Travis Lyons, president of the Perfect Gentlemen Social Aid & Pleasure Club, started 2023 by showing how his Sunday afternoon tradition can help resolve the city’s upswing in killings.
Lyons’ life has been scarred repeatedly by murder. In 2012, he lost his 25-year-old son, Toliver Lyons, to gun violence. Lyons’ older brother, rapper Warren Mayes — known for the contagious hit “Get It, Girl,” — was gunned down in his car as he left a club in 1999.
He also lost a nephew along with countless neighbors and childhood friends from the Magnolia public housing development, now re-done into the mixed-income complex Harmony Oaks. The Perfect Gentlemen parade stops to pay tribute each year to the lives lost there.
“I know personally that we have to get a handle on the violence in New Orleans,” he said. “This cause is dear to my heart.”
Lyons, 55, has paraded for 31 years with his club, the Perfect Gentlemen, which has long hosted the first Sunday social aid and pleasure parade of the year.
But this year, Lyons decided that the right move was to personally sit out the four-hour annual parade. He opted against his customary outfit: suit, hat, fans, streamers and alligator shoes. Instead, he handed over control of the parade to the BrassHoppers Social Aid & Pleasure Club, a group of young people, ages 5 to 21, who led what would have been the Perfect Gentlemen’s annual procession.
The event was not the first youth-focused parade with a “Stop the Violence” theme. But most other marches and parades have focused on getting their voices heard by policymakers or telling shooters to put their guns down. Lyons would like to see those changes too. But for now, he’s making a smaller request: He would like to see a ceasefire at the city’s Sunday afternoon parades so that young people can rely upon a small, carefree span of each week.
Something has to give, Lyons said. New Orleanians are becoming fearful of youth because of carjackings and shootings. And youth have “fallen into sadness,” he said, because there is nowhere they can escape the violence, not at a party, at school, or at home.
“So this year, I wanted the attention to be on the kids — nothing but kids smiling, having fun and dancing in the street. Enjoying life,” Lyons said. “I wanted our parade to be a happy place, where they can get their minds clean away from the trouble.”
In 2000, with the violence at a particularly bad point, Lyons founded Central City Youth Against Violence and helped to mentor children in his home neighborhood. “The same kind of killing they’re doing now, they were doing it back then,” he said.
During that time, even second-lines started experiencing some incidents – not necessarily while the parade was rolling, he said, but after the parade was over or down the street from the designated route.
Then, a few months after Hurricane Katrina, when a burst of gunshots left three parade-goers injured, the New Orleans Police Department contended that the Sunday gatherings seemed to be exacerbating violence — and raised parade permits to unaffordable levels.
Lawyers Katie Schwartzmann and Carol Kolinchak, working with the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit in federal court. They alleged restriction of free speech on behalf of the century-old tradition, as practiced by the case’s plaintiff, the Pigeon Town Steppers Social Aid & Pleasure Club, who usually roll annually on Easter Sunday. Ultimately, the lawyers worked out a deal with the city that brought the fees down and allowed the Sunday parades to continue.
But it was a close call — one that Lyons and other club leaders took to heart. Every year, as their annual parades approach, social aid and pleasure club presidents like Lyons walk their communities and ask neighbors to keep fights and friction away from their parades.
“We tell people, ‘Our club parades on Sunday. So anybody you see, anybody you know, tell them to leave it at home. Don’t let it mess up our Sunday,’” Lyons said.
In 2013, a mass shooting at the Original Big Seven parade again threatened the tradition. And shootings have sporadically popped off around a Sunday parade. But for the most part, the parades have been peaceful, even while drawing thousands of people for four hours at a time.
Lyons is a believer that, by moving and stepping people at second-lines release any bad energy from the week. “They work out their problems through their feet, their hands, their bodies,” he said.
On New Year’s Day, Lyons, wearing a “Stop the Violence” T-shirt, followed his parade in his truck, while his son, 20-year-old soul singer Traion Lyons, joined the BrassHoppers’ premiere parade, representing the Perfect Gentlemen.
The children, dressed in blue seersucker suits and white apple caps, danced for hours, waving paper-feathered fans bearing the words “Game Changers” and the number 23, for one of their role models, basketball icon Michael Jordan.
BrassHopper member Lyric Green, 17, rarely misses a Sunday parade – even those she is not leading. For her, dancing to brass band music is stress relief. “If you’re going through something at home, coming out here is being at peace. It’s freedom. It’s joyous,” she said. “And that’s what we need in this city right now — we need peace, love and fun.”
WWOZ radio maintains a calendar for upcoming social aid and pleasure club parades.
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