New Orleans Ranked as “Most Violent” City by CQ Press

A national study conducted by Congressional Quarterly (CQ Press) has ranked New Orleans as the most violent city in America. This newest tarnishing of the city's reputation comes just two months after the journal Foreign Policy ranked New Orleans 3rd among their top five “murder capitals” of the world, trailing behind Caracas, Venezuela and Cape Town, South Africa.

Foreign Policy explains the Crescent City's malaise as owing to “its grinding poverty, an inadequate school system, a prevalence of public housing, and a high incarceration rate,” and adds that, “Katrina didn’t help. Since the hurricane struck in 2005, drug dealers have been fighting over a smaller group of users, leading to many killings.” The CQ Press study makes fewer attempts to explain why violent crime is raging in New Orleans, but presents a set of statistics that puts the city far above and beyond any other American metropolitan area in almost all measures, but especially murder.

If you ask the local police, CQ Press's study is flawed. If you ask any other local, you're likely to get a “no duh,” kind of answer. It's common knowledge among the city's residents that violent crime is serious problem. Nevertheless, NOPD Chief Warren Riley claimed at a press conference that “it's inaccurate information. There's nothing factual about it. There's nothing scientific about it." Fair enough, the ranking methodology is flawed, but it has captured a stinging truth about the state of post-Katrina New Orleans. CQ Press has even included a “Note on New Orleans” as a preface to their rankings stating for the record that, “New Orleans would have the highest city crime comparison score even if the 2007 Census Bureau population estimates were the basis for the scoring.” No matter the city's true total population figure, it is the most violent locale in the United States hands down. However, the presentation of this fact by the corporate news media remains inadequate and absent of any contexts that might help explain the desperation and crushing inequality that lead to explosive rates of violent crime. Instead the news media have presented images and reports of a pathological culture of poverty preying upon itself and those who veer to close.

Details beyond CQ Press study's most basic crime statistics and city rankings are not being reported by the media and are hard to come by. The report itself is available online, but a print version costs $55. It's $225 for the CD and database version. Compounding this lack of in-depth information, media reports have not attempted put the violence of New Orleans into any sort of context beyond the same sort of over-simplified version provided by Foreign Policy: blaming the poor and their communities such as public housing developments, or else drug wars waged by merciless criminals. Furthermore, the demographics of victims have not been widely disseminated by the press (if the CQ Press study even compiled them) thus leaving perceptions of who this violence affects most wide open to the national audience. The truth in New Orleans is that violent crimes take the heaviest toll on Black communities and Black as well as white working class neighborhoods. The white majority Uptown neighborhoods and the other affluent suburban areas around the city are relatively unaffected.

The most widely circulated media report through the Associate Press leads with with shocking figures such as the 19,000 reported crimes and 208 murders in 2007 that have vaulted New Orleans into a class of its own. AP's report quickly notes that “New Orleans was well ahead of second-place Camden, New Jersey, and third-place Detroit,” and that “St. Louis, Missouri and Oakland, California, rounded out the top five.” Although all of these cities have Black majorities, and although each would rank equally high among the most impoverished and over-policed communities in the US with the accompanying disinvestment and de-industrialization of the past several decades, no discussion of race and racism, nor economic inequality follows. Readers are simply left to conjure up their own images and ideas about these five cities, each long maligned in the national media.

The five “safest” cities mentioned in most media reports are all majority white suburbs built up during the 1960s through the present during an era that historians characterize as “white flight.” Ramapo, NY, Mission Viejo, California, O'Fallon, Missouri, Newton, Massachusetts, Brick Township, New Jersey round out the top five safest towns. Mission Viejo, like the other four, was consciouslly built up as an exclusive suburb, absorbing many white affluent families who fled the slowly integrating public schools, hospitals, businesses, and neighborhoods of the major cities they orbit, Los Angeles in Mission Viejo's case. Today Mission Viejo is 77% white. Blacks make up 2% of its population. The median household income is practically twice the national average. Los Angeles for its part was ranked somewhere in the middle of the report's 385 city pack.

The release of CQ Press's crime report also follows the recent broadcasting of an episode of the television show Gangland on The History Channel featuring the Gotti Boys, a criminal organization from years past. Purporting to tell real histories of gangs in America, Gangland is a smoothly produced program featuring both former gangsters and expert commentators, usually criminologists from major universities. The show often focuses in on a particularly nefarious gang or urban setting and liberally sprinkles scenes with heavy music and sensationalistic imagery of tattooed bodies, weaponry, urban decay and drugs. New Orleans' episode was a virtual collage of images depicting public housing, young black hooded men, and darkened streets of crowded shotgun homes.

Literally within days of the History Channel's depiction of New Orleans' past, CNN ran a special segment hosted by Soledad O'Brien entitled “One Crime at a Time." The show opens with a street sign and skyline introducing New Orleans as a gritty southern city. O'Brien's camera crews follow a murder investigation through the streets of Central City. Two detectives looking for suspects point at houses exclaiming without a doubt, “that could be a crack house, and that could be a crack house.” Stumped for leads they call it quits for the night. The next day they explain to O'Brien that a “wall of silence” prevails in working class neighborhoods throughout the city. No one will talk to the police. Later in the show O'Brien narrates figures provided by the City DA explaining that only 40% of those arrested for homicide will ever face trial. Accompanying images show white police officers ducking cuffed Black men into squad cars, again in darkened ghetto city streets.

The show then features the case of Garell Smith, a young Black man suspected of four murders but never convicted, again in no small part because of a lack of witnesses willing to testify. CNN's attempt to explain the “brick wall” effect comes up short of the total evidence though. O'Brien asks one city prosecutor “do you think he [Garell Smith] has threatened the witnesses?” The prosecutor answers affirmatively. In this particular case it may be true, but CNN presents witness intimidation by perpetrators of violent crime as the sole reason why there is a mass refusal to cooperate with police investigations. To this must be added the fact that the NOPD themselves have a long brutal history and ongoing reputation among Black working class communities in New Orleans as being among the most violent and intimidating forces within the city. Not only do witnesses fear retaliation by criminals, they do not trust the police either. Add to this a widespread skepticism of the legal system which most New Orleanians recognize as existing for the benefit of the few wealthy neighborhoods in the city, and the reasons underlying the “brick wall” effect become clearer.

Even with all the attention being paid to violence in New Orleans by the media in the last week, there remain virtually no detailed investigations into the underlying causes of crime. No sociological evidence has been mustered by the media to discuss the overwhelming structural violence so characteristic of post-Katrina New Orleans, a city devoid of health care, housing, affordable schools, good jobs, and public transport entirely because of conscious decisions made to eliminate these very things.

No presentations in the mass media as of yet have delved seriously into the social and economic conditions of post-Katrina New Orleans as they might be related to violent crime. Viewers of programs like CNN's “One Crime at a Time,” or those who read news briefs about New Orleans' ranking as the most violent city are left to reason for themselves as to why the city has risen again as a murder capital. Studies such as CQ Press's provide no insights beyond raw statistics whereas news and edutainment programs depict problematic imagery of white police and Black criminals, a national norm and a pathological city.

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