First off, I want to send out my deepest condolences to those who have lost loved ones in the violence here in New Orleans. To the family of Helen Hill and Dinerral Shavers, but also to the families of the six other people murdered since the first of the year whose names have not been in headlines, and to the families of the 161 people who were killed last year.
As some of you know, I did not attend the march on Thursday. I understand that many felt the need to march, but I personally do not go on marches where there is not a clear statement or demand being made. I do not want my presence used by policy-makers to justify something that I do not support.
From the meeting at Sound Cafe on Sunday, which I did attend, one thing was abundantly clear: that there was no consensus on what the demands of this march would be. Some in the crowd wanted more police on the street, one woman who says that she spends a lot of time on nola.com forums even proposed a state of emergency. While many other viewpoints were expressed, those are the ones that I fear will be heard from all of this.
So let’s have a real conversation about what will reduce violent crime in New Orleans.
Let’s talk first about what we have tried.
We already have 1,400 police on the street- 609 police per every 100,000 residents of New Orleans. Before the storm we had 1,668 police- 359 police per every 100,000 residents (figures courtesy of Michelle Krupa, Times-Picayune, Sunday 7th.)
The most recent data that I have found online (year 2000) indicates that we now have the highest per-capita number of police in any large or medium sized city except Washington D.C- more than New York, Chicago, or even Detroit or Baltimore, and more than twice the year 2000 per-capita numbers of Los Angeles and Houston. This number does not include the state police or national guard who are here indefinitely. (figures courtesy of the Department of Justice)
Our jails were full as well. Before the storm, we had 1.5% of the city locked up in OPP, giving us the highest incarceration rate of any large city, and the state incarceration rate was the highest in the nation. And the US incarceration rate is the highest in the world.
Despite the numbers of police and jails, we continue to have one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the nation. Incidentally, Washington DC, with all their cops, also has one of the highest per-capita murder rates.
So let’s talk about other related factors:
We had one of the highest rates of functional illiteracy in the country- around 40% according to the literacy alliance of greater New Orleans. Study after study shows that those who cannot read and write well are more likely to end up in prison (Literacy Behind Prison Walls, National Center for Education Statistics)
We continue to have some of the worst public schools in the country- some of which, like John McDonogh, have gotten worse since the state takeover.
Around 40% of children under the age of five in New Orleans were growing up in poverty before the storm- and the poor are more likely to end up in jail as well.
For decades we have had a surfeit of low-paying service industry jobs in this city, and little else. And from years working as a carpenter I can testify that racial discrimination in the construction trades- one of the few places where a person with limited education can make a decent living here- is rampant.
It is scant consolation to those who have lost loved ones, but what needs to be done to make this city safe will take time. We have to create a decent society where everyone has access to quality education, living wage jobs, and health care, including mental health care, a huge need post-Katrina.
The so-called “thugs”- or whatever other racially coded language you prefer- committing these crimes are largely young men. Many, like the seventeen year old who killed Dinerral Shavers, are teenagers. Perhaps you can remember what it was like to be a teenager- and the lack of caution that you had. These children are not afraid of death or jail, and it isn’t stopping them from picking up guns. You can put them in jail, you can even kill them, but more are on their way. As Ralph Ellison said, the most dangerous thing that a society can produce is a man who has nothing to lose. I would modify that to say that the most dangerous thing we can produce is children who have nothing to lose.
It will not be quick and it will not be easy. But if you want to stop the killings here you have to change society. The short-term solutions will not work. They haven’t yet.
See also the G-Bitch Spot