I stood on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. The neutral ground was turning into a swampy mess after a bout of stop-and-start rain while a sea of drunken hedonists yelled obscenities at a passing high school marching band. If you’ve never smelled Mardi Gras, it’s quite a distinctive assault on the olfactory organs. It’s the smell of cheap plastic trinkets, gasoline, stale beer and smeared horse manure — an odd blend of modern consumerism and medieval festivities.
As a brightly colored float depicting farcical references to pop-culture stopped in front of my barricade and a krewe member taunted an old woman with a stuffed hippopotamus, I walked down a side street in search of friends. Instead, I found a surrealist landscape of live bodies hiding next to houses, making distinctively human noise, slurping, snorting and laughing. When I think of Mardi Gras, I remember the sight of a woman yelling from her window at the inebriated college kid urinating on the SUV in her driveway.
Bacchanalian nights and dehydrated days define Mardi Gras. And it’s fun, or at least an excuse to shirk responsibility for a while. It’s a guaranteed boom for several different industries. In 2014, excluding alcohol sales, it was estimated that there was a total $3,127,640 in grocery store sales attributed to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. In the same year, it was estimated that $132,412,384 was pumped into the hotel industry.
There’s no doubt Mardi Gras is a welcomed boost to the local economy. But in order to draw crowds of revelers and partygoers, Louisiana sends a masochistic message every year — you can trash our cities and disrespect our culture as long as you pay to play. The really sad part, though, is it’s more than just the tourists who act like a Lord of the Flies-like community of ravenous children.
On Feb. 13, 2018, Mardi Gras day, three people were wounded and two killed in a shooting on St. Claude Avenue in New Orleans. Derrick Groves and Kendall Barnes were arrested in connection with the shooting, but the arrests came late. Police arrested Barnes in May of last year, and Groves was arrested in January. The two men have yet to be convicted. The late arrests are a testament to the strain put on police during Mardi Gras season.
On Feb. 17, five bystanders were wounded in a shootout in downtown New Orleans between police and a suspected gunman who was killed at the scene. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell claims the city is ready for the massive influx of people during Mardi Gras weekend, but the shooting is evidence to the contrary.
The history of Mardi Gras isn’t so spotless either. It’s a very human celebration, and since its adoption by Louisiana, it’s been subject to several human flaws. Krewes started as organizations of class distinction, allowing the rich to confirm their place in the social hierarchy. Krewes weren’t forced to integrate in New Orleans until 1994, and even then krewes defended their racist and classist behavior by citing “tradition.”
Our values have come a long way since 1850. But crime and general disrespect for Louisiana’s cities still plague the celebrations every year. While Mardi Gras has gone through rapid evolution in the past 25 years alone, it seems Mardi Gras hasn’t changed quite enough.
Michael Frank is a 23-year-old political science and English senior from New Orleans, Louisiana.