Dirty South Bureau

January 17, 2009

DWI (Driving While Integrated)

Filed under: Mid-City,Prison-Industrial Complex,Race — christian @ 2:59 pm

I’ll start this by stating that I’ve never really felt comfortable with the police. Maybe it’s my upbringing, but I’ve rarely found them helpful or interested in my well-being. Far from “serving and protecting”, I’ve always had the feeling that they’re here to give me tickets, take my money and potentially put me in jail, possibly for no good reason at all, and that I might get my ass kicked along the way if I’m not careful.

However any positive feelings I’ve had about the police have further eroded since a few months ago when a friend, who happens to be a black man who grew up in the 9th ward, moved into the vacant room in my apartment.

I try to understand the way black folk experience things; in the part of the west coast I grew up in, they’re just weren’t that many black people around. And while I have a basic intellectually understanding of the issues of racial profiling and the profoundly unequal way that police tend to treat black people, all that is very different from actual experience.

Because for the second time last night, I was harassed by police in my neighborhood, on the way to the store, for a DWI (Driving While Integrated). For those not familiar with DWI, it is a relative of DWB (Driving While Black), which is also related to WWB (Walking While Black).

Here’s how it works. I am driving on Broad, and notice that a car with a little rectangular row of lights on top is behind us (My older brother served jail time in California. I always notice the police). My housemate, let’s just call him Big J, he and I are on our way to pick up food, paper plates and a garbage can for a party that we’re having. We decide to head up to Rouse’s, so we turn on Bienville. The little row of rectangular lights follows us.

Do not look in the rear view mirror. Drive slowly. Relax.

As we head up Bienville, Big J notices an old friend who works at a tattoo parlor across the street. He is about to jump out, when I inform him that the police are behind us. No sudden moves. Let’s just pull over some place where we can legally park and get out.

So we turn on Jeff Davis (proper use of turn signal). The police are still behind us. Now it is clear that we are being followed. My mind races. My truck is as legal as it’s ever been. I just fixed the turn signal flasher unit, and all the lights work. I have no warrants. My registration is up to date. Why is this happening?

We find a parking spot and big J jumps out. Immediately the spotlight comes out (readers should take the tip that the quickest way to identify undercover cop cars is the big, round black spotlight on the driver’s side). Big J freezes in its glare. An order is barked for me to get out as well.

This cop is not fucking around. He orders Big J to put his hands on the hood of the squad car. For me, it’s hands at your sides. The officer wants to know if we have ID. I reach in my pocket to get my ID, the officer barks something again about keeping my hands out of my pockets and it’s hands on the hood for me as well.

Our fine NOPD officer informs me that this is about a hit and run a few blocks away, and that our vehicle matches the description. This must be because there are so many beat up ’85 ford pickups on the road. I wonder: if this is for a hit and run, why are we being treated like we might pull a gun on him at any moment? He runs our licenses.

In the glare of the flashing lights, I see anger wash over Big J’s face, which quickly changes into a mask of contained fury. I’m a little more calm, but then again I have yet to visit the inside of OPP, like a fair number of my friends here. Looking at Big J, I realize that this is far from the first time this has happened. The rage, and the control to bury it, appear to be familiar reflexes.

I’m also remembering that we were pulled over not two weeks ago after getting a new lock for the front door from Home Depot. The officers’ excuse then was a bad turn signal, but they admitted that they had already run my plates before this happened. Cops approached both doors, and ran both our licenses. I had never before seen a passenger get his ID during for a traffic violation.

I get it. I live in the ‘hood. But this seems a little excessive. I think our real crime here is violating the Separate Car Act, like Homer Plessy did in 1896. We were Driving While Integrated. After all, what good reason would a white man and a black man have to be driving around the ‘hood?

I get it. Except that we live here, and that we are friends.

After the licenses come back clean, the cop lets us go unceremoniously.

Driving back from Rouse’s, Big J is silent. This gives me time to think. Will we be stopped again on the way home? How many more times we will get pulled over on shopping trips? Exactly how many times in his life has Big J been stopped by the police? What does it do to the psyche of a young black man to continually be harassed by the police? How many of those in OPP are there for any actual crime? What exactly did Adolph Grimes do, or not do, to get shot in the back so many times by the NOPD?

And how long will Big J stay in New Orleans, before he decides he can’t live like this any more?

January 12, 2007

More cops and more incarceration will not stop the killings

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

October 4, 2006

A great education experiment

(My readers will have to pardon that this post was temporarily removed from the site. I was working on an interview with Robin Jarvis of the RSD that I got and will post shortly, and didn’t want to play my hand unneccesarily.)

Well, school is allegedly starting at the 53 public schools set to reopen this fall, and good luck understanding the array of acronyms, start dates and regulatory variances coming out of the mess that the state has created by taking over some, but not all of the New Orleans Public Schools, and turning some into charters.

What is actually going on in the new Recovery School District? It is difficult to tell, because several of the teachers I’ve talked to who work in these schools are terrified that they will be fired if they talk to anyone. However, one teacher I know sent this e-mail out:

I don’t think I want any more surprises. I can’t believe this scenario any more, and the students haven’t even come to school yet to add to the drama. School offically begins for the Recovery School District this coming Thursday. Tomorrow, Labor Day, is my first day allowed into my school. The conditions beyond the F-word at the entrance of the school are being described as primitive by my principal. My little school house has been under a slow construction process to recovery from the flooding it sustained for a month in(detail deleted for privacy purposes) . As of Friday, there was no floor and no doors hung on the first floor. No desks, no books or any materials are anywhere. For weeks my roommates have tolerated my collection of teaching leftovers waiting in limbo in our living room area hoping to find a room of their own.

Meanwhile, I just completed my second week straight of seminars at a local university since they had to do something with the hundreds of teachers throughout the district in a similar situation. At night I’ve been reading professional books, preparing quarterly plans, and making lots of lists to prepare as much as possible to teach physical science, life science, and earth science. This past Friday morning I finally was able to have my first meeting just with members of my specific school. Many new surprises were revealed. The first one was, “Oh, and you’ll also have to teach 110 minutes of math at the end of the day to sixth graders.”

I am so disheartened. They just increased my workload by 25% and lessened my ability to accomplish much with this convoluted curriculum.

The rest was more of the same. This week I also had the opportunity to talk with Brenda Mitchell, president of United Teachers of New Orleans, as well as a public school teacher of 28 years who went into retirement rather than work in the new system.

Brenda Mitchell, UTNO 1

Lorraine Jones, former public school teacher 1

Looks like the state has done a heck of a job yet again with a city and a demographic that it wants to get rid of. Forget seceding from the United states- I am beginning to think that more and more that the people destroying New Orleans are not just in Washington but in Baton Rouge and Shreveport as well.

And, unfortunately, in New Orleans. I did this interview last December with Jim Randalls, education guru and co-founder of Students at the Center. Jim gives an explanation of the historical roots of the problems that we are facing.

Jim Randalls 1 2

August 7, 2006

Nagin’s criminal justice fix: more of the same.

Filed under: New Orleans Politics,Prison-Industrial Complex — christian @ 5:48 pm

Nagin’s criminal justice committee announced with great fanfare their plans to “fix” the criminal justice system at Gallier Hall today. Like most New Orleans civic meetings, there was much mutual congratulations and adoration, but little was said.

The plan: better coordination, fixing damaged infrastructure, more jails.

One of the things that would be funny if it wasn’t so horrible is that the committee is planning on fixing the enormous backlog of people waiting endlessly in foul conditions for a trial by asking for pro-bono legal help from local lawyers, instead of actually finding the money to hire some.

Hear the press conference

And the Q and A session

It’s always funny for me to watch Nagin’s face when the person in front of the microphone is lying, particularly when it is someone he appointed. However, the high point of the day was the opportunity to ask Marlin Gusman what he was doing about the filthy and inhumane conditions at OPP. His answer: more space in more jails.

Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman interview

I also got to speak with Richard Ieyoub, former state attorney general and the spokesperson for the committee, and ask him why we were building more jails when clearly they aren’t working. His answer was that he is not a sociologist, but that in the meantime we need more cells in more jails.

Former state attorney general Richard Ieyoub interview

Seung Hong, formerly of Safe Streets/Strong Communities and Barry Gerharz wrote in an article this spring that Louisiana has more people in jail per capita than any other large city in the nation.

You know, when I as an individual keep doing the same thing that has been proven over and over again not to work, I am either crazy or stupid. But when Ray Nagin, Marlin Gusman, Richard Ieyoub, Kathleen Blanco and Oliver Thomas etc. do it, it is public policy. If putting people in prison stopped violent crime, then why did we have 23 murders in July?

I also got an opportunity to talk to Norris Henderson of Safe Streets, who is almost as hard to get a hold of as the mayor. I had the funny feeling that he was one of the only sane people in the room.

Norris Henderson, Safe Streets interview

April 12, 2006

cop cars on Montegut street

Filed under: Bywater,Prison-Industrial Complex,Race — christian @ 2:19 am

Today was a break from reporting but not a break from reality. Night before last my next-door neighbor was robbed at gunpoint, and tonight the police arrived- five cop cars flashing blue and red in the night. They had a suspect in the back of one car and I didn’t want to get close enough to find out who it was. I much prefer to remain invisible. I was hoping it wasn’t my neighbor, Clarence, who just got back from Houston. Not that I think that he robbed my neighbor- this is New Orleans and it doesn’t matter if you are innocent or not. Clarence is a young black man living in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

I have mixed feelings about crime here. The truth of the matter is that I am much more afraid of older gay men with small dogs than young black men. Demographics like the aforementioned older gay men are much more likely to make it so that I cannot live in whatever neighborhood I am in and thus are much more a threat to me. But I have never been mugged, so I am in no position to talk.

But this is the crux that we are in- if the neighborhood did not have crime, it would be taken over by yuppies. And the fact that the yuppies feel safe in our neighborhood is an assault on our lifestyles and identities. However insane it may be there was and is a certain attachment to the toughness and seediness that the Bywater used to have. No-one wants to get robbed or shot, but on the other hand none of us want yoga studios and dog spas either. Why is it so hard to find some middle ground?

I am reminded of what Zinn says about staying neutral on a moving train. Capitalism needs new markets, and urban renewal needs ghettoes to gentrify. And young white people like me and my friends are caught in the middle, both perpetrators and victims of gentrification.

It wasn’t Clarence- I talked to his folks. They live in a little gray shotgun across the street, one of two black families on the block. Daniel (his father) is talking about getting a big dog. He says if they try to rob him he’ll shoot the motherfuckers. Anne, his mother, sees more how much Clarence is a potential victim of the police. She says she told him to work or to move out, so that he won’t be hanging around getting into trouble. So Clarence works at Doerr furniture making fifty bucks a day cash. Some future.

Instead, the cops pulled all the young black men out of the little brick double a block down on the other side of Burgundy street. I watched them pull all of them out onto the street and felt helpless. I’m not into copwatch- for all I know they really have a reason to go in there. But I doubt it. If they’re looking for the guy who robbed my neighbor, he doesn’t live a block away, I can tell you that.

Is the Bywater coming back?

When rich people uptown say they want to keep crime down, they are saying that they don’t want poor black people to move back into town. And as much as many white radicals and liberals are in denial of it, the truth is that when the poor black people move back they bring crime with them.

This just isn’t a simple world. I can’t help it- I feel a little relieved at the mugging. Somehow the rhythm of this sort of trauma is a return to normality.

The cop cars haul off the kids. Young black men who will be traumatized in OPP and come out hard. This is what Anne wants to keep Clarence from.

America has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, and Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state, nearly half again the number of prisoners per capita than its nearest competitor, Texas.

I do the only thing that makes sense- I go out and drink.