Lawsuit threatens to rain on Mardi Gras parade

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New Orleans lawyer David Belfield has waged numerous legal battles, but none closer to his heart than the one hes about to fight: a lawsuit to stop his beloved krewe, the Zulu Social and Pleasure Club, from parading in Mardi Gras this year.

Im a fanatic about Mardi Gras, Belfield, a former king of the Zulu Club krewe, said from his temporary home in Atlanta, where he remains an evacuee.

Ive grown up with Mardi Gras, he said. My 81-year-old mother still makes costumes. No matter where Ive been, Ive always come home for Mardi Gras. But this year, it isnt right to be throwing this big parade and big celebration when so many of our people are still hurting.

Zulu, an African-American krewe that has become one of the largest and most popular of the major parade groups in the annual Fat Tuesday celebration, is considered a key to the events success in the hurricane-devastated city.

A city divided

But the krewe, like the city, remains divided over what -- if any -- kind of Mardi Gras celebration would be appropriate this year.

Critics insist that a well-televised party in the midst of a devastated city sends the wrong message to Congress and Americans whose financial support is still needed. Officials and business leaders counter that Mardi Gras will provide a much-needed shot in the arm to the citys economy and its tourism trade.

Belfields lawsuit -- filed on technical grounds that Zulu club members didnt receive adequate notice of a meeting in which a vote was taken to participate -- asks civil court judge Yada McGee to enjoin the krewe from marching.

A hearing on the petition is set for Jan. 23.

The pending ruling adds one more bit of uncertainty to the questions and concerns that travel agents, tour operators and hoteliers are expressing as they contemplate bringing tens of thousands of tourists to the city in two months time.

We are getting a lot of calls and e-mail messages from travel agents every day, said Kim Priez, vice president of tourism for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. The CVB has become a clearing house for information about the citys tourism rebuilding process.

The travel agents want to know what is open and how does it look. Is it safe? All of them have questions, and we have a team of people answering over and over, all day long, Yes, we will be ready, Priez said.

The trouble is even our travel agents are still seeing the rebroadcast of old images on television of water in the streets, she said. There are not enough marketing dollars in the world to counter those kinds of lingering images.

Thousands of hotel rooms in the city already have been reopened and many more are expected to be ready in January, officials say, meaning the city will be ready to accommodate more than 20,000 guests a day. Restaurants continue to reopen almost daily, although business leaders say that finding enough workers remains a serious issue.

City and state officials have said repeatedly that police and other public assistance workers will be sufficient to support Mardi Gras crowd control, and the citys legendary Ash Wednesday clean-up efforts.

But even advocates like Priez -- who herself is living in temporary housing just outside of New Orleans -- acknowledge that the questions are leaving a hard-to-shake uncertainty about what to expect when the city launches its official Mardi Gras season later this month, culminating in eight days of pre-Lenten celebrations at the end of February.

We have a new ad campaign coming out called Before and After that we hope will help answer a lot of these questions, Priez said.

But she said most of the marketing dollars to promote this years Mardi Gras will be focused on regional drive-in tourism. Even international bookings are expected to exceed domestic travel to the city from other areas of the U.S., she said.

The Mardi Gras celebration that had been planned before Hurricane Katrina, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,200 people in Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf Coast, was to have been one of the largest in history, marking the 150th anniversary of the celebrations. Now it seems destined to be one of the smallest.

Still, city and state officials have given their blessing and encouragement to this years scaled-back Mardi Gras -- eight days instead of the traditional 14.

Even the smaller celebration is expected to bring in millions of dollars of crucial tax revenue.

Some people in tourism are suggesting they may market this as the first post-Katrina effort to return to normal, said Arthur Hardy, who for 30 years has published the definitive -- and only -- official guide to the New Orleans Mardi Gras.

Being in Mardi Gras may be like being in Times Square on the first New Years Eve after 9/11, he said. It could well be historic.

Calling for a boycott

But the very idea of throwing a party in the heart of a city surrounded by the grim devastation of Katrina has left many evacuees with a bitter taste in their mouths.

ChiQuita Simms, who has been involved for years in marketing Mardi Gras for clients and in organizing major balls and celebrations, is promoting a Mardi Gras boycott from her temporary home in Atlanta.

The city is seeking a corporate sponsor to kick in $2 million to support the event, she said. But any potential sponsor ought to think long and hard about a black boycott that could extend to their company as well.

Belfield, who also supports Simms efforts, says holding the event in areas of the city that went virtually untouched reemphasizes insensitive social and racial divisions that were exposed by the storm, especially when nearby areas still look like they were hit by  nuclear bombs, he said.

The city canceled Mardi Gras in 1979 when 1,200 police officers went on strike, said Belfield.

Here weve opened up 1,200 graves, and that should be sufficient reason to concentrate on helping the people who have lost family and their homes, not on having a big drunken party. When people can come home again, then we can celebrate Mardi Gras.

A vote to participate

Stopping Zulu from parading would not stop the event, Belfield said. But it would, he insists, strike a blow for social justice in a city where many of the service workers who make Mardi Gras happen are without homes and without much government assistance.

How are they going to have enough people to handle the tourists who come? Belfield asked. The restaurants and hotels cant find workers right now. The busboys are in Houston; the hotel maids are in Atlanta.

Charles Hamilton Jr., president of the Zulu Club, said city officials assured him that Mardi Gras will come together as expected, and they have lobbied his group and other krewes to participate in full.

He said 187 members of the 600-member club managed to attend a meeting on whether to stage their parade, and they vote unanimously to go ahead.

I cant talk too much about the lawsuit because it is before the court, Hamilton said. We will see what the judge has to say.

But, he added: We look at Mardi Gras as a way of healing, a way of helping our city economically. And we feel that Mardi Gras should go on, because without it, our city might not come back.

Advocates of staging a limited Mardi Gras to jump-start the citys economic recovery insist that Belfield, Simms and others opposed to Mardi Gras celebrations in the city constitute only a vocal minority.

But they are not dismissing the concerns out of hand.

Mardi Gras would be seriously diminished if Zulu did not parade, said Hardy. They are just too important. I think everyone feels that way.

But, he added, I think staging Mardi Gras will show the world we are very resilient people.

To contact reporter Dan Luzadder, send e-mail to[email protected].

The origins of New Orleans krewes

The term krewe dates to the mid-19th century. It was coined by Comus, the mens organization that was formed in New Orleans during that era to bring a more orderly celebration to Mardi Gras and to Carnival, the festive pre-Lenten celebrations that anticipate Fat Tuesday.

Krewes evolved from the original secret societies that first developed street masking, and later emerged as public clubs, like Zulu, that organize parades and the private balls and extravaganzas that make up Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

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