Last Sunday a Mother's Day Second Line was shot up here in New Orleans. The incident became national then international news. As a resident of New Orleans I was horrified and not only because I know one of the most critically injured, while another friend and her daughter missed being there simply by virtue of running late. It was a heinous, cowardly and brutally cold act pure and simple.
I watched comments sections, something I normally avoid like the plague. I looked at what my friends and others were saying in social media. One particularly astute friend said he figured in a few days the whole debate would become “gun control discussion” fodder. He wasn't wrong. Some of that has certainly come up from both sides of the argument and that's not unreasonable, but it still somehow misses an even bigger issue.
I watched news reports. I read news reports. I saw the surveillance footage and the suspect named. Something was off and I couldn't put my finger on it. Whatever it was kept me up nights trying to figure out what was bugging me. Was it the violence? Absolutely. Was it the senselessness of it? Yes. Was it concern over friends, second lines, culture and where the blame would land? Yes to all of that. But none of those things were the elusive thing, just out of reach, like something seen out of the corner of your eye that disappears when you turn your head to face it.
Some people argued that this was an act of terror, some changed that up to “urban terror” while the FBI explained their definition of terrorism and finally said no, this particular act didn't fit the definition. Still something bugged me and I stayed up another night.
Finally I figured it out. It was the news coverage but not in the way that some people had already pointed out. Some noticed right away that this mass shooting, while being called a mass shooting, wasn't covered in the same way others had been. Some felt it was due to the lack of fatalities, one thing for which we can be endlessly grateful. Others felt that it was because it was New Orleans, and many made good points on that score: folks across the land do seem to revel in bashing our city. For some it seems to be a sport. Still, that wasn't it.
The elusive thing finally sat in the doorway long enough for me to see it. It was ugly and I was surprised by it, although in hindsight I probably shouldn't have been.
When Cho Seung-Hui, 23, took his guns to Virginia Tech in April, 2007 his Facebook page was gawked at until it was removed. Photos of him in body armor with guns were all over the internet. In no time at all reporters had tracked down bits of information: Korean, came here when he was 8, family in Korea noticed behavioral problems when he was little, family owned a dry cleaners and were very nice people. He had trouble in school, trouble at Virginia Tech where he was enrolled in Business courses. Cho had a long history of mental health issues that were not handled, although he evidently took Prozac for a while. I could go on. There's tons of information.
Then 3 years later, Jared Lee Loughner, 24, took his guns to a political rally shooting Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, killing several including a 9 year old girl, injuring many more. He was captured and his shaved head smirky mug shot was all over the media. Reporters found out he had dropped out of high school, then attempted college, broke up with his girlfriend, had an extreme change in his personality over the course of a couple years, allegedly took a lot of drugs. His mom worked outside the home, his father was rarely seen. Neighbors said his father was strange. His friends said Loughner was sweet then suddenly changed into a truly bizarre guy. Psychiatrists decided he was probably schizophrenic and was in need of mental health help but his problems had gone undetected. Again, tons of information out there.
James Holmes, 25, shot up a theatre in Colorado in July, 2012. His smiling flaming red haired mug shot made him look even more bizarre than Loughner with his smirk. Within hours we learned he was a failed Ph.D student, had been to psychiatrists on campus and off, had been seen as a danger but no one knew if that had been reported to anyone. His lab partners and pretty much anyone he ever spoke to were interviewed. He came from a seemingly normal home. He was awkward. Reporters stuck microphones in everyone's face they could find that might know any little thing about the guy.
The same happened with Adam Lanza, 20, in December, 2012. Awkward, weird, no mug shot but the most recent photo they found made him look like he was an alien or thought he was seeing them. Mom liked guns and was a bit of a strange woman herself, although, the reporters were quick to find out from the local bar/eatery that she frequented that everyone there thought she was sweet and thoughtful, though worried about her son's mental health. He played a lot of video games and was rarely seen. Recent reports say that he was bullied at Sandy Hook when he was little. Upper middle class kid goes sproing, or had gone sproing a long while back, no one could be sure, and he went and shot up a school full of little kids.
All four incidents were covered wall to wall 24/7. Reporters were palpitating to get any morsel of info on these guys, no matter how irrelevant, stupid, or just flat out wrong the information sometimes proved to be. The reporters looked very concerned and empathic. Most reports on air or in print were asking WHY? in big letters. Profilers and FBI guys and psychiatrists all speculated on the cause, prefacing their comments with, “I can't diagnose someone without having actually examined him, but . . . .”
For Cho, most assessments became about his difficulties as a child of immigrant parents, and mis- or undiagnosed/untreated/unacknowledged mental illness. From his writings it was found that he felt poor in relation to the other students he went to school with, he felt left out of the American dream in some existential way. He felt alienated, marginalized.
For the other three, the profiles were rife with items about either parental neglect or over-indulgence, alienation, marginalization, and the standard triad of mis- or undiagnosed/untreated/unacknowledged mental health issues.
None of that happened with regard to Akein Scott. None of it. Not a neighbor, relative, friend, teacher, pastor or school administrator had a microphone shoved into their face with a breathless reporter asking about Akein's first 19 years. Once again we had a smiling mug shot, but a completely different reaction. No one was saying he was a crazy whacko who played too many video games and didn't like to be touched and was bullied in school and was failing in college and his parents tried hard and/or screwed up and my god why didn't someone notice a problem before he started pulling the trigger while aiming his gun at innocents. They couldn't. No one had asked those questions. Correct information, wrong information, an anecdote? Nope. Nothing. People didn't nod to each other over their beer and say, man, did you see how crazy that guy looked? Instead they saw a young black man in a white shirt and seemed to take for granted that his actions were a foregone conclusion.
I am not saying that bad reporting is a good thing, but at least a show of curiousity might be. Before you say that the others killed people and Mr. Scott did not, let me stop you. When we ask 'why' in these cases we want to know why someone would find it necessary, or think it was okay, or be hard and cold enough to shoot a firearm into a soft target like a classroom, a theatre or a celebratory second line, and for the record, it was pure luck that no one was killed Sunday on Frenchmen Street. Before you say that I'm an apologist for Akein Scott, please know that I decry his actions, HIS actions, and expect due process and evidence to put him somewhere away from society.
That does not change the fact that I find it curious that no one else seems to be curious about the why here. The comment sections are full of the word thug, a word, by the way, that I'm really sick of hearing. One commenter thinks we need to ramp up Stop and Frisk: on them, of course, they are the ones we need to stop. They. No matter if they happen to be business men or doctors. They. No one felt we should start ramping up Stop and Frisk on young white men 19-25 after the others went on the rampage, nor do I know of any aggressive Stop and Frisk program in the Korean community in this country. Another commenter says, “It's cool. They will just keep killing til they kill each other off.” Despicable. Again, no one said any such thing about young white men “shooting at their own.” No one.
A friend of mine wrote a stunning piece about the cycle of emotions he feels as a black man in this community. He talked about his anger: "As a black male in New Orleans, there's often a hint of shame because deep down I know the actions of the few reflect so negatively on the many. I feel like I should be going out and doing something to atone for what happened even though I haven't done anything. This makes the anger greater because now I'm madder these fools are making my life more complicated." You can read his entire piece here. Unfortunately there will still be some people who see this man in his driveway with friends talking about football and walk a little faster wondering if they have a gun in their waistband. They.
Ka'Nard Allen, one of the ten year olds wounded Sunday, was profiled by local news outlets. Ke'Nard's father was stabbed to death, allegedly by his stepmother, after a domestic dispute in October 2012. His tenth birthday, last May, became a shooting gallery with bullets flying past balloons killing his 5 year old cousin, Breanna Allen, and wounding him. A ten year old wounded by gunfire twice in one year. Sickening. No private patrols in that neighborhood paid for by the neighborhood association. It only happens where they live, or so people think, and those that think that never ask why. They.
Law enforcement caught and locked up Akein Scott. I heard they caught his brother, another of the alleged shooters, Shawn Scott, 24. Our Mayor and Chief of Police were on the news today. Here in this house we were both cautiously glad. Why “cautiously?” Because we looked at each other and said, almost at the same time, “I hope they got the right guys. I hope they don't screw up the trial.” We don't have much faith in our Police Department's record on such things unfortunately, not the DA's office either. There are too many stories of the wrong guy being locked up because someone had it in for him and the reward money along with street revenge was too great a temptation, or the right guy getting out and killing a few more before the courts get him. I hear they had multiple ID's of him and his brother so I'm hoping they get this one right.
Meanwhile I'm still curious. I'm asking the same questions I asked when Cho/Loughner/Holmes/Lanza pointed guns at people. What went wrong? Why didn't someone notice a problem? What makes a young man that alienated, that marginalized, that cold and heartless? I see a video, it's jerky. A young black man in a white shirt and blue jeans steps out from next to a stoop near a corner, raises his hand, points the gun at people dancing in the street, suddenly the people scatter, some falling hard on the ground. He turns and runs, not looking back. That's calculated, like the others. That's planned, like the others. Young men aged 19-25 with guns, just like the others with only one obvious difference.
I'm still not seeing the interviews with neighbors and teachers. I'm seeing no FBI profilers here. I won't see them in Chicago or Detroit, St. Louis or Camden, Compton or Baltimore either as bodies fall every day. The comments sections will fill up with rants full of the word thug, others will say a good guy with a gun coulda/shoulda/woulda, another will say no more guns. No one will ask what kind of child Akein was, what kind of student he was, what did his parents do or not do. No one cares why, in fact simply asking the question will no doubt draw the ire of folks who will accuse me of looking for an excuse for him. I'm not. What he allegedly did is inexcusable. I would like to understand though, and to do that I have to ask the question. Are we afraid of the answer, because the answer isn't unique to New Orleans, is it? I'm sure it's not just one thing, one simple easily fixed thing, either. Perhaps I'm naïve in thinking we should at least try to figure this out.
Then again, some of us don't really want to change it, or think it's not possible to fix the problem. Either way, we can go back to our reality shows and ignore the reality right outside our door or over around the way. It's their destiny. It's their culture. It only happens where they live. They.
Maybe we should make sure little Ke'Nard gets counseling and support beyond the end of the news cycle. Maybe we should be asking why more often.
NOLA New Orleans We Are Not OK New Orleans Slate