On Thursday the students of UC Santa Barbara marched across campus, thousands strong to stop the war. It was huge. The march ended with the taking of a freeway entrance to campus. Students overtook the road and blocked access to campus for almost 2 hours. It was nothing short of an electrifying act of collective spontaneity. Organized through a decentralized process, the action was chaotic and highly disruptive of business as usual. It truly was a "strike" against war.
Last night I hit the streets of New Orleans to join another sort of congregation, Mardi Gras celebrations. I've never been to Mardi Gras in the big easy before. Last year I purposefully skipped it because I found the Mayor and business community's motivations selfish and because I saw the harm that the carnival would do to those still trying to return after Katrina. (The celebration ended with the evictions of residents from local hotels, and the messaging promoted the notion that the city was well on it’s way to recovery when in fact things have mostly stalled.) This year I decided to come to be with friends and to experience on of the biggest parties on the planet.
Mardi Gras is nowhere as big now as it used to be. The bus driver who delivered me to the Marigny yesterday told me this as he whizzed through traffic and road blocks, pedestrians and drunks roaming the side streets around Canal. But it’s still a massive street party spanning two weeks.
Last night I set out from the Marigny around sunset with a few friends toward Lee Circle to see the Endymion parade. The streets were packed with tourists and locals. We made our way through the French Quarter, me drinking whisky straight from a cup while my friends sipped cheap beer and ate candy. At Canal Street we lingered to watch the crowds of college kids stumble about groping and laughing, drinking liquor from tall green hand grenade shaped cups and forty plus ounce containers holding prodigious amounts of daiquiri.
We headed in the Uptown direction along St. Charles Avenue, the parade not yet passing by. Views of the street were blocked at all points by enormous wooden bleachers erected in the days before along on the sidewalk. These bleachers are restricted to private clubs connected with the parade krewes. Other sections of the sidewalk had been cordoned off by people with rope and viciously protected against anyone who might want to get closer to the street. At one point I stood in a walkway to one of the bleachers to get a view of the parade and was pushed out of the way by a club member who then stood in my view purposefully blocking it. Real joyous, really free, yeah right.
When the floats finally came by it was rather anti-climactic. The only real thrill of it was the chance to stand under the floats and put one’s hands up to catch the “throws” of beads and toys that each Krewe drops. Endymion’s throws were pretty lame; mostly generic beads. The parade celebrated Taylor Hicks – some mega-celebrity who I know nothing about, along with a couple of washed up rock bands.
As I wander the streets of this Mardi Gras I still cannot help but feel that it is not time yet to celebrate again in this city. The plight of the Katrina Diaspora remains. The struggle to win public housing is unresolved. The massive land grabs sought by developers and political elites are still percolating. Life in N.O. is still fucked up. Tonight is Baccus, and tomorrow will be big, Tuesday will see Zulu and the Mardi Gras Indians hit the streets. I’ll be there, but I’m not sure how much this party will really make me dance and sing.
It’s funny that so many people come to New Orleans to be part of this big street party. People seek pleasure even at events that turn out to be not all that fun. Maybe big street parties just aren’t my thing because I don’t find Mardi Gras to be that appealing. Then again, I love massive street parties – Thursday’s take over the 217 freeway in California by thousands of UCSB students was at time a tense standoff with the police, a political rally, but at other times a huge street party with drumming, music, dancing, singing and talk. It had that feeling like anything was possible, nothing was choreographed, nothing was privatized, there were no bleachers to view the throngs of people from, you simple had to be a part of it.