Silent about the root causes of violence....
Yet another post-disaster social movement is afoot in New Orleans. It’s not out to fix levees and infrastructure by targeting the Army Corps or local politicians, nor is it aimed at securing federal funds for a more adequate recovery. This one is aimed instead at “criminals.”
Organizing under the banner of “Silence the Violence,” many New Orleanians have begun circulating emails and flyers proclaiming, "ENOUGH! Stop the Violence," urging their friends and neighbors to join them on a march to City Hall. They’re out to deliver a message. The protest will take off up Canal Street on Thursday the 11th. Organizers and citizen’s groups aligning themselves under this banner have already slammed the Mayor, Police Chief, and District Attorney saying that they have let the city slip into this wave of crime and have provided no leadership to address the problem.
I’m confused about the message and plan of this movement. In fact, I’m very concerned that this new civic campaign might be headed toward some sort of draconian solution that far from “silencing” the violence will indeed create more of it, both in the form of violence perpetrated by desperate individuals and thugs who have easily overwhelmed the city in a state of total disrepair, but also the violence perpetrated against black and poor people in the city by an increasingly militarized and trigger happy police force. And what about the structural violence, the severe poverty that through Katrina has morphed into chronic displacement, homelessness, absence of healthcare, dismantlement of welfare, environmental toxicity and other acute forms of vulnerability? I’m concerned that this movement is rushing ahead without giving pause to the bigger questions that need to be addressed if we are to truly silence the violence.
The burgeoning anti-crime movement really got off the ground after a spate of killings around New Years that has made 2007 a bloody year so far. Two killings in particular have struck a chord with the city’s people; the shooting of Dinerral Shavers, a drummer for the Hot 8 Brass Band, and the murder of Helen Hill, a film maker and food not bombs activist. After Hill’s death (during a robbery in which her husband was wounded protecting their child) people in the Marigny neighborhood began to meet and plan a response. That the reaction to this particular murder was so swift and drew in so many concerned citizens might have a lot to do with where the shooting took place and who died. Hill’s home was on the border of the Marigny neighborhood near the French Quarter and Bywater sections of the city. These are mostly white neighborhoods with concentrations of middle and upper-class residents – very much unlike the parts of the city that endure violent crime and killings on a daily basis, areas like Central City, or the 9th and 6th Wards.
Hill’s murder, along with Dinerral’s are tragic events and the city’s violence does need to be seriously addressed, but it’s unclear exactly how the current anti-crime movement proposes to do this. Violence in New Orleans is a real conundrum. On the one hand immediate practical solutions are necessary. On the other hand, these sorts of solutions do nothing to address the causes of the problem. 11 years ago a high profile multiple murder in the French Quarter created a similar groundswell that forced then Mayor Marc Morial’s administration to reverse its stand against increased funding for the police department. More money for cops didn’t exactly translate into safer streets though. Killings continued. Then as now, the victims remain mostly black, mostly working class and poor, mostly residents of the city’s highly segregated black neighborhoods. These communities didn’t see much if any improvement then. At the time securing more funds for the police did, however, achieve a goal that the city’s more affluent residents continually seek – protection of their neighborhoods and property from what they define as “criminal elements.” Another pro-police lobby in the city are the owners of bars, restaurants, and other tourist dependent establishments. Without the semblance that New Orleans is safe for visitors they fear that a steady flow of income to the recovering city will dry up as vacationers head elsewhere. When it’s just poor black folks dying in the bottom of the bowl there’s not crisis, but when the murders start happening closer to the river, closer to the Quarter, Uptown, and the Marigny, then perceptions change quick amongst those who have the political power to call for a crackdown. So the appetite to build up the police force is strong if the city’s middle classes and tourism industry feel threatened. But if it’s just black on black murder, if it’s just poor people dying then the response tends to be nil.
A group of black clergy has been protesting black on black murder for the last several months (by far and away the most severe problem however you measure it). Their recent hunger strike against violence was mostly ignored by the rest of the city. And what about police brutality against black and poor residents and against the homeless? This was an enormous problem before Katrina. It remains an issue. How does building up a police force that is already notorious for abusing its power solve the violence problem in New Orleans? Finally, what about the structural violence that is killing New Orleans? On my frequent visits to the city I am continually astounded by the obituary section of the Times-Picayune. The city is dying because the people are dying. The people are dying because the city is being killed. It’s being killed by neoliberal recovery and reconstruction policies that have dismantled Charity Hospital, that have privatized the schools, and that have left the majority of the city’s housing stock, rental hosing in particular, shattered and uninhabitable. It’s being killed by a lack of political will to devote adequate resources for recovery by the federal government. It’s being killed by the avaricious desires of real estate developers to profit off the land which used to be home to thousands. It’s being killed by HUD’s policies that have left tens of thousands homeless. Structural violence is the pain, suffering, and morbidity that results from political and economic inequality. When someone goes hungry because they’re too poor to eat, or when someone dies of a preventable disease for lack of healthcare; these are examples of structural violence. Because it makes people more vulnerable and desperate, structural violence breeds its more visible cousin, crime, murder.
Conservatives will certainly rail against this last point saying that murder and violence are issues of personal responsibility, but the truth is inescapable. There are larger sociological causes to violence than personal decisions and pathologies, and there are other forms of violence beyond just individual acts. Violence is socially produced through the conditions and situations we create. Violence flourishes when people are vulnerable and desperate. Right now there is no more vulnerable a city than New Orleans, and no more desperate a people than its citizenry. If the Stop the Violence movement is serious about itself then it’s going to have to do something completely different than marching to City Hall to pressure Nagin to pump more money into the police force. It’s constituents, many of whom have been living in the isle of denial (that comfortable sliver of land by the river geographically and demographically separate from the rest of the devastated city) are going to have to realize that without hospitals, schools, good jobs with high wages, decent housing now, and much more, the city is just going to spiral further down. Murders are just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath it is the brutality of life in post-Katrina New Orleans and the reality that death and pain are close companions to those who have been displaced and dispossessed in the aftermath of the great flood.