After two years of uproar surrounding the Spanish Town Mardi Gras parade, float riders, paradegoers and those who decided not to attend this year say they are anxious about whether another joke will surface next month that worsens conflicts already brimming in Baton Rouge.
Will another krewe attempt a parody of someone who died at the hands of police officers? Will sexual assault victims become punch lines again? No parade rules prevent that type of humor from sprouting up again Feb. 25, when yards will overflow with pink-clad revelers, and flamingo decorations will be in vogue for Baton Rouge's largest Mardi Gras celebration.
Spanish Town re-emerged in headlines over the summer after a Baton Rouge Police Department officer shot and killed Alton Sterling in July, which was partially captured on cellphone videos. Demonstrators flocked to Baton Rouge to protest police brutality, and the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the shooting.
Baton Rouge’s signature Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade provoked controversy for the second y…
National news outlets picked up pictures from the 2016 parade of a flamingo being beaten with the caption "I can't breathe," apparently a reference to Eric Garner, who died in 2014 in New York City after he was put in a chokehold by a police officer. Stories circulated about how the Spanish Town parade highlighted Baton Rouge's racial divisions.
With the 2017 parade less than a month away, parade riders and organizers say they want to change the reputation Spanish Town has earned in recent years. But they also have agreed that they do not want to start a review or censorship process for floats after 35 years of treating krewes as independent contractors who can exercise their First Amendment rights however they see fit.
Without a review process, there's no way to tell whether Sterling or another sensitive subject could be mocked in this year's parade until it rolls. And Spanish Town board member Bill Brumfield said he does worry about the possibility of it happening.
The 36th annual Spanish Town Parade rolled through the streets of Downtown Baton Rouge Saturday.
"It would be senseless," Brumfield said. "But with the theme that we have this year, I don't anticipate that anyone will be going in that direction; we're hoping not."
This year's theme is "Come Hell or High Water, It's Slippery When Wet," a reference to the region's torrential rains and floods in August.
Jokes from the past two years have been enough to convince some past attendees to stay home this year. Donney Rose, a writer who spoke against the parade's jokes last year, said he wanted the board to take a public stance against floats making fun of the marginalized.
He is not attending this year and is especially worried about what could happen if a float mocks Sterling, those who protested his death or another person killed by police in another state.
"It creates a potentially very flammable climate if someone decides to do that," Rose said. "And I'm just not of the absolute faith that that would not happen."
Spanish Town resident Marie Constantin also is staying away from the festivities, despite living on the parade route and usually decorating her home. She invited a black family to watch the parade with her last year and said the "I can't breathe" float left them speechless. She apologized to them, embarrassed about how it looked on Baton Rouge's part.
When Constantin was recently hired to photograph a room for sexual assault victims at Woman's Hospital, she remembered Spanish Town's jokes about rape as well.
A float in last year's parade had written on it, “I prefer to call rape surprise sex." In 2015, former reality TV “Sons of Guns” star Stephanie Ford spoke out after a float carrying police officers made fun of her alleged sexual abuse by her father. Ford's complaint prompted an internal Baton Rouge Police Department investigation, and one officer received a letter of reprimand.
The humiliation wasn’t intentional, the police officers said.
Ford's father, Will Hayden, faces sexual assault charges in East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes, both for the incident involving his daughter and other allegations.
Constantin said remembering the sexual assault jokes after she experienced a kind of reverence in the room at Woman's Hospital made her more determined not to support the parade this year.
"You just have to take a personal stance and say, 'this isn't OK for me,' " Constantin said.
One of Will Hayden's attorneys is fighting back against a prosecutor's allegation that the f…
Even some longtime Spanish Town participants were unsure about whether they would join in again. Erin Rolfes has been marching with the Prancing Babycakes for nine years, but her all-female krewe was especially concerned after last year's parade.
They met with Spanish Town board members in November, along with a member of the krewe that made "Pink Lives Matter" jokes last year, and Rolfes said it was a helpful experience for everyone. Her group decided to march again to show the inclusiveness that they want the whole parade to embody, and the Spanish Town board recently shared a letter from the Prancing Babycakes about their hope to "let revelers of all backgrounds know Spanish Town is for them."
After two straight years of criticism for controversial float themes in the Spanish Town Mar…
Spanish Town 2017 queen Jenny Bourgeois, a BRPD corporal, asked that people recognize the good that the Spanish Town organization does. The Mystic Krewe for the Preservation of Lagniappe in Louisiana, the parade's nonprofit organization and focuses on charitable giving. The group's 990 tax form filed in 2015 shows it gave $97,440 in donations to charitable, educational and cultural groups that year.
One way it raises money is by raffling off a unique pendant from Jack Hood Jewelers, and this year's diamond and pink tourmaline pendant recognizes the difficulties of 2016, with "LA, love, pride, courage, united" engraved into it. Bourgeois said it sums up her feelings about Baton Rouge and that she loves working in BRPD's 1st district, where she does not feel the divisions many talk about.
She and others are hoping Spanish Town this year will be tainted in less controversy and more remembered for being a fun expression of free speech.
"We're gonna be raunchy, we're gonna be shocking, we're gonna be borderline distasteful," said Jeremy White, publisher of the satirical Red Shtick website and a Spanish Town rider. "But in a fun way, and we're going to try to lead by example."