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Parading to the Polls in New Orleans
Jason Sparapani reports from a festive voter registration drive called 'Get Your Vote On!'
Jason Sparapani (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2004-09-29 14:40 (KST)   
While buses wait to pass, young parade-goers join the celebration on busy Esplanade Avenue, just below the French Quarter.
©2004 JSparapani
It started as a faint buzz on Orleans Avenue. Past a line of somber brick buildings, where families sat on porches and kids rolled tire rims in the street, a glaring September sun caught the silver glint of a tuba. A white parasol bobbed rhythmically. There was the clear ring of a trumpet, a driving snare, a chorus of whoops. From a balcony two stories up, a child sang down: "Hey, y'all, it's a second line!"

For a parade town like New Orleans, this was a small one-about 20 band members and dancers, the "first line," and 80 or so followers, or "second line." It's nothing new here, as such parades have been a mainstay in African American parts of the city for over a century. But this parade, with its racially diverse crowd, bookish twentysomethings with clipboards, and posters in red, white and blue, was marching to get out the vote.

"We found that the traditional voter registration methods were not the most effective means in New Orleans," said Andrea Garland, who spearheaded the event to register voters in the city's black communities, where voter turnout is low.

"We thought about how to outreach to the African American community. (The second line) is a way to outreach to people in a way that is familiar to them."

New Orleans Musician James Andrews sets a bold pace in the historic Tremé district.
©2004 JSparapani
The plan was simple: Community leaders, a brass band and various religious and community organizations would march through the historic Tremé district to Louis Armstrong Park on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, where the parade would finish with a tribute to the victims. There would be two stops on the way, where would-be voters could register.

The parade kicked off near the Zulu Social Aide and Pleasure Club at Orleans and Broad, one of the most renowned of the fraternal groups that gave second lines their start over a century ago as stylish farewells to departed members. Following the lead of the New Orleans Bayou Steppers, a multicultural first in such organizations, the parade marched down Orleans to the brassy strains of "Bourbon Street Parade" by the James Andrews Marching Band. Volunteers in T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Get Your Vote On!" snapped and stepped in time with the music.

Just ahead of a line of backed-up cars and buses, a man pulled a dolly furnished with two coolers. A thirtyish woman with a spidery tattoo on her arm waved some money. He stopped, flipped open a top on a cooler and handed over a beer, beaded with water.

On both sides of the street, young people knocked on doors to sign on voters. "Already registered!" someone called from a porch. At one shaded corner, a graying man who had stopped to watch the band gave answers to a volunteer, who wrote feverishly onto a clipboard. Minutes later, he jogged a block to catch up.

The New Orleans Bayou Steppers Social Aid and Pleasure Club leads the parade across Claiborne Avenue.
©2004 JSparapani
"To inform people about their right to vote is important in a democratic framework," said Philippe, a university student from Paris. "And music is a good way to get people interested."

As the parade turned into the Lafitte Housing Development, horns, drums and a raucous, happy buzz filled the narrow space, ricocheting off walls. Grandmothers stood in doorways, tapping out the rhythm on banisters; men on street corners brownbagging cans of beer jumped in, threw their hands in the air and lowered their bodies, twisting until they were all but squatting on the ground.

At the first stop at Lafitte Park under Interstate 10, band members rested along the playground fence, their instruments on the ground beside them, and bottles of beer, compliments of a Ninth Ward pub, were passed around. Tireless volunteers worked the crowd and set up on tables while a few neighborhood residents wandered over to see what was afoot.

"It is a wonderful thing to be here in Tremé," said James Andrews, trumpeter and leader of the parade's headline band. "And it's a privilege for us to lend our talent for the cause."

But getting people out to the polls on Nov. 2 wasn't the only agenda here, as organizer Garland had issued an open invitation to local groups, politicians and others. Milling about at various points during the parade route were activist organization C3, handing out fliers on a possible draft and environmental poisoning, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Art Morrell, and candidate for Civil District Court Judge Marie Williams.

Garland, who runs the political network Get Your Act On!, made it clear early on that the second line was a nonpartisan event, keeping with the group's mission of "creating a broad range of people working together to effect real and necessary change."

Even so, things got a bit gray. In the last stretch on Rampart Street, C3 took the lead with a banner reading "Troops Home Now!" and "No Al-Qaida Link."

At the latticed entrance to Louis Armstrong Park the parade's grand marshal, Robert King Wilkerson, freed member of longtime inmate trio the Angola Three, spoke about his 29 years in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, his activism with the Black Panthers, the Sept. 11 attacks and civil rights. Having registered to vote for the first time just an hour earlier, Wilkerson presented a stirring argument linking voting with prison reform.

"A lot of people will say that prisons are a new form of slavery," said Wilkerson, music from New Orleans' Latin/Caribbean Inter-fest booming in the park behind him. "Now, if you're not Harriet Tubman (an African American abolitionist who lived from 1820 to 1913), and you're not inclined to do what she did, vote."

The crowd was enthusiastic and varied, but Garland admits there were few newly registered voters. But the numbers, she said, were not the point. More important was that a grass-roots organization had taken an important step toward educating people and winning their respect.

"People came out on their doorsteps and gave us some really positive feedback," she said. "We got the word out."

In New Orleans, music can do that.
What will be the biggest issue(s) in the upcoming U.S. presidential election? (Choose up to 3)  (2004-09-01 ~ 2004-09-30)
Handling of Iraq
Homeland security
Tax cuts
Healthcare reform
Jason Sparapani is a freelance writer and editor at Tulane University in New Orleans. He worked in Nepal with the Peace Corps and was a reporter and editor at a newspaper in Seoul, Korea.
©2004 OhmyNews

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