The generations-old tradition of lighting Christmas Eve bonfires on the Mississippi River levee in St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes will do more this year than just help guide Papa Noel to the homes of good boys and girls.
It’ll also bring him up to speed with current events.
Following months of protests and demonstrations over the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot by a white police officer in suburban St. Louis, a group of River Parishes residents have built a 17-foot-tall wooden structure in Lucy that shows the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture that has become synonymous with protests against the August killing, which spurred a national debate about ongoing tensions between law enforcement and the black community.
The bonfire is ready to be set ablaze Wednesday night, along with many more traditional constructions that typically line River Road this time of year in a tradition that dates back to the 1800s.
Brown, 18, was shot and killed in the middle of a street. The incident has become a flashpoint for controversy. A grand jury’s decision not to charge Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson for his role in the incident ultimately set off a string of sometimes violent protests in Ferguson and major U.S. cities.
“We just got to talking about it, and with all the stuff that’s going on, we decided to do something just to show some solidarity, a little tribute and something different, something unique,” said Harold LaGrange, a Lucy resident who helped organize the effort. “It started out talking about having one hand in the air — like a No. 1 — but the more we started getting into it, we decided, ‘Let’s do the “hands up” gesture.’ ”
LaGrange, 48, said the structure — built largely with driftwood washed up on the batture — is about 8 feet wide. “We had to spread the legs out a bit simply to be able to handle the weight,” he said.
His cousin, Damien August, who has created elaborate bonfires in the past, designed the structure. Together, the pair spent two days cutting trailer loads of wood before getting started. A group of 11 people then took about a week and a half to finish the effort, working most of the weekend and after work during the week, sometimes until midnight.
The wood was cut using a chain saw, including the light-colored pieces that form the hand’s palms, which involved cutting logs in half to get the look right.
“Everybody’s been curious to see how this will come out, because cutting wood and then making a shape like that is certainly crafty,” LaGrange said.
Though he was appalled by Brown’s killing, LaGrange said he hopes the bonfire will get people talking about what happened.
“It’s a tragedy, actually, and it’s a travesty of justice,” he said. “I disagree with the outcome, but I don’t think violence is the way, so we’re just trying to do something peaceful, and what we decided to call the model of saving our kids starts with educating them at home.”
So far, they’ve heard a lot of positive feedback from neighbors and on social media, where they’ve posted photos of the finished product. “It’s meant to be positive,” he said about the structure. “We’re not trying to say anything negative, because you have good and bad with everything you do.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.