surprise sex,” the parade was most criticized for its blatant, outright racism. Some floats were emblazoned with confederate flags, but most notably were the two #PinkLivesMatter floats, which featured caricatures of flamingos being beaten with police batons and holding signs that read, “I can’t breathe,” quoting the deceased Eric Garner, a Black man who was suffocated to death by police officers. Not only did these floats attempt to delegitimize the Black Lives Matter movement, they also found it humorous to target Black men who had already been targeted and killed by police.
In response, many community members are boycotting the Spanish Town parade this year to show that they will not tolerate a culture of racism, sexism, and targeting of marginalized populations. Unfortunately, the parade board, Society for the Preservation of Lagniappe in Louisiana (SPLL), didn’t seem too concerned by the public criticism, telling the Advocate that they are, “not about to start censoring floats,” in order to preserve participants First Amendment rights. I agree that freedom of speech is incredibly important and should be respected, but to what end? Should we respect the free speech rights of some (predominantly white men who have some form of privilege and power) over the right of all community members to feel safe and respected?
I’m sure many people feel annoyed, even threatened, that the “PC police” (a.k.a. human rights activists) are expressing their desire for social equality and institutional change. I get it. Those concepts are hard to be confronted with, let alone accomplish. But it’s important to keep in mind that people aren’t just offended, they are being shown by their own community that their lives and experiences of violence are meaningless. The oppressive ideals and values that make women and Black folk fear for their own lives are being upheld and condoned during an event that should be an enjoyable celebration for everyone.
I’ll be honest. I wanted to attend Spanish Town this year. Its the largest Mardi Gras parade we have in Baton Rouge, and I was clinging to the hope that maybe it would be better this year. While the board did repost a nice sentiment written by a member of one of the parade’s dance troupes, they haven’t made any actual change to the vetting process for krewes and floats. I then learned that some friends and respected colleagues of mine were also choosing to boycott the parade. That’s when I really sat down and reflected on my privilege as a white woman, my desire for social justice, my role as an advocate at a sexual assault center, my duty to be an ally to my Black neighbors, and what Mardi Gras should be about. A parade that perpetuates racism and sexism and isn’t inclusive of the entire community is not an appropriate way to celebrate the holiday.
I will be enjoying the revelry of Mardi Gras, which should celebrate the culture and diversity of the Baton Rouge community, by going to other local parades and sitting out on Spanish Town. I urge you to do the same, every year, until progress is made. Over time, a decrease of support and attendance will hopefully motivate the board to make real changes and ensure that the Spanish Town parade is a fun and safe environment for everyone. Until then, keep resisting.