TONY COX, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.
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COX: It is a New Orleans tradition whose roots stretched back more than a century. The Second-line, as it is historically known, is a rich musical parade that literally celebrates life and death.
It can be seen on the streets of New Orleans almost anytime and has come to be an integral part of the culture and flavor of the city known as the Big Easy.
But that tradition is at the center of a lawsuit brought by the social aid and pleasure clubs that run the parades. They claim the city is trying to put them and Second-line out of business by tripling the price of the fees they pay for parade permits.
We have several angles on the story for you today. We begin on the ground with Ann Simmons, who was in the New Orleans bureau of The Los Angeles Times and who has been covering the dispute.
Ms. ANN SIMMONS (New Orleans Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Thank you.
COX: Let's begin with the charge by the social aid and pleasure clubs that the city is trying to put them out of business. What's behind the fee increases? And how much are they exactly?
Ms. SIMMONS: Well, Tony, this debate goes back to early this year, January, when there were a couple of parades, both January and March, that were marred by violence; and a couple of people were injured, well, several people were injured and one person was killed.
And as a result of that, the New Orleans Police Department decided that they were going to raise the cost of so-called escort fees. These fees are to provide police personnel to basically escort the paraders. The amount of the increase is quite large, as you mentioned. It's almost triple. It's gone from about $1,200 to around $3,700 to $4,000.
COX: The lawsuit was filed last month but there hasn't been much said, publicly at least, by the city so far. Now is that a sign that there is some behind-the -scenes maneuvering taking place?
Ms. SIMMONS: Well, Tony, it's unclear why the city hasn't said anything publicly yet, and I'm certainly not in a position to speak for the city. But one could argue that there are several challenges and priorities that local authorities are currently facing.
And maybe they don't view this as a priority. Having said that, if you do speak to local officials here, it would be hard to find any official who would say, no, we don't want these parades.
Most people believe that they are a significant part of New Orleans culture and history.
COX: Ann, thank you very much.
Ms. SIMMONS: Thank you.
COX: Ann Simmons is New Orleans bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.
We now turn to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Tamara Jackson is the head of the task force formed by 21 social aid and pleasure clubs. We spoke to her from member station WWNO in New Orleans. Sitting next to her in the studio, Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana ACLU.
Given that everything these days cost money, what's wrong with the city of New Orleans raising the fees for parade permits? Let's start with you, Tamara.
Ms. TAMARA JACKSON (Cultural Tradition Task Force, New Orleans): This is out of range for us. I've been parading now 10 years. In the 10-year timeframe, it started at $600, then it went to $1,200, and now we have $3,790. And the police chief claims that this is to help as a deterrent of criminal elements at the Second Line parades, which we extremely disagree with.
Mr. JOE COOK (Executive Director, Louisiana ACLU): The other thing is that it's an unfair permit scheme that we're operating under here. And these are excessive fees, as Tamara has said, because there are exemptions under the city ordinance that some people do not have to pay any fees at all. And that would be funeral processions, parades by forces of the United States Army or military forces of the state.
And this is very ironic. Departments of police and fire don't pay a dime. So this is an equal protection of the law issue in addition to a free speech issue that we're talking about here. And this is a unique cultural and historical tradition of African-Americans that will, in effect, be taxed out of existence without some relief from the court.
COX: So are you suggesting that it is discriminatory in addition to being what you consider exorbitant, Joe?
Mr. COOK: Absolutely. There's excessive discretion or overbroad discretion on the part of the police chief to make a determination of the fees. In other words, there's not a formula that everyone has to abide by.
COX: Tamara also indicated that she did not believe or did not buy into the position of the police department, which suggests that because of the increased crime rate - the violent crime rate rising 62 percent from the first to second quarters of this year, non-violent crime rising 22 percent during that same period, according to the New Orleans Police Department - they claim that takes manpower, and of course that takes money. Do you disagree with those numbers?
Mr. COOK: I think the police have a responsibility to do their part in terms of apprehending criminals and a certain amount of crime prevention. But, you know, what we're talking about here is enormous discretion by the chief to decide when to assess police escort fees and how much to assess. And, you know, courts have held that this type of discretion is unconstitutional.
COX: Let me ask you, Tamara. If the city does prevail, how pervasive an impact will it be and do you think it will affect tourism, generally?
Ms. JACKSON: Pre-Katrina, you had 54 known social and pleasure clubs. Currently, you have 32 that are active. And out of the 32, you may have even 20 that's planning on parading to keep the culture going.
If these fees stays in place and we do not win the lawsuit, it's going to be a tremendous hardship for tourism because, you know, it's marketed by the social and pleasure clubs and the jazz.
COX: Is there a chance for an out-of-court settlement and what would it take?
Mr. COOK: I guess it was back in June, we sent a letter to the city pleading with them to work out something that was acceptable to the plaintiff. The plaintiff also pleaded with the chief of police, and interestingly enough, they never got back with us.
COX: You both mentioned that you had not spoken with the mayor on this, but what about the council president, Oliver Thomas?
Ms. JACKSON: Oliver has been very supportive of the culture pre-Katrina. We haven't had words with him, with the - since the increased police fees and things were imposed. We haven't spoken with him. But when we did the big parade this January to kind of bring people back, we had contractors lined up.
Our other local businesses and out-of-state businesses came in for the parade to help assist people. Oliver participated in that. They had a big shooting in that muses parade. They didn't stop muses parade. The police were present on St. Charles Avenue when a young lady was slain. Several individuals were wounded. They did not impose this on carnival. They did not stop the muses parade from rolling.
Why do they give us such a hard time? Why? It's hard enough for us to just keep the culture going and rebuilding our lives. It's really disheartening. I mean we meet weekly to try to come to some middle ground as the social and pleasure club members to change the way we do business, to assist.
We passed out flyers. We asked people to leave their guns, problems and attitudes at home. We've been working with the vendors because they identified vending as being the problem. We've been doing all we can to try to be resourceful and assist, and we're still being stumped on, you know, we're tired.
COX: Tamara Jackson, Joe Cook, thank you both.
Mr. COOK: Thank you.
MS. JACKSON: Thank you.
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COX: Earlier we spoke with City Councilman Oliver Thomas about the Second Line lawsuit. Thomas is president of the New Orleans City Council. I asked him whether he agrees with the plaintiffs suing over the increases in Second Line fees.
Mr. OLIVER THOMAS (President, New Orleans City Council): I'm in agreement with everybody is sitting in now and working on a solution that everyone can live with.
COX: Now I asked the plaintiffs whether or not they might be interested in a possible settlement and what they thought it would take. What do you think it would take beyond just sitting down?
Mr. THOMAS: I know the one thing that it takes is it takes the city opening up its doors and its arms to want to sit down and negotiate, and not just imposing fees on cultural groups that cannot afford those kinds of cost.
COX: So there must be, I'm assuming from what you are saying, there needs to be some sort of an increase in fees but it needs to be reasonable. I don't want to put words in your mouth but…
Mr. THOMAS: Well, my understanding, and this was an administrative imposition, there's nothing that the council did. It's because of the cost associated with the activities and the fact that the city does not, you know, we're still 20, 25, 30 percent short of our revenue expectations, especially what we had before Katrina.
So in today's budgetary times everyone has to bear the cost of - or bear the burden. But we don't - they should not have to suffer or we shouldn't have to put them out of business. So hopefully our meeting can solve that.
COX: Do you think that the future of the Second Line is in jeopardy now?
Mr. THOMAS: Anytime the cost is so exorbitant that they can't afford the permits and can't afford the police protection, yes.
COX: Where did it go wrong, Councilman Thomas? Where did the process breakdown to bring us to this point, this litigation point?
Mr. THOMAS: I really think someone on the administrative side needs to sit down with the Second Line and with the social club community to talk about where they were, where they are and the future in this city, and how much it costs. You know, what are the real bare costs? How much does it actually cost the city to host a Second Line or to do a social club parade, a social club function?
COX: Where does the mayor line up on this?
Mr. THOMAS: It's basically his office and his administration that has imposed these fees. So I don't think it emanated from him, but the professionals that work for him, I honestly believe they really need to sit down and have a meeting with some of these clubs and talk about how we do this.
And look, if it's to the point now where the city cannot afford it, let's talk about how we're going to have some foundations and fill in the gaps, and maybe create some reserve accounts or cultural accounts where others will be willing to help us, because people come from all over the world to participate in this culture.
Mr. COOK: Tony, the one thing a lot of people don't know, especially with a lot of the female groups and a lot of the - and I think a section of the minority groups, this was their Mardi Gras parade. This is how parading started when they couldn't legally participate in Mardi Gras. You'd be killing history.
COX: That's a good point to make. Councilman, thank you very much.
Oliver Thomas is president of the New Orleans City Council. We called Mayor Ray Nagin's office for a comment. His administration referred us to the city's attorney, Penya Moses-Fields. She has not yet returned our calls.
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COX: Just ahead, one man's push to spread good news about Mississippi, and later, a musician who anchors a Second Line band and a lower frequency.
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