For many of its participants, the yearly Krewe of Eris parade is a highlight of New Orleans' Carnival season. Named after the Greek Goddess of Discord, this unpermitted, anarchic open-to-all foot parade is an explosion of creativity and beautiful costuming that runs wild through downtown, clogging streets in boisterous celebration of unrule.
Eris is a magical experience, and like much of the best of Carnival, aspects of it are shrouded in mystery. Where does Eris come from? Does Eris really fight the cops? Should Eris be more explicitly political, or would that detract from the creativity and pleasure of the parade? Does Eris have a "purpose" beyond the glory and transcendence that participation offers?
In the week before Eris 2011, I sat down with the parade's founders, who generously gave of their time to discuss Krewe of Eris' origins, where it stands now, and what the future might hold.
Krewe of Eris first rolled in 2005, seven months before Katrina. Ms. Lateacha is one half of a couple that founded and bottom-lined Eris for its first few years. "We wanted something slightly more serious than Krew du Poux," she said, "that drew more from the roots of Carnival, the old-line style. More traditional, more structured, odd as that might sound for Eris, with brass musicians and different themes each year."
Her partner, Lord Willin, agreed. "This town seemed big enough for another krewe with a different aesthetic and another style."
"I mostly wintered here," Lateacha said, "and I wanted to contribute and give something back to New Orleans instead of just taking and absorbing culture. I felt it was important to participate. A lot of people are just here a few years and leave, and don't give back or contribute to the city... Many people who came down here, even after living here for a while, still felt 'outside' Mardi Gras. They didn't grow up in families that participated in it. They weren't organically connected to it. They would just attend other people's events as bystanders, or sink big money into joining groups like Krewe de Vieux."
With regards to Eris' germination, Ozone said, "At the time I'd been doing a lot of reading. I'd read [James Gill's] Lords of Misrule, which talks about Mardi Gras as a day of leveling, a day of unrest when the social order was turned upside-down. That was before the big krewes and their giant floats, which those big krewes began doing partly as a way to distract people, to focus Mardi Gras on the celebrations of the wealthy and powerful, and to reintroduce a mystical awe towards the ruling class that was lost after the United States bought Louisiana."
Eris sought to bring back something rowdier, a parade that looked more deeply into the past and drew from older traditions. "It didn't exactly become that, though," Lord Willin said. "Even the first year, it was just an open call for creative chaos."
That, the founders agreed, was not a bad thing at all.
After conflicts in the past, Eris is re-routed this year, avoiding Decatur in the French Quarter and Jackson Square, which had become a flashpoint for conflict with NOPD. "It's a very controlled space," Lateacha said of Jackson Square. "Last year the cops were arrayed there waiting for us. New Orleans police hold grudges, and these days they figure out ahead of time when we're happening. We used to have the advantage that they were all at Bacchus, but now they're ready. Even if we 'liberated' Jackson Square, it would only be for five minutes. That doesn't seem worth what it would cost. I think Eris reclaims enough space through movement, and keeping moving is a big part of Eris. By focusing on taking a single space, you sacrifice continuing feelings of liberation for a single moment of liberation. There are times when that's worth it, but as someone who believes in the longevity of Eris, I don't think this is one of them."
Ozone was more blunt. "I think it's strategically retarded to be seeking confrontation when everyone's dressed up in gigantic glow-in-the-dark baby doll costumes," he said. "You gotta choose your battles, and you don't want to get a lot of people hurt."