NEW IBERIA — Attendance at this year’s Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival suffered a 40 percent decline from past years, a drop organizers blame on threats of violence permeating social media.
But the rumors were just that: rumors. There was no massive violence at the festival.
“It saddens me. It’s very disheartening,” said Geri Frederick, a member of the festival board. “We attribute it to people thinking there would be riots here.”
Rumors traveling by word of mouth and on social media ran wild through last week and the weekend about home-grown insurrection, violent outside groups and imminent mobilization of the Louisiana National Guard, among others.
“We heard the Black Panthers were coming,” said John Stanley, a worker who helped set up rides and concessions on Sucrose Drive, off La. 14.
“The attendance was down,” Stanley said as other employees of Slidell-based Mitchell Bros. & Sons packed up the carnival gear for transport to the St. Tammany Parish Fair, which starts Wednesday.
New Iberia residents said in recent months they were concerned about relations between the Sheriff’s Office and some of New Iberia’s black residents. Racial tensions escalated during past Sugar Cane Festivals with altercations between deputies and festival revelers, and after a March incident in which a black man was shot to death in the rear seat of a deputy’s squad car after the man was arrested. Officials have ruled Victor White III shot himself with a hidden handgun while handcuffed. He was 22 and the shooting has attracted national attention from racial justice advocates and also the U.S. Justice Department, which recently announced a federal probe into White’s death.
Festival violence rumors had their roots in those past incidents and in media accounts of those incidents, Frederick said.
Worries over violence at this year’s festival, however, were for naught.
“We had some fights but no major incidents,” Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office Maj. Ryan Turner said.
He said that during the festival’s five days, there was one act of violence loosely tied to it: A bystander was wounded when a bullet grazed her leg Saturday night in a parking lot near the La. 14 carnival rides. The woman was treated at a Lafayette hospital and released, and sheriff’s detectives continued Monday to search for the assailant.
Turner noted the shooting occurred at 11:28 p.m., after the festival had officially shut down for the night.
Sheriff Louis Ackal last year added deputies to patrol the festival after he asked other sheriffs in nearby parishes for help. Turner said that this year, Ackal received help from the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, which reached out to other sheriffs’ offices to help keep order at the festival.
Ten south Louisiana parishes along with the Lafayette Police Department and Lafayette City Marshal’s Office sent a total of 40 officers to help patrol New Iberia, Turner said.
He said State Police troopers patrolled the roadways of Iberia Parish and the city of New Iberia, which does not have a municipal police force.
There was one change in police tactics this year: There were no armed deputies in a personnel carrier. Some New Iberians who last year attended parties on Hopkins Street, located in a predominately black part of the city, said the personnel carrier along with blaring police sirens scared and intimidated the crowd.
It was different this year, said Nicole Watkins, who lives near Hopkins Street. She, like others, had heard the rumors that violence was going to mar the festival.
“It was crowded, but the crowd behaved themselves,” Watkins said Monday standing on Hopkins Street, which by 1 p.m. had been cleared of street party detritus. “I had no reason to worry.”