Violence in New Orleans: The Nation Finally Takes Notice

Authorities report that nineteen people suffered injuries when three shooters sprayed bullets into a “Second Line” parade in the 7th ward neighborhood of New Orleans yesterday. Sadly, such senseless violence is rather regular in a city suffering an acute social and economic malaise stemming from years of political neglect, exacerbated by the still-recent trauma of Katrina. The nerves of locals are so hardened by the violence that this occurrence made national headlines before it was being treated as a major local story. The interesting question is why? Why did the major media outlets throughout the country finally take notice? One could reasonably well proffer that the sheer number of victims caused this to be a bigger than usual story of urban violence. Alternatively, its incidence on a major national holiday, one associated with the tranquility of gathering with family, could explain the sudden national (and international) interest. The timing in proximity to the Boston Marathon bombing, with a heightened public sensitivity to violence in public places, is also probably a factor. Nonetheless, this all alludes to an even more compelling question: will the nation finally learn from New Orleans?

If Katrina did not illustrate the very steep price paid for persistent neglect of public infrastructure, in addition to the potential for turmoil stemming from anthropogenic climate change, then maybe this “mass shooting” can serve to illuminate the natural culmination of a politics of disengagement. On the one hand we have the gutting of social infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, mental health clinics, and subsidized housing. On the other hand, there is the lack of any meaningful political opposition to this historic assault on the dignity of working- and middle-class people in this country. While New Orleans was once site of some of the first sit-ins at whites-only businesses in the early years of the Civil Rights movement, there is little concerted effort to politically address the conditions of the city’s black and poor majority today. As elsewhere in the country, organized opposition has been largely compromised through its alliance with the neo-liberal Democratic Party.

Furthermore, violent crime has worsened in post-Katrina New Orleans, bucking national trends. The murder rate in the city is ten times higher than the national average, and even outpaces notoriously violent Chicago threefold. Just a cursory glance at Google news results for other shootings just this week reveals at least half a dozen other incidents. Meanwhile, authorities report that the bulk of the city’s violent crime is not related to gang or drug activity: it merely boils down to scores being settled. While yesterday’s culprits are getting a mainstream media treatment akin to the White suburban brand of spree shooter, these young men likely showed up at the second line because they knew someone there they had a problem with.

The victims included local reporter Deborah Cotton, recovering in hospital, who specializes in covering the city’s colorful culture, including its brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians, and the second line parades. In an interview about New Orleans’ violence epidemic last year, she relates: “I have lost count. I have been here six years and I would have to sit back and count the number of people I know personally as friends, people that I am connected with through my work, neighbors, or just that I know from eyeball that have been killed.”

Thankfully, no one has succumbed to injuries from this shooting, though 57 others have not been so lucky in 2013. If a deranged individual were to go on a rampage in a sleepy suburban community that resulted in 57 deaths, the affair would undoubtedly dominate national headlines for days on end. In fact, that number of fatalities would exceed the most prolific of these spree killings to date. However, the death toll here receives little to no national attention because it isn’t conjoined with a spectacle. It is spread across four months of the year, in incidents that the bourgeois media can attribute to “random street violence.” It can be externalized as a “way of life” in “ghetto communities” that doesn’t impact the everyday lives of white America.

The Mother’s Day Massacre seems to have passed from random violence to spectacle. It is an interesting case study in what the threshold might be. Do at least ten people at once have to be struck by bullets for the nation to take notice? And how long before the story subsides: a distant memory from the land that care forgot?

The conversion of news reporting into a noxious 24-hour infotainment industry explains the focus on spectacle in searching for stories. This is also why each and every young black man that loses his life prematurely to the violence epidemic isn’t compelling enough for the front page, and why all of the major media outlets shy away from mature discussion of the sociological causes of the malaise eating away at our urban communities. If we did have this rigorous discussion, we would find that black urban violence cannot be easily explained as an external phenomenon. The nation might better understand that it is the actions of white actors that create the social and economic conditions conducive to such wild-west shootouts at cultural activities.

It is also quite bothersome that the news media has glossed over the positive cultural spectacle that is the second-line. The ornate attire, exuberant dance, scarves and umbrellas whirling around in the air to the beat of the brass amount to an enthralling form of cultural expression, in marked contrast to the banal corporate monoculture found elsewhere on these shores. What’s more, the second-lines are  free and open to everyone desirous of a good time on Sunday. One doesn’t passively receive the culture as with sitting in the audience at a play; one actively participates and contributes. It is the greatest show on Earth, and the best part of all: you’re in on it.

It is important that people view this photo gallery of the event before the shootings. View the beaming faces, exquisite costumes, and impossible dance moves. Imagine the energy associated with the second line, and how it serves a therapeutic purpose. Cultural activity exists to provide a reprieve from the rigors and hardships of life. It is meant to fill you up with fun on a Sunday before having to return to the tedium of work on a Monday.

And people of all backgrounds have visited New Orleans for the purpose of getting their fill through the decades: be it Mardi Gras or jazzfest or just some random damn weekend where there will be plenty to do. The local color has been exploited for tourism dollars for many years, and the benefits of that industry have not generally benefited the poor communities creating the spectacle. In recent years, the local political elite has especially narrowed their focus on tourism to the detriment of any coherent social policy. Most notably, the school system was effectively shut down in the wake of Katrina: the teaching staff was entirely gutted, the union broken, and the bulk of the infrastructure turned over to unaccountable charters. New Orleans now sports the least experienced school workforce in the country, most teachers plucked from scabrous outfits like Teach for America: 20-somethings seeking a few years of thrills in the Crescent City before moving on to real work in the corporate domain. These often culturally naïve teachers are told that they will be swooping in to save the ghetto from itself, and often find themselves mortified when the locals show no appreciation whatsoever for their “altruistic” endeavor.

Meanwhile, Charity hospital still stands in ruin: a monument to the misplaced priorities of post-Katrina New Orleans. The rotting corpse could have been rehabilitated and reopened in due time, continuing to provide free or subsidized care for the city’s working and low income population. Instead, its functions have been transferred to the LSU medical facility, which has faced successive cuts to its emergency and in-patient care in recent years. A friend of mine worked in the emergency mental health care unit there, housed in a trailer in the shadows of the old hospital, where he says the number of beds was wholly inadequate to deal with the steady flow of patients suffering dementia, psychosis, or drug-related trauma of some sort. It was a sobering and difficult experience for him, but one he was willing to commit to in the long run, until the state halved the number of beds and employees at that unit, him included.

The sociological calculus here is not difficult. On the one hand, you have an economic recession, which is actually a manufactured assault on working people throughout the country. This recession has notably been hardest on young, black men. On the other hand, you have a region shocked by Katrina and the concurrent storm of austerity that has wrecked its hospitals and schools. Lastly, you have a people exploited for their culture, though not provided a humane and decent standard of living by a political elite solely focused on the big ticket items: packing the corporate chain hotels for the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, and so forth. A people exploited and not provided will quite naturally be angry and resentful. Lacking a constructive political outlet to channel that anger, you get urban violence instead.

As cities throughout the country, from Chicago to Philadelphia to Seattle, are steadfastly following the New Orleans model of school reform, mass privatization and destruction of social services, a Mother’s Day Massacre might be coming to a locale near you!

Matt Reichel is a writer currently living in New Orleans. He can be reached at: mereichel@gmail.com. Read other articles by Matt, or visit Matt's website.