The defining spirit of Mardi Gras, its open-armed generosity to friends and neighbors, is what makes it so special across south Louisiana, and that ideal was, for the most part, alive and well in this year’s Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade in Baton Rouge.
A notable exception was a parade float lampooning the “Black Lives Matter” campaign that’s emerged across the country in response to allegations of police brutality against African-Americans. The float featured a drawing of a flamingo being beaten with a police baton. The flamingo had an “I can’t breathe” sign around its neck, mimicking the words of Eric Garner. Garner died during an arrest by New York City police in 2014 after complaining he was being suffocated during efforts to restrain him.
While humor is often in the eye of the beholder, we can’t see how any man’s painful death is a cause for chortling.
Another Spanish Town parade float made fun of Freddie Gray, a black man whose death last year after being arrested by Baltimore police prompted indictments of police officers who were involved.
This isn’t the first time Spanish Town Mardi Gras floats have displayed hateful messages. Last year, a float carrying Baton Rouge Police Department officers attempted to make fun of Stephanie Ford, a “Sons of Guns” reality TV star who alleged sexual abuse by her father, who’s been indicted on charges of raping two pre-teen girls. An officer received a letter of reprimand after the incident.
Parade organizers say they have no control over the content of the floats since the parade isn’t staged by a single krewe.
We’re concerned that any kind of official regime to regulate content on parade floats could prove even more troublesome than the problem it’s trying to solve.
In the messy marketplace of ideas sustained by free expression, a number of notions are going to be lemons, including jokes that dismiss racism and violence against minorities and women as a laughing matter.
The nobler possibilities of free speech rest in the response to these dumb gags, which has included thoughtful and spirited discussion about the respect we owe each other.
Ultimately, the most visible referendum on a parade is the size of the crowd it attracts. Those who dislike what rolls in front of them are, luckily, free to stay home next year.