Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Naked and the Dead

Thanks for the title Norman Mailer. In his novel, which I just finished, he writes of a group of soldiers in WWII fighting and clawing their way through jungles and up mountains in the Phillipines. He details sheer exhaustion and unbelievable human endurance to complete what is, in the end, a futile endeavor. I should have chosen something more upbeat to read this week, huh? Ah well, I'm probably going to piss some people off with this post, so upbeat isn't really important at the moment.

This week it seems apropos to have read that book as New Orleans' problems are all the more naked, and more of her citizens are dead.

Over twenty years ago, when my daughter was the age my grandson is now, my husband and I had long discussions as we watched the rise of gangs. We talked about how when we were in school, the baddest ass in the place was some guy with slicked back hair and a switchblade. They liked souped up cars and easy girls and knew where to get beer. They mostly worked in gas stations, maybe committed some petty crimes, maybe ran off to join a biker gang when they got out of school. They weren't a real threat to us as long as we didn't go where their turf was, and we all knew the boundaries. West Side Story had a guy like that who got killed, but killing was something that the kids I knew, even the baddest asses, didn't do. I was in the hippie group. We smoked our pot and talked about peace and listened to music at the Fillmore East. The killing in my teen years was done in the jungles of Vietnam, beamed into our living rooms at dinner time, and we protested it. Killing was NOT cool. No "juice" came from that. "Street cred"--not a term we knew by the way--was based on things like scoring an all access pass to a Led Zeppelin concert, or having gone to Woodstock.

As the gangs took over streets in California, we were living in San Francisco, and while there were some gang problems there, they seemed minor compared to what was happening in Los Angeles. We felt insulated from them in a way, but wondered a lot what was going to happen when we had a generation of kids, reared in the gang neighborhoods, in poverty, with bad schools, too many guns and a culture of consumerism and violence. "What's gonna happen in 20 years when we have to DEAL with these kids?" Well, here we are, twenty years later and it's as bad or worse than we had thought.

At that time we lived on 23rd Street in San Francisco, just up from SF General Hospital where we could hear the sirens going to the ER. Just over our 20 foot fence was the Hunter's Point Housing Project, originally built during the war to house shipbuilders for the Navy, it became it's own fiefdom with the cops afraid to go in. Too many guns, they said. There were children in there then, and probably still are now. Cops were the enemy in Hunter's Point, and these kids grew up hearing that and living in that environment. The San Francisco school system was such a shambles that we sat out in lawn chairs to get our daughter into an "alternative school," which roughly translates to the charter schools here in New Orleans.

This wasn't just happening in San Francisco, though. It was happening in every city in this country including New Orleans. My daughter is 27 and so are the those other kids who grew up in the Hunter's Points and the Ibervilles and mega-projects of Chicago and New York and in Compton. The poverty, the bad schools, the marginalization continued and nothing was done about it. The gun manufacturers made better, faster, more lethal weapons with fingerprint proof grips, and they're all over our streets, in the hands of kids and addicts and maniacs of every stripe. The guns stolen from that law abiding guy down the street are out there too. Every major city in this country is now reaping what it sowed for twenty years or more.

Am I making excuses for the killers out there? Absolutely not. They are lost to us now in most cases, I fear. I don't think we can undo the damage of twenty years anymore than we can undo the horror these kids are unleashing. I am only saying that we are all so shaken up, so SHOCKED by the recent spate of killings here in our city, and we shouldn't be. It's been coming for a long time. What the hell did we think would happen when these kids grew up?

I live in the Marigny, not far from where Helen Hill was murdered. Two blocks away is a place called Buffa's. One of the cooks in there, a lovely woman named Miss Brenda, lost her brother this week. Multiple gunshot wounds. One victim white, the other victim black, the grief is the same. I am not going to arm myself to the teeth, nor am I going to be too afraid to go out. Neither of those options is viable to me. Besides, it's not just my neighborhood that's being hit by this destruction of human life.

Mayor Nagin said in his press conference the other day that it's "black on black crime" and "unfortunate." UNFORTUNATE? Is he fucking kidding? That's the best he can do? Yes the city is strapped for cash, yes we're dealing with entire neighborhoods that would be better suited to a scene out of Blade Runner than a city in the United States. We have problems and more problems here in New Orleans, and evidently, as Ashley Morris says, we're on our own. Sinn Fein. (All of this, contributes more to the marginalization problems.)

I will make an admission here. I was lucky to be chosen by the film company I was working for in 1984 to cover the Democratic National Convention in Moscone Hall, San Francisco. I also voted for Jesse Jackson in the primary that year. (Keep your groans to yourself!)

As we approach Martin Luther King's birthday, I gotta wonder what he would make of all this. Is racism a problem in New Orleans? Oh please, if you're asking you're not living here. (Is it any better where you are?) Is crime a problem here? It's over the top.

This year the voters of this city re-elected Nagin and William Jefferson, both black men with power and connections. We have Oliver Thomas on the city council, a man for whom I have great respect. Our police chief is also a black man. Where is Jesse Jackson? Where is Al Sharpton? Where are the black leaders? Why aren't they here holding these guys' feet to the fire? "Listen, you guys, we fought hard to prove we could do the job, now DO it! You're making us look bad. Some of us died to get the respect we deserved, now you're letting our kids get left behind and shoot each other in the streets and calling it unfortunate? Show the world that you can rebuild New Orleans without handing out contracts to people who are your buddies. Show the world that you can educate the children, ALL the children, so that twenty years from now their blood won't be rolling down the gutters to the still clogged street drains. Show the world that you can get these guns and the criminals wielding them off the streets---um, no, New Orleans Judges, not just for three days, for GOOD. And try to hire some cops who aren't just as bad as the criminals. How can we help?" I think the black leaders of this country need to tell it like it is. I think they should hand Nagin's head to him on a platter for pandering with lines like "black on black" and "unfortunate."

And what about us white folks? We have to stop being so complacent. We need to reach out to our neighbors, whoever they are, and band together as a community and say ENOUGH. I don't want my black neighbors assuming that I view them as a threat or that I wouldn't open my door to them if they needed help. I want them to know that I don't care if the victim of a crime is black or white. I want us to work together as a community and tell our elected officials that "unfortunate" is an understatement of monumental proportions. I want us to band together to make sure that my grandson and theirs don't have to deal with the effects of another twenty years of neglect and idiotic judicial systems and corrupt politicians.

Katrina exposed a lot of the problems of this city, and some of those problems should be like the canary in the coal mine for the rest of this country, but our city has other spectacular problems in addition to rampant crime. The problems have left us naked. Too many of us are already dead. We have to open our mouths and scream loud and long. We must keen on the corners of Mid-City and Uptown and the Marigny with the families of the murdered.

We cannot allow ourselves to be forced out of our love affair with, our defense of, New Orleans. We also can't forget that for decades the neglect happened on white leaders' watches.

Maybe we need to blast "I have a DREAM" on loudspeakers all over the city, and into City Hall, on Martin Luther King day. Or "I can SEE the promised land" but I'd have to change his words to I expect to get there with you. But I will not allow you to kill this city, Mr. Nagin, Mr. Riley, with your inaction.

Twenty years goes really fast, you know. What will shock you in twenty years, and could any of it have been avoided? Please don't take our exhaustion and human endurance in the face of catastrophe and have history view it as futile.


Schroeder said...

Groan. Me too.

I agree with you. The anguish of New Orleanians is quite literally palpable.

The black community has to get their sh*t together. A lot of them do, despite the odds stacked against them, and despite the pathetic quality of life offered them when they do the right thing. Nevertheless, putting a gun in your hand, aiming it at a mother in front of her daughter and husband, and pulling the trigger, is so fundamentally inhumane that it defies any explanation -- all of the social causes notwithstanding, violent crime of this type is not just sociological -- it's pathological, and deserves a pathological treatment.

slate said...

Schroeder, I couldn't agree more. As I said, I fear that many of these people are just lost to us. There's no way to rehab them, and I won't apologize for them or their actions. I only want us to look beyond our understandably reactionary current view so we can avoid this in the future.

While certainly some of these people were just born wired wrong, some were made into what they are now--pathological. I don't want us to continue this cycle. I want us to clean up the mess we made, lock them up, get the guns off the street, fire our "leaders" if they don't take action, and do everything we can to keep another generation from having to deal with this bloodshed.

Adrastos said...

Great post, Slate. Btw, I did not know that you were another former San Franciscan.

Sophmom said...

Wonderful post. That needed sayin'.

judyb said...

Excellent post. Thank you.

E.J. said...

Nice post. I admire your courage and honesty in addressing the racial aspects of this "crime wave," rather than skirting past it like most of the professional and citizen media have done.