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Mardi Gras brings joy - but also worry over violent crime in New Orleans

Tuesday morning revelers were undeterred by violence that marred a glitzy weekend parade
Zulu king and queen couple, Nicholls “Nick” Spears Sr. and Christy Lagarde Spears toast during the annual meeting of the courts ceremony on Lundi Gras in Kenner, La., Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. (David Grunfeld/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP)

New Orleans’ annual Carnival season entered its ebullient crescendo Tuesday with thousands of revelers gathering in the French Quarter and lining miles of parade routes in a citywide Mardi Gras celebration underpinned this year by violent crime concerns and political turmoil.

Celebrations began before dawn in some parts of the city. TV crews captured images of The North Side Skull and Bones gang — skeleton-costumed revelers — spreading out through the Treme area to awaken people for Mardi Gras. As the sun rose, peaking through breaks in the cloudy sky, parade watchers were already claiming spots along the St. Charles Avenue parade route. Barbecue smells wafted through the Central Business District.

Revelers were undeterred by violence that marred a glitzy weekend parade. Gunfire that broke out during a parade Sunday night left a teenager dead and four others injured, including a 4-year-old girl. Police quickly arrested Mansour Mbodj, 21, for illegally carrying a weapon, then upgraded the charge to second-degree murder.

Officials stressed Monday that the shooting was an isolated event.

“It’s discouraging, but it’s not going to stop me from coming,” said Roz Walker, 55. She and her friend Tracy Dunbar are Baton Rouge residents who were among the crowd awaiting the parades of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club and the Rex Organization. They have been visiting New Orleans on Mardi Gras for decades.

“In our 40-plus years of coming to Mardi Gras we’ve never been involved in a situation at all,” she said.

First-time Mardi Gras participant Ken Traylor of Houston had heard about the shooting, but shrugged it off. “I just think you have to be careful with your surroundings,” he said. “Things happen nowadays everywhere.”

Crime has contributed to dissatisfaction with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. She won reelection easily in 2021, but has suffered a myriad of political problems since, including criticism about crime, the slow pace of major street repairs and questions over her personal use of a city-owned French Quarter apartment.

A recall petition launched last year is nearing a Wednesday deadline. One of the organizers, Eileen Carter, said she believes the movement has enough signatures, but will make a last-minute push.

“We’re going to have people canvassing the parade routes,” Carter said. “That’s been really helpful to us.”

Fueling the political tumult: Cantrell was captured in a social media video gesturing with her middle-finger as a parade passed by a city reviewing stand over the weekend. What sparked the gesture was unclear. The mayor’s press office did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press. A statement given to The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate shed little light.

“Mardi Gras is a time where satire and jest are on full display,” spokesperson Gregory Joseph said in a prepared statement. “The city has been enjoying a safe and healthy Carnival,” the statement said, adding that the mayor was looking forward to continuing the celebration.

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the culmination of Carnival season, which officially begins each year on Jan. 6, the 12th day after Christmas, and closes with the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday.

New Orleans’ raucous celebration is the nation’s most well-known, but the holiday is also celebrated throughout much of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Mobile, Alabama, lays claim to the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the country.

—Kevin Mcgill, The Associated Press