Their clothes dotted with pieces of ribbon and bits of feather, Terry Gable and Ed Buckner spent most of last week in the small room in Buckner’s house that serves as the command center for their club, the Original Big 7 Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
As they do every year, they were getting ready for the club’s Mother’s Day parade, but with a difference this year — one year after the procession was halted by a shooting spree that wounded 19 people.
On a recent afternoon, the two old friends pulled up chairs and got to work, creating the feathered fans they’ll carry as they dance through the streets Sunday.
Gable, the club’s vice president, cut strips of turquoise ribbon and made bows while Buckner, the president, sorted a pound of turquoise feathers and stapled them carefully into place. All the while, Buckner’s big voice issued commands by speaker phone, making sure that all 30 members had picked up their trousers from the tailor and that their shoes, gloves, hats and sashes were set. And because the club splits into three divisions for the parade, each with its own brass band, Buckner checked with a few musicians to be sure they were ready.
“From the time we come out the door to the last note that the horn plays, I know that this parade is going to be right,” said Gable, a tireless dancer whose feet will step, jump and twirl for most of the four-hour route.
Buckner was feeling confident too. But he had a nagging concern. “It keeps bothering me,” he said. “I got to make sure harm doesn’t come to people.”
After parading without incident for 16 years, the Big 7’s parade rolled five blocks last year before a spray of bullets stopped it. A few people were badly injured, including writer Deborah Cotton, who went through multiple surgeries and was hospitalized for months.
Many more people sustained twisted ankles and skin abrasions from running or hitting the ground. “The good Lord granted us a miracle, that none of these people died,” Buckner said.
But some sadness still remains. So while Big 7 leaders are committed to bringing joy to their 7th Ward community Sunday, they know that in spite of their pretty outfits and deft footwork, this year’s Mother’s Day will be somber for some of their neighbors: the victims, traumatized bystanders and the family of the two alleged gunmen, Akein Scott, 20, and Shawn Scott, 25.
“People are still hurting in ways not seen by the eye,” Buckner said.
A lonely grandmother
Inside her immaculate 7th Ward home, just a few blocks from Buckner’s house, Mary Benson, 73, has created a wall of photos. Mostly, the images are of her grandchildren — sitting on Santa’s knee, going to the prom, graduating from high school.
Most have had no run-ins with the law, but four of them are now in jail, alleged in a sweeping federal drug-conspiracy indictment to be part of a gang called the Frenchmen and Derbigny Boys, named for an intersection three blocks from the site of the Mother’s Day shooting.
The indictment charges the group of eight men and one woman with violating federal firearms and drug laws by carrying and using weapons as they sold heroin and crack cocaine over at least seven years. The indictment specifically alleges that Akein and Shawn Scott discharged firearms into the Big 7 parade last year “in furtherance of that drug conspiracy.”
As with other gang indictments brought by the state and the feds in New Orleans, many of the alleged Frenchmen and Derbigny co-conspirators have been connected since birth by family ties. Two of Benson’s grandchildren, Travis Scott and Crystal Scott, are step-siblings of Akein and Shawn Scott. The other two indicted grandchildren, Gralen Benson and Brian Benson, are cousins of the alleged gunmen.
From what she has heard, Mary Benson said, if a person has one conversation about the overall scheme or its methods, that person can be charged as part of the conspiracy. “How can their conversations be gang-related if they’re kin?” she asked. “Just because they’re talking about something doesn’t mean they’re in cahoots.”
Benson raised Travis Scott from about age 8 and Crystal Scott from about age 10. So, although she won’t defend wrongdoing, it’s hard for her to believe they are guilty as charged.
The situation is complicated by her ongoing cancer treatments, which make it difficult for her to see her grandchildren in person. She is especially worried about Gralen Benson, who is being held in an out-of-parish lockup and was recently stabbed in the eye to the point where he may lose the eye, she said. And her heart hurts to see her little great-grandchildren living without their fathers.
On Mother’s Day, she will try to remember better times. The days that Crystal Scott phoned to tell her she loved her. The times that Travis Scott called her from Kansas City, Mo., where he’d been living, to ask her about that day’s doctor’s appointment, as he often did. The visits from Gralen and Brian Benson, who usually stopped to see her on their way to or from work.
Without them, her life feels emptier. “I miss my grandchildren,” she said.
‘Almost too perfect’
Last year, Big 7 member Leo Gorman looked around as the club moved up North Villere Street from Elysian Fields Avenue. “The main thing I remember is how beautiful of a day it was,” he said, noting that Mother’s Day often has been sweltering hot for their parades. Instead, the day was relatively cool, with a spectacular blue sky and a nice breeze.
Fellow club member Dismas Johnson, the club’s business manager, also remembered marveling at the scene: “It almost seemed too perfect, like something you’d see only on TV. The band was playing; the crowd was dancing. It was a perfect crowd, a perfect day.”
In front of Gorman, leading his division, were two of the club’s youngest members, dancing their hearts out: his nephew, Shiloh Thanos, who was 9, along with Jason McMasters, then 10. Behind them, the To Be Continued Brass Band was blowing hard on a cover of the Whitney Houston song “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
It was Shiloh’s first parade, and he was reveling in the response he’d received from onlookers. “I got five high-fives in the first two minutes,” he said.
Buckner was there, too, dancing at the intersection. “I wanted my people on my corner to see me,” he said, explaining that he had lived nearby for 17 years in his younger days, when he was often fed by neighbor ladies. But then he heard a “pop pop pop” sound and the crowd moved, “everybody falling and running at the same time,” he said.
Gorman, too, heard what he thought were firecrackers, followed by an “atomic wave” of people hitting the ground.
In front of him, Shiloh froze. “I was paralyzed,” he said.
His aunt, Leo’s partner, Nikki Thanos, had fallen to the ground nearby but, seeing Shiloh still standing up, she got up, ran over and pulled him behind a parked truck. Jason’s mother, Monique Fouchea, ended up behind the same truck.
Jason didn’t see anyone hit or bleeding, so he wasn’t affected as much as some others. On Friday, Jason said he was ready for Sunday’s parade, despite what happened last year. “I feel good, because that’s over,” he said. “They’re going to have a lot of security out there, I hope.”
For his part, Shiloh is through parading. He was the only member of the club who didn’t participate in last year’s successful “redo” parade in June, which completed the full four-hour route and was attended by record crowds.
After the shooting stopped, Buckner, a longtime coach and mentor to children in the 7th Ward, tried to assist people who’d been wounded while also checking on his club members. “Then I came home and I cried,” he said. He felt as though he’d let down everyone who had put their trust in the Big 7. He also felt as if he had failed because he wasn’t able to take charge and make things better. “I felt totally helpless,” he said.
The New Orleans Police Department won’t discuss its plans for Sunday’s parade, but club members say that, from their observations, there’s been an increased police presence in the area for the past few weeks, centered on potential trouble spots. It gives them extra confidence their parade will be incident-free.
But once the parade is over, people in this part of the 7th Ward face everyday obstacles to raising children in a healthy environment. “There’s no playground for kids here, and every store has a dope man in front,” said Corey Rayford, second chief for Black Feather, the Mardi Gras Indian tribe that since 1992 has emerged each Mardi Gras Day from the corner where the shooting occurred.
Ever since the shooting, Rayford has made a point of talking to young men who gather on corners. From his conversations, he said, he’d like to see better linkages for them to entry-level jobs and easier access to documents like state IDs and birth certificates, requirements for many jobs.
Buckner is able to serve some schoolchildren in that section of the 7th Ward with programs at The Porch, a community arts and culture program that he runs out of the front part of his house. On Wednesday, he’ll hand out patches to those who are interested in learning to sew and masking with The Porch’s youth Indian tribe, the Red Flame Hunters, which has been steadily growing since it began in 2009.
Buckner, too, sees much that is lacking. The neighborhood’s youth are still largely underserved, he said, and the area simply looks shabby. “It’s dilapidated,” he said. “There’s no greenery, the streets are dirty and have holes in them, and the lighting is poor.”
But on Sunday, Buckner wants to focus on the neighborhood’s strength and beauty, which resonate through its culture and close-knit neighbors. So as the Original Big 7 club reaches the intersection of Frenchmen and Villere, the scene of the shooting, the members will dance, he said. They will dance to give thanks for the miracle of life, and to pay tribute to the strength that still exists in this struggling community, the strength that allows it to rise above tragedy.
“As long as I’m the leader of the Big 7,” Buckner said, “we’re going to stop at that corner and celebrate.”