Ed Buckner, president of the Original Big 7 Social Aid and Pleasure Club, sat on the front porch of his Elysian Fields home Wednesday evening (May 10), four days before the group’s annual Mother’s Day second line. He was exhausted, having worked day and night for the past several weeks, making sure everything was in place for the big parade scheduled Sunday to stomp, dance and roll through the St. Bernard neighborhood. It starts about noon at 3519 Duplessis St., and ends right back at Buckner’s home five hours later.
Buckner said he has been with the Original Big 7 since 1996. And while every Mother’s Day parade is special, this year is bittersweet. It marks 10 years since 19 people were shot after brothers Akein and Shawn Scott sprayed bullets into the crowd gathered in the 7th Ward on May 12, 2013 for the annual event. One of those victims, Deborah Cotton, died four years later from complications from her injuries.
Buckner spoke with Verite about the anniversary, what he believes drove those young men to care so little about the lives of others — and their own — the loss of his own son to violence, and what New Orleanians could and should do to stop future mass shootings from happening.
Below are excerpts from Buckner’s interview:
Buckner said his thoughts are with the victims, their families and friends, and all those hurt that day a decade ago. As a native of New Orleans who grew up in the St. Bernard Housing Development, he said he knows exactly what they experienced. Violence and tragedy are things that have permeated his life and the lives of those with the Original Big 7.
“So many times, people want to wonder, you know, as a club, when something tragic happens, what do you do? Clubs suffer deaths all the time. Members die. People with the club die. So it’s not that the club is not conscious of what is happening. There’s just so much pain that goes on sometimes. People see the parade, they see the excitement, they see the joy, the fun that happens on the parade day. But behind the scenes, they never see the pain.
“This is the city that we live in. This is not the first parade that had a shooting. It was the first parade that had 19 people shot. But other than that, I mean, Mardi Gras parades, second line parades, they’ve all had shootings.”
The Original Big 7’s parade this year will not go past the Frenchmen Street site of the shooting. It hasn’t passed that spot in years as the club has changed its route numerous times since then. It’s done so for a variety of reasons, one of which is safety. Buckner has always prided himself and his club on parading through the “‘hood,” bringing the joy and celebration of the second line to the communities that gave birth to it. But the worsening conditions of some of those neighborhoods forced them to change. And it was done with a heavy heart.
“I think we made the best, safest route we could possibly make. We’re not going to the ‘hood. I always went through the ‘hood, and it still hurts me today to not go through there because we have a lot of cultural seniors in the neighborhood that can no longer walk the parade routes. So when you bring it near their door, they may have to go half a block from their door, and stand and see it, but they right close to home. When you take it out the neighborhood, you really take that parade away from the seniors and the people who really deserve to see it. They’ve been a part of the culture before me.”
Buckner doesn’t hide his anger when talking about how those neighborhoods, where shootings and death are so commonplace, have been allowed to disintegrate by the city’s and state’s elected leaders.
“The thing that’s so damaging is how as a country and a city we allow neighborhoods to go to that status. If we go to the neighborhood where Deb Cotton was shot, there’s not an elementary school. Deb Cotton would have wanted a school. There’s not a grocery store. Deb Cotton would have wanted a community grocery store. There’s nothing there. There’s nothing but drugs and it’s nothing but a set up to damn the next generation of children.
“We as a society need to be careful what we do when we make decisions. Government is definitely not careful, it’s careless. Because the decisions that we make in government affects these kinds of neighborhoods where you have them animals running out killing people — that you conceive to be animals, that they make to be animals, that they always want to call animals. You created that.
“You created that when you took that school, that one public school. And you take that school from a community, you take the economics out of the community.”
Buckner believes that the city’s unique cultural heritage can help fill the void present in the lives of so many children and give them purpose and meaning. Through the Red Flame Hunters Mardi Gras Indian Tribe, Buckner teaches children about the music and ritual, offering them an alternative to the dark side of the streets.
“Parades are one of the best things that could have happened to the city. The Black Masking Indians is one of the best things that could have happened to the city. The skull and bones and the baby dolls, that stuff could become a tool to make sure these kids graduate school. It has to start somewhere with somebody having enough confidence to grab them and work with them. So many times, I’ve been told I should leave certain kids alone because they’re getting in trouble. OK, they’re getting into trouble. What’s the reason to leave them alone? Because right now that’s when they need you the most instead of throwing them to the dogs.”
In 2008, Buckner’s son Brandon was shot and killed outside a Gretna club.
“You believe as a person that you are exempt from all the crazy stuff that’s on the street, because you’re trying to save lives and put people in a better situation. But most times, we’re the people that suffer that harm of murder. Stuff happens to us as well as our families. It’s a hurting thing when you get the phone call that your baby is now on the other end.
“I thought about quitting. I’ll be honest with you. I thought about quitting it, moving out of town to a little quiet country area, sell this home and get the hell away from here. I felt like I’ve tried to save everybody in the world I can save, but I couldn’t save my own son. Him losing his life, that’s just f***ed up. As a parent, it really throws you off your path.”
What stopped Buckner from leaving? His children, and those children who don’t have their own parents.
“Kids ain’t going nowhere. You quit on them, what you expect to happen to them?”
Buckner speaks with great pride about one of those children he adopted into his fold, Justin “Tugga” Cloud. This year, Buckner said he took a step back and allowed Cloud to assume more of an active role in the Original Big 7, letting him handle the bulk of the responsibilities in preparing for Sunday’s second line. If you don’t give the next generation that chance, how will they learn? he said.
“You have to let that fresh energy run the new day. It’s important that they get the chance to learn to lead.”
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