Confessions of a Bewildered Cynic

I wanted to put down some thoughts on Monday’s Senate field hearing, something beyond the raw notes I posted, but I’m finding no clarity. On the most fundamental level, I’m simply unsure what I witnessed Monday morning.

I saw powerful politicians in nice suits. They said a lot of things that sounded very reasonable. But everything about the proceedings was in such a stark contrast to the ruined urban landscape that I live in every day. The juxtaposition is jarring.

213 N Salcedo

Something like a quarter million people are still displaced, and signs of progress are far too few. The situation is outrageous, yet outrage was not in evidence at the hearing.

Then there was the media. There were over a dozen television cameras in the chamber. Typing “Orleans” into Google News yesterday yielded a fistful of Obama headlines. Was this a case of politicians using the disaster to score points — or simply drawing further attention to the outstanding need? A bit of both, I suppose.

The whole thing seemed like a partisan show for the Democratic Party. I’m not saying it was — but that’s how it seemed. I understand Senator Vitter was invited, but he didn’t show up for whatever reason. There were no Republicans there. Headlines said Obama “blasted” the Bush administration, but frankly I thought the criticisms were extremely mild. Yet I don’t believe I heard a single word said against Blanco’s administration, which strikes me as a glaring omission.

(Whatever the tenor of the hearings, there’s no question about the radio show I sat in on Monday evening on a local Clear Channel station. Hardcore Republican partisans.)

To my surprise, Nagin made the single most substantive contribution to the day’s talk when he asked Congress to revise the Stafford Act. I have to give him props for that, despite some of the other stuff he said. I’m not enough of a policy wonk to understand all the ins and outs of the Stafford Act, but check out this write-up by Christopher Cooper of the Wall Street Journal: “In Katrina’s Wake, Where Is the Money?” (Thanks to Humid City for pointing this one out and to the Post-Gazette for providing no-registration access to the article.)

I have a deeply held cynicism regarding political types. The higher up they are, the more cynical I get. At the same time, I feel a desperate need to believe there are some good leaders out there who can help us. Much of what Obama and Landrieu and Lieberman said sounded reasonable and sincere. I want to believe. But I’m finding myself unable to rise to that challenge. The gulf between my hopes and my skepticism is so wide it’s painful.

It’s what wasn’t said that really gets me, on Monday or any other time our leaders speak. There’s no mention of anything like a Gulf Coast Civic Works Project. We experienced an unprecedented disaster. We need innovative solutions. Obama cited Chicago’s recovery from the big fire and San Francisco’s recovery from the big quake, but those were cities with strong economies before disaster struck. New Orleans was already quite weak when the levees failed. Our recovery is that much more challenging. I’m not hearing ideas from our political leaders that rise to the challenge.

I’m not much for political analysis of this sort. I’d much rather write about my cat’s newfound mousing skills.

Update: The Washington Post has an editorial on the hearing that says it well: “Everyone knows this is insanity. Nobody does anything about it.” (Thanks Mr. Melpomene.)

Field Hearing Notes

I made it in to the Louisiana Supreme Court for the Senate field hearing, “Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: Outstanding Need, Slow Progress.” Just getting in was an object lesson. First we (members of the publiuc) were shoved back out the door to wait in the cold, then we went through the obligatory metal detectors, then we were photographed and tagged. I’m now wearing a sticker with my name, picture and barcode. I’ve been told more than once that cell phones must be turned off but I see plenty of people using them so that’s how I’m posting this. I may be able to post updates here throughout the day or I may wait until it’s all over…

Update: The hearing started off with a bang. A young man stood up and unfurled a sign that said “PROBE THE WHITE HOUSE.” He urged Senator Lieberman to “probe the White House” and was yelling “stand up for justice!” as he was escorted from the chamber.

There were three senators at the hearing: Barack Obama, Joe Lieberman, and Mary Landrieu. All Democrats, you’ll note. Hmm. Coincidence? Or could Katrina be shaping up as a campaign issue for 2008 after all?

I’ll be the first to admit I’m out of my depth. Nevertheless here are my notes on the day’s hearing, rough and unfiltered…
Continue reading Field Hearing Notes

Don’t Believe the Hype

Front page of the paper this morning: Warren Riley’s mug and the headline, “Officials say city making headway against crime.” Apparently the superintendent and the mayor had a press conference on Friday to “reassure” us. I don’t feel reassured, and here’s why.

From the article:

At the news conference, evidence and numbers detailing any success resulting from the new initiatives were scant, except in the area of vehicle checkpoints.

Police are conducting traffic stops every night, Riley said. So far, the effort has produced more than 1,600 citations, 24 narcotics arrests and 35 arrests on outstanding warrants.

To date, 15 people have been murdered in the city this year. One of those homicides, the slaying of Jealina Brown, 22, has resulted in an arrest.

I’m not sure if that murder count includes the shooting of a Marrero man that took last night a few blocks from our home. But that’s not the number that got my attention. I noticed the 1,600 citations and the 35 arrests. I also noticed the numbers that aren’t there. There’s no breakdown on what those citations were for. There’s no breakdown on the nature of those arrests.

Anecdotally, I’m hearing about citations being issued at these checkpoints for minor violations like tinted windows, or even completely invented stuff. A friend of mine was issued a citation for an “open container” which he didn’t have. I suspect a good number of those 35 arrests are for things like outstanding traffic tickets. Pardon my skepticism, but I’ve learned that’s how we do things in Orleans Parish. Killers go free, but if you have an unpaid ticket you’ll go to prison.

Turning to the op-ed page, a letter to the editor from Steven Lindsley bears out the worst of my fears:

About a week after attending a rally at City Hall to protest violent crime in New Orleans, I was stopped by a patrol officer for having a suspended license. In spite of my explanation that this charge had been resolved by my attorney in November in Jefferson Parish, and that I was 64 years old and very tired from working 10 hours that day, I was ordered into a police car and taken to Central Lockup to be “fast-tracked” for a new court date.

I was searched and then put in a cage with over 50 other accused criminals. This holding pen had four wooden benches, a urinal and no place to sit for the 30-plus latecomers. Fifteen people had to lie on the concrete floor and the rest of us had to stand.

At 3 a.m., I was finally able to contact my wife to come bail me out, but it was not until 7:30 a.m. that I was released…

Is this an example of Police Chief Warren Riley’s program to crack down on crime in Orleans Parish?

If so, I will soon be putting my recently renovated home on the market and joining the long line of disaffected New Orleanians who have tired of the ineptitude, stupidity, rudeness, mismanagement and lack of effective leadership in the city.

Until I see numbers to the contrary, I continue to believe that checkpoints and traffic stops are an ineffective approach that only serves to alienate law-abiding citizens.

Field Hearing

I am planning to take the day off work and attend the field hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which is being held here in New Orleans on Monday. The title of the hearing is “Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: Outstanding Need, Slow Progress.” Details and discussion here. I will be wearing black. I will take notes. I encourage any locals who are able to do the same. Let’s pack the place.

Update: Slate’s got a flyer suitable for printing.

Jazz Funeral for Helen Hill

This just in from Kittee:

Hey, ya’ll! We’re gonna do Helen up right with a big old jazz funeral in New Orleans. Can you believe it?

The procession starts at Paul and Helen’s old place at 3438 Cleveland St. on Saturday, February 24. The procession forms at 12:30 p.m. and rolls at 1:00 p.m. sharp.

We’re planning on two brass bands, a vegan cupcake wagon parade, and, of course, Ernie K-Doe’s hearse. We’ll head up Angela Davis Parkway, then toward the river on Orleans Ave., then up N. Claiborne Ave. We’ll disband at the Mother-in-Law Lounge, 1500 N. Claiborne Ave., where we’ll unwrap the cupcakes for an official tea party as well as shang-a-lang-a to some really cool tunes. So come on out — we’ll remember Helen and help try to put ourselves and our crazy city back together again.

For more info about the jazz funeral, email dazee at dkoen_2000 [at] yahoo [dot] com. For more info about joining the vegan cupcake brigade, email kittee at kittee68 [at] yahoo [dot] com. Helen, we love and miss you, baby.

Paul’s Plea

I haven’t talked to Paul since he left New Orleans. I saw him only briefly in the lobby of the hotel by the airport, the night after Helen was killed. For the first time in my life I was literally at a loss for words. I just couldn’t think of a thing to say. So, really, I haven’t talked to Paul since New Year’s Eve, when he and Helen and Francis stopped by our house for a visit.

I need to write Paul a letter. I still hardly know what to say, but I will have to find the words.
Continue reading Paul’s Plea

N.O. Love Left

I remember a strange feeling as I lay down to sleep on the first few nights of this new year. I had a nice break over the holidays. My parents visited. We caught up with friends. I survived the worst hangover ever. And a strange feeling came over me. I’m not sure what that feeling was, but I think it was — happiness. I thought about how screwed up things were here, how slow the recovery was going, but in spite of that I felt a sense of personal contentment. Things were taking longer than we hoped, but at least they were headed in the right direction. I was involved in the community, helping to rebuild, with the love of my life by my side. Who could ask for anything more?

That feeling seems very far away now.

I wasn’t born here in New Orleans. I wasn’t raised anywhere near here. I’ve got no family here. I didn’t fall in love with the city and decide to move here. I came for a job.

Prior to moving here, New Orleans was something of a cultural blind spot for me. I had little in the way of preconceived notions. I simply had no idea what New Orleans was all about.

As soon as I arrived here, I felt at home. I wouldn’t say I “fell in love” with the city. That’s sappy. I’ve tried never to glamorize or gloss over the harsh realities of life in New Orleans. But I did feel at home here, like I belonged in some way, almost like I’d always been here. I felt a sense of wonder at what a strange and unique place this is.

I don’t feel that anymore. Now the only thing I’m wondering about is:

Why am I here?

I keep trying to remember the things I loved, or thought I loved, about this city.

Great Creole cuisine? But I’ve lost my appetite.

Carnival? But I don’t feel like celebrating.

Beautiful architecture? I just don’t care anymore.

The subtropical climate? Yes, I’m one of those crazy people who likes hot weather. But what with the hurricanes and all… no… can’t say I’m a fan.

The people. Wasn’t it the people of New Orleans I loved the most? Yes, there are great people here. But there are also killers.

Why am I here? Coming back after the flood was a leap of faith. I thought New Orleans had a fighting chance. I thought maybe it could even improve. I wanted to be a part of that.

Now the recovery seems not just slow but flat-out stalled. Did you see the article in the New York Times Sunday?

Some economists and demographers are beginning to wonder whether New Orleans will top out at about half its prestorm population of about 444,000, already in a steep decline from its peak of 627,525 in the 1960 Census. At the moment, the population is well below half, and future gains are likely to be small.

“It will be a trickle based on what we know now,” said Elliott Stonecipher, a consultant and demographer based in Shreveport, La. “Low tens of thousands, over three or four or five years, something in that range. I would say we could start losing people, especially if the crime problem doesn’t get high visibility.”

Jesus, that’s depressing. The whole article makes me feel foolish for ever thinking we could bounce back. We were a “basket case” before the disaster, and as a rule disasters don’t heal. They destroy. That’s why they’re disasters.

Why am I here?

An object at rest tends to stay at rest. I still have my job. We still own a house. Starting over is hard. Leaving would entail all kinds of hassles, not least of which is admitting I was wrong. So… there’s a certain inertia that keeps us here.

Inertia has guided much of my life, which might be one reason I felt at home in New Orleans. But inertia is not enough now.

We’re not packing up yet. Not by a long shot.

I am searching for good reasons to stay.

Shame on You, President Bush

Not a mention, not even a word.

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Bush talked about all manner of subjects, but he didn’t have a thing to say regarding the devastated Gulf Coast region or the slow pace of recovery in New Orleans.

I’m not really surprised. It’s kind of like getting kicked in the teeth in slow motion. You see the boot coming toward your face, you know it’s going to hurt, and there’s nothing you can do. You’re already lying on the barroom floor, beaten to a bloody pulp, so one more kick in the teeth doesn’t even really matter. It doesn’t even hurt anymore. It’s more disappointing than anything else.

Ever since the Federal Flood, New Orleanians have suffered a feeling of abandonment that would be almost paranoid if it weren’t so true. In the sixteen months since, we’ve seen a steady flow of volunteers coming to help, so we know there are plenty of Americans who haven’t forgotten. But last night’s speech made it clear that the President would very much like to forget about us. We are an embarrassment to his administration.

A quarter of a million people are still displaced by this disaster, and the President doesn’t say one word about it? Shame on you, President Bush. Your people are suffering. Words in a speech wouldn’t help put people back in their homes, but saying nothing is both demoralizing and immoral.

Confessions of a Football Skeptic

I was born around the time of the very first Superbowl, and my parents named me after a star player on the Green Bay Packers. Yet for 40 years our nation’s most popular sport has remained a mystery to me. I never understood the game of football. I never wanted to understand it. I was never very athletic or competitive, and the whole culture of sports never appealed to me.

At family gatherings, the inevitable football game merely provided a soundtrack of unintelligible voices. I remember taking comfort in the authoritative tone with which sportscasters discussed matters I couldn’t comprehend. There’s a metaphor there — but I digress.

Growing up in Indiana, I couldn’t avoid learning to appreciate basketball, which is like a religion there. I never played it, but at least I understood it.

Football was another story. Sure, I got the basic concept, each team trying to move the ball in opposite directions. But that was about my limit. My few attempts to comprehend the game left me confused. (See ROX #82.) The rules are complicated. But then again I wasn’t really trying. I didn’t really care.

Over the years I latched on to various critiques of our sporting culture. You know the lines. It’s too macho. It’s too violent. It places too much emphasis on competition. And of course the standard line:

It occupies the populations, and it keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter. (Elie quotes Chomsky.)

These critiques are not without merit. But the truth is I couldn’t follow a football game anymore than I could read a book written in Chinese.

With my 40th birthday approaching and all the excitement surrounding the Saints, I decided it was time to make a real effort. I wanted to understand what so many of my fellow citizens were so crazy about. I was tired of being oblivious.

So back in October I went to see a Tulane game with DJ.

DJ Eats

It was my first time in the Superdome since I was eight years old.

At my prompting, DJ explained the concept of “downs.” I figured I would need a series of lessons to truly understand the game. But as it turned out, I didn’t. That was all I really needed to know: downs. Once I had that, everything snapped into place. Suddenly the game made sense.

I’ve been watching the Saints ever since. I was happy to discover that, yes, there are elements of the game which I find compelling. There is a certain aesthetic elegance that emergences from the play on the field.

And I sure picked a hell of a season to get into the game. I won’t go on about what this season meant to New Orleanians, or how what last night’s loss to Chicago meant, as others have done that much better than I could.

Instead, I’d like to reflect for a moment on those critiques I mentioned above. They have some merit. I certainly wish we brought the same level of analysis to serious social problems as we do to sports. Can you imagine if there was a whole section of the newspaper devoted to issues of conscience?

But when intellectuals levy criticism against the people for their devotion to a game, I feel it misses the mark.

Consider, for instance, Andre M. Perry’s article in Louisiana Weekly, which states:

Say, “Saints” three times and you forget about the rest of the world.

Saints! Saints! Saints!

Your synapses are clogged with the rue [sic] from yesterday’s gumbo.

Say “Who Dat?” three times and without realizing it you’ve just invited Allstate executives to the playoff party.

Saints mania has certainly induced an acute amnesia to the flamboyant violence of recent weeks. It’s unlikely there will be any large scale protests this weekend. If the Saints go on to Miami, the majority of the city surely won’t concern itself with the former residents of the St. Bernard Housing Development.

You don’t have to read between the lines too carefully to detect the scorn in Dr. Perry’s words. (Or perhaps I am being oversensitive.) Yet I wonder, what’s the point? Football fans are both numerous and passionate in these parts. Framing the argument this way only serves to alienate them from the cause. Rather than insult people for their excitement, wouldn’t it be better to emphasize a commonality? St. Bernard residents are Saints fans too, y’know.

Love of the Saints transcends race and class and brings New Orleanians from all walks of life together. Conversations about the team and the game take place all over town. To the extent that’s true, I think people of conscience shouldn’t reject sports culture out of hand, but embrace it. Enthusiasm for football does not preclude a social conscience. Sports fans can still get involved with “things that really matter.” Conversations about sports can lead to conversations about other things.

None of which is to suggest that I’ve become a giant fan of professional sports. I’m still skeptical. I could list a dozen well-justified reservations. But I did enjoy this season a great deal, and it’s helped me to connect a little bit with my fellow New Orleanians. For that, I am grateful.

Postscript: “The mayor sucks. The governor sucks. The legislature sucks. The president sucks. The only thing that doesn’t suck is that team. They brought hope to this city.” — lifelong fan Stan Gelpi in an ESPN story

Like It or Not

Like it or not — and I don’t like it, not one bit — I seem to have become some kind of spokesperson on the subject of violent crime. I didn’t ask for this, I don’t relish it, and I’m not prepared for it. Indeed the very prospect makes my stomach churn. Violent crime is an ugly subject to consider. Yet I just fielded two calls from two different media outlets setting up interviews tomorrow. I need to get my head around this.

Some people might expect me to just keep reiterating the same speech that I gave at City Hall, but I don’t think that works. The point of that event was to express a general sense of outrage and despair to our political class, but media interviews offer a different opportunity.

What are the key points to emphasize? What can I say to keep the positive spirit of last week’s march on City Hall alive, while addressing any negative perceptions or anxieties?

I feel in my gut that the key is to be expansive as possible. We must transform our society in a positive fashion. But another part of me says it’s good to have a very specific, focused point to make. How to balance this contradiction? I don’t know.

Off the cuff, I’d be inclined to emphasize the following:

We do not need an expansion of police powers, but effective community policing. The level of distrust between the community and the police is incredibly high. Most people I’ve spoken to, regardless of race or class, have had extremely negative experiences with NOPD. The checkpoints instituted last week are not helping. A friend of mine was issued a bogus citation at a checkpoint because he got mad and yelled at the officer. That, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Better relations between community and police can only come when police are accountable to the community. Police are supposed to serve the community, after all. Put the community in charge. We need creative solutions — citizen oversight boards, perhaps.

Law enforcement is clearly a short-term measure. Some folks have said to me that there are simply no short-term measures that are acceptable. I was taken aback by this at first, but they do have a point: Our traditional system of arrest and incarceration simply reproduces the pathology of crime.

That’s why we need to think outside of traditional law enforcement measures and explore creative alternatives such as decriminalization of drugs. Pre-Katrina, 65% of New Orleans arrests were for drug offenses, while the national rate was 31%. Furthermore, two out of three convictions in our Criminal District Court were for simple drug possession. (I wonder if post-Katrina stats are available.)

But it’s a mistake to focus on law enforcement to the exclusion of everything else. We have to look beyond that in two directions.

On the one hand, the criminal justice system is broken. It’s worth noting that we have one of the highest incarceration rates in the whole world, but killers go free while we lock people up for non-violent misdemeanors. Something like two-thirds of prisoners are non-violent drug users who need treatment. They don’t get better in jail. Worse yet, the prison experience transforms petty criminals into hardened criminals. I don’t like the notion of locking people up, but I don’t like the notion of people killing with impunity either. I’m having a hard time with this contradiction.

On the other hand, we have to seek long-term solutions that address root causes of violence and crime: poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, lack of opportunity, lack of respect for human life, vast social inequities. In the wake of Katrina there was a lot of media hoopla about a dialog on race and class in America. It never happened, and it never will happen unless we make it happen. Furthermore, that dialog has to be truly inclusive across racial and class lines, or it’s worthless. If we want to talk about violent crime, we must acknowledge that violence afflicts certain communities disproportionately. We need to respect and listen to those who are suffering the most, and then we need to act upon that intelligence.

To stabilize our community we must re-establish basic public services. We should reopen Charity Hospital, reopen public housing, and provide quality education and job training for all. Each of these is a huge topic in its own right, multi-faceted and complex. But only through such long term measures will we ever achieve a more just and humane society.

A Man Prepares to Gut Home

Furthermore, it would be nice if I got a chance to clarify that I’m not a “leader” of a “movement.” The march on City Hall last week was a outpouring of mass outrage and sorrow. There was no coherent agenda, no set of demands agreed upon by all in advance. In fact, there was a diversity of ideas and agendas, with some in direct contradiction of others. Someone mentioned to me Monday that to stage such a protest without a coherent agenda was irresponsible. Well, perhaps so. Perhaps we have been made reckless by our grief. But then again, too many of us have been too complacent for too long. We need to find a balance and build a consensus as a community.

I don’t know. As you can see what I’m presenting here is raw and unformed. I could use some help. Your ideas are welcome. But please be gentle with me. I’m making 40 today. I’d rather be thinking about other things, but life doesn’t seem to be working out that way, and this is what I’m stuck with. Like it or not.

Update: I was on the radio this morning and Schroeder’s got the write-up.

Update: Will march help? in New Orleans CityBusiness.

Update: “Crime and Punishment: Rescue 504” appears is the January 27th cover story for Data News Weekly.

Blood & Ink

Monday’s Times-Picayune carried a story in the Metro section about a young man named Chivas Doyle. He just turned 24 last week. He was attending Delgado Community College. He was a practical joker. Everyone called him Tank because he was 7′ tall.

He was found dead in his FEMA trailer in the Upper Ninth Ward, shot in the back of the head.

The details of the story are heart-breaking, but also frustratingly few. For example, the article states that Tank was a “community activist” but doesn’t elaborate.

E.J. was ticked off about it yesterday. I held out some vague hope that there would be a bigger story about Tank in today’s paper. I was hoping against hope to see something on the front page. But no. Instead, the front page is dominated by this headline: “Disheartened by the disfigured city, many Katrina survivors are turning to plastic surgery as a pick-me-up.”

The coverage of this man’s story is simply inadequate. With all respect due the grieving family, New Orleanians deserve to know more about how he lived and what we’ve lost. Instead, we get face-lifts and tummy tucks.

One of the ideas put forward by the organizers of last week’s march on City Hall was to “Recognize the Tragedy of Each Victim.”

Each violent death is an individual and immeasurably tragic loss. We must treat each victim with the respect due to each valued member of our community, not as a number.

What we can do:

* Put pressure on the press to follow the stories of individual victims, name victims whenever possible, and treat each victim as a valued individual.

What our leaders can do:

* Victims of violent crime (except in cases where the victim wishes to remain unnamed) must be named publicly. We are calling for a public information board at City Hall that lists each murder victim in the city and tracks the progress on their case.

I’m contacting Bob Ussery, the reporter who wrote about Tank, to give him some encouragement that we need to have more coverage of this story. Read the article yourself. Bob’s contact info is at the end of the article, if you should be inclined to give him a call or drop him an e-mail. I realize editors call the shots at a newspaper, so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree. But it’s a start.

“Every Man a King”

Huey Long’s populist message for the people of Louisiana was “Every Man a King.” Wouldn’t it be something if we updated that to the idea that every man, woman and child in these parts should emulate Martin Luther King?

King was a great American philosopher, perhaps the greatest. It pains me to realize how little we’ve learned from his teaching. His birthday has become a day to celebrate black pride. I’m all for black pride, believe me, but I think this sends the message to whites that King has nothing to say to them. That’s wrong. Worse, to some, his birthday has become just another day off work. In pre-Katrina New Orleans there was usually a parade that resembles a rehearsal for Mardi Gras, with plenty of glad-handing politicians and messages of peace and justice relegated to the margins.

Last year thing were different. Real different.

Tomorrow, Xy & I are thinking to participate in this event:

MLK DAY 2007
People’s Reopening of Public Housing

On MLK Day 2007 public housing residents and other supporters of the right of return will conduct a people’s reopening of New Orleans public housing. Drawing upon the same spirit that galvanized Martin Luther King Jr. in his life’s quest for social justice public housing residents and their allies will challenge the immoral and criminal lockout of Katrina survivors from their homes in public housing. That 6,000 desperately needed units of affordable housing sit empty while New Orleanians endure the most severe housing shortage in the city’s history is an obscenity. That Katrina survivors die almost every day from heartbreak, at least in part, because the government and its corporate paymasters refuse to respect their right of return, is a reality.

Let’s put an end to this ugly reality. Join us on January 15th 2007. We shall rally. We shall march. We shall reopen!

January 15, 2007 (MLK DAY)
10am till
3838 St. Bernard Avenue
New Orleans

For information contact:
Sharon Jasper (504) 324-3657
Lynette Bickham (504)-723-4893
Stephanie Mingo (504) 529-3171

Sponsors: New Orleans Public Housing Residents, United Front For Affordable Housing and C3/Hands Off Iberville.


The cause is just. We produced a silly little video about this issue six months ago, but the subject is a serious one. I know lots of neighbors are afraid of the public housing developments, afraid that re-opening them will recreate pockets of concentrated poverty and crime. I’ve got reservations myself, as public housing developments resemble concentration camps to me. But the answer to that is to revise the social contract with public housing residents, not to demolish thousands of habitable apartments at a time when the city’s suffering a massive shortage of housing. More to the point, not reopening these units seems to be further destabilizing our city.

My skepticism regards the organizers. On two separate occasions over the last year, groups I’m working with have been criticized by some of these folks for not joining their struggle. No attempt to build alliances or coalitions, no attempt to reach out, just harsh words and strident rhetoric. They’ll probably denounce me as a bourgeois accommodationist if they ever read this. Still, I’d like to think we can work together.

I’m also not ready for another day of rage. My heart is still heavy and I’m in a kind of emotionally fragile state.

But the above event seems to be the only thing planned in Orleans Parish. So we’ll probably go, but I’d be interested to know of anything else.

Update: We went, and it was an inspiring event indeed. Residents opened the fence and reclaimed their apartments. No one was arrested. I helped carry out a refrigerator. There’s so much that should be said about this event but time as ever is slipping away, so I refer you to photos by dsb nola and narrative by Dangerblond and The Book, in two parts, plus video.

Bring the Rage

It is truly humbling to serve as a vessel for community outrage.

The speech I gave Thursday — that wasn’t me. That was y’all. I was just channeling.

I had a double duty that weighed heavily on me. I spoke on behalf of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, and also as a friend of Helen Hill‘s. I felt bound to honor Helen’s memory, but also to represent my neighbors in Mid-City and my friends across the city.

Therefore, a paradox. Helen was not wrathful person. She was sweet and gentle. But you don’t march on City Hall to be sweet and gentle.

The organizers of the march had a list of very reasonable ideas to present, ideas which I support, but which seemed almost too reasonable.

Who would bring the rage?

In my mind, there’s only one reason to march on City Hall, and that’s to scare the bejeezus out the political class. It’s a public shaming ritual.

I didn’t know who all was speaking or what they would say until it actually happened. I certainly didn’t know that Nagin, Riley and the entire City Council would be standing at arm’s length from the podium. That didn’t make it any easier for mild-mannered me, but I didn’t really care either.

Still, I had deep misgivings about my prepared speech. Would it be too angry? Would it come off as a crazy rant? Would it strike a discordant note with the other speakers?

There’s no joy in any of this, but there is a certain grim satisfaction in knowing that it all came together right. I found myself a key instrument in a symphony of voices. It was a symphony of pain, alas. But there was harmony.

Helen G.

Saundra Reed


Glen Davis Andrews

Nakita Shavers

Karen Gadbois

Great photos by dsb nola

That’s truly humbling.

I noticed that, across the board, black speakers addressed personal responsibility and white speakers addressed government responsibility. Make of it what you will, I found it interesting.

The words of my speech came not from me but from the community, from my neighbors and in particular from the local blogosphere. It was a product of community intelligence. Therefore it’s no surprise that local bloggers have been giving me good reviews. As I said, there’s no joy in this, but since I was so uncertain, there is comfort in the affirmation. Thank you all for the support. It means a lot.

But what really surprised me was when Juanita, the cleaning lady at work, stopped me in the lobby Friday morning. She saw me on the news and told me what I said was “all good.” Ditto for a group of laborers working to restore a house across Bienville.


If I had to do it again, or if I had been able to speak at greater length, I would have talked more about the failures of the D.A.’s office and about the need to address the root causes of crime. I would have emphasized that we don’t want an expansion of police powers or abuse of civil liberties. But it doesn’t really matter. No one will remember the body of this speech as time marches on. What they’ll remember is the soundbite that went around the world: “Shame on you.” (Picked up by all the TV channels but very few print articles.) What they’ll remember, hopefully, is that thousands marched on City Hall in the middle of a workday.

We said this march was not an end but a beginning. It’s up to each of us to make that true, individually and together. There’s a time to rage and a time to engage. And we’re going to have to get evangelical about it, because those who are engaged are engaged to the hilt.

Today new details on Helen’s killing make the front page of the Times-Picayune, renewing my sense of horror and sorrow. New details are also emerging on Cheryl Nitzky, details like her name, which wasn’t known when they found her body. She was 23, from Florida, and she was beaten to death and hidden under a rug in the Lower Nine just before the new year. That story’s buried on B-8. I really don’t know what to say about this.

And tonight, the Saints play the Eagles. It is surpassing strange indeed when I’m quoted in a sports article. From today’s Washington Post:

“People are feeling helpless and there is a feeling of despair and anger,” said Bart Everson, a multimedia artist and friend of Helen Hill, a filmmaker whose murder last week shocked the city and helped spark Thursday’s march. “It’s anger that drives people to march to City Hall and say ‘I’m tired of it.’ ”

One of the great fears people seem to have is that the rest of the country thinks New Orleans has recovered from the storm. This is fed partly by the Saints’ season and by the fact that the pictures everybody sees show that glass has been put back in the windows of the downtown buildings, a cosmetic repair. They worry there also is a national assumption that 15 months after Katrina left, the city should be back to normal. After all, how much time does it take?

He also quotes Michael Homan. It’s a good article. It actually brought tears to my eyes. And it’s on the sports page.

I can’t link to Les Carpenter’s story without also linking to Ashley’s meditation on real leadership, which sums up better than I could what we’ll be feeling while watching the game tonight. Like Alan said, “the only organization serving our mental health is the NFL.” Lord knows we need it.


I’m speaking at today’s march for five minutes, a task for which I feel utterly inadequate. I’ve been trying to collect my thoughts. Here’s what I’m planning to say:

Helen Hill was a close personal friend of mine, and her murder affected me deeply. Helen’s funeral took place yesterday in South Carolina, and today we’re marching in New Orleans. But make no mistake: We’re not marching just for Helen Hill. We’re marching for Dick Shavers. We’re marching for Jealina Brown. We’re marching for Steve Blair and Corey Hayes and Eddy Saint Fleur and Monier Gindy. We’re marching for Don Morgan and Larry Glover and Mike Frey. We’re marching for Preston Turner, a 15-year-old child who was gunned down in broad daylight on the street corner near my house in Mid-City, back in 2004. And does anybody remember that day in June of 2004 where nine people were killed by guns in just over 24 hours?

This is not a new problem. It’s not a Katrina problem. Katrina just provided a momentary interruption. This wave of violent crime has been on the rise for years and it had left us feeling sad and scared and very, very angry. I’m still sad, but they tell me you learn to cope with that. I’m still scared but anyone who’s lived in New Orleans for a while knows you learn to cope with that too. But the anger sticks around. And that’s why we’re here. Fear keeps you in your house, but anger drives you out into the streets.

But there’s another feeling that doesn’t get talked about as much and that’s shame. I think we all feel a sense of shame — or we should — because this murderous violent society is our society.

Fueling our anger is the perception that our leaders do not share our fear and our sense of shame. And so today I want to say shame on you, Mayor Nagin, Superintendent Riley, District Attorney Jordan. You’ve really let us down. You have failed us. The criminal justice system and the government is broken. And I want to communicate to you the level of outrage that my friends and neighbors are feeling, because we don’t think you get it. Families that have lived in New Orleans for over 300 years are talking about leaving. People displaced by the flood are saying they are afraid to come back. That is the level of hopelessness and despair. They’d like you to step up and just do your jobs — but they don’t think you can. They’d like you to step down and resign — but they’re afraid you’d be replaced with equally incompetent people. Many of my neighbors believe that we need to see the federal government step in and literally take over New Orleans, or at least the criminal justice system. The feeling seems to be that even FEMA couldn’t screw up any worse than we have. At first I thought that was a joke. But it seems more possible every day, and there’s nothing funny about that.

Leaders, you need to do something that many of us think you can’t do. You need to be honest. You need to admit that what you’re doing isn’t working, and plan a return to true community policing. I’ve got an article here from six years ago that praises New Orleans as a model for how to reduce violent crime. Between 1994 and 1999 the murder rate here went down 65%. The credit goes to something called community policing, decentralizing personnel into neighborhoods, with increased responsibilities and accountability for district commanders. Of course to do community policing we will need more police, and that means better pay, so that a cop can get assigned to just one or two zones and really get to know that neighborhood, and neighbors can know them. Let’s get back to that.

But we also need to think of creative solutions outside traditional law enforcement strategies. We desperately need to experiment with some kind of decriminalization, to eliminate the black market for drugs. Some will say that’s too radical, but we say there’s nothing too radical when the stakes are this high.

Of course we want action, not rhetoric. Above all we want results. We must have a higher felony conviction rate. The national average is 57%. Our current rate is 7%. We must see a reduction in crime, and especially violent crime, and that is the bottom line. But how will we know whether or not this is being achieved? That is why we must have full, independently audited, disclosure of crime statistics.

We know that law enforcement alone can’t solve these problems. We need long-term solutions too. We must have better schools. We must have an economy beyond tourism. We must pay workers a living wage. We must fight racism and classism. It will take all of us. It will take community involvement. Well, look around. The community IS involved. And we will stay involved. To our political class: You’re on notice. We will be watching.

Edit: Just after I posted this, my old boss and friend Todd S. called me and advised that the final sentences (about coming back to City Hall with pitchforks and torches to “burn the castle down”) hit a discordant note. He was right. I deleted that portion immediately. Thanks, Todd.

Update: I will apparently be bringing this message to Anderson Cooper 360 tonite. CNN, show at 9PM, I’m on at 9:20 or so. That’s Central time. I’ll try to rise to the occasion.

Update: Geoffrey posted audio of all the speakers at the rally. Scout Prime posted the video of Editor B on AC 360.

Funeral, March

Today they’re burying Helen in Columbia, South Carolina.

Tomorrow we march on City Hall in New Orleans.

I’m not attending the funeral. I’m not sure why. I felt like I should go, but I didn’t.

I will be at the march tomorrow. But we’re not marching just for Helen Hill.

We’re marching for Dinerral Shavers.

We’re marching for Jealina Brown.

We’re marching for Steve Blair.

We’re marching for Corey Hayes.

We’re marching for Eddy Saint Fleur.

We’re marching for Monier Gindy.

We’re marching for Don Morgan.

We’re marching for Larry Glover.

We’re marching for Mike Frey who was murdered on March 18th of last year and the 170 people who’ve been murdered since then.

We’re marching for Preston Turner who was murdered around the corner from our house back in May of 2004.

All these deaths were tragic, but Helen was my friend.

Tomorrow we march, but today we weep.

Take a moment to go over to and pay your respects. You might notice that there have been gatherings to honor her memory in seven cities across North America. I think that says something about what an extraordinary woman Helen was. How many of us would be remembered thus?

Update: Listen to a song for Helen.

I’m So Sorry, Francis

What do you say to a child who’s lost his mother to a brutal and senseless act of violence?

Somehow “I’m sorry” sounds so inadequate.

Francis Pop

I’m sorry, Francis, that you will grow up knowing your mother only as a memory. You’ll grow up hearing what a “saint” she was, what an “angel” she was. So many people loved her so much, I bet you’ll even get a little sick of hearing about it. Growing up is difficult enough, but it will be extra hard for you now. It’s such a shame.

You came and played in our house last Sunday. I didn’t even give you a hug. Now you’re hundreds of miles away. I can’t imagine you’ll ever be visiting our house again, though of course you’re welcome anytime. I’m sorry I didn’t spend more time with you when you were here.

I can’t help but feel responsible for your mother’s death. No, I didn’t pull the trigger. That was the act of some deranged individual. But that individual was a product of a society, my society. It was for love of this society that your parents came back against the odds. It was our violent society that killed your mother. I’m so sorry for that betrayal.

You’re just a child, Francis, just two years old. You’re an innocent. You can’t be held responsible for the state of affairs here. But I’m a little older. I will be 40 in just a few days. It’s hard and harder for me to blame previous generations for the troubles we face. At some point, I have to accept some degree of responsibility for what our society is. How can I take pride in the good without feeling shame for the bad?

Shame is not a popular emotion these days. I don’t know that it ever has been. But I do know this: Any adult who doesn’t feel shame for the violence that continues to propagate through our society needs a head examination. Shame leads to responsibility. Shame is the first step. The next step is getting involved in the community to address the root causes of violence. That’s the only response that means anything.

Francis, your parents understood this. I believe they had the clearest sense of this responsibility of anyone I’ve met. They understood this responsibility was not a burden but a joy. That joy is sadly diminished now. I can only hope against hope that it is not extinguished.

Xy and I spent a few hours Saturday boxing up your toys. What a sad task. As the day went on I found I was having trouble breathing at times. I lost my appetite and couldn’t seem to eat much even as I got weaker from hunger. As the evening wore on I began to feel feverish and got the chills. I was literally sick with grief. And yet this grief is but a fraction of what your father and family are feeling. Sadness comes into every life, but I hope very little of such gut-wrenching grief comes into yours. This is surely enough.

I’ve been listening to “Never Be Alone,” (mp3) another sweet song by the Troublemakers, and imagining it as a message from father to son. It probably wasn’t written with that intent, but it certainly seems to work. I hope some day you find these lyrics as comforting as I do now. More than that, I still hope for the development of the “beloved community,” so that all of us will “never be alone.”

Francis & Brad

You’re too young to know what’s going on now, Francis. One day your mother was here. Now she’s gone. As you grow, I hope you’ll be able to understand what happened here, to comprehend the tragic dimensions of this horrible thing, even though that will be painful.

And I hope you’ll be able to forgive us. We’ve truly made a mess of things.

A Wounded Hero Departs

Dr. Paul Gailiunas has been my hero ever since I met him — what, five years ago? It seems like I’ve known him forever.

He’s the only punk rock anarchist vegan doctor I’ve ever known.

But he is a hero for how he’s lived his life, dedicating himself to helping the poor, the hungry, the uninsured. He has demonstrated an exemplary love for humanity. And the cornerstone of that love was his relationship with his wife, Helen Hill, and their two-year old son, Francis Pop.

When I heard Helen had been killed Thursday, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t accept it. Couldn’t process it. Even after digesting the basic facts, it still seemed like an unreal scenario, a nightmare from which I hoped to awaken.

It wasn’t until seeing Paul in the flesh yesterday evening that it became so painfully real. He was shot three times, point blank, so I was amazed that he was out of the hospital at all, much less walking around. He was bandaged up, but really doing remarkably well — physically.

As for his psychic state, I can’t even begin to fathom the pain he must be experiencing. I feel absolutely shattered by Helen’s death. How many more times could this despair and anguish be multiplied in one human soul before some sort of limit is reached? It’s terrible even to contemplate.

Here’s a picture of Paul in far, far happier times:

Dr. Paul in the Hall

I love this picture because it captures a bit of his exuberant personality. Like Helen, Paul seemed to be always happy. And now — will we ever share a laugh together again? It doesn’t seem possible.

It’s so difficult to imagine Paul without Helen. Their relationship was one of the greatest true love stories I’ve ever had the privilege to encounter.

When I first got the news of the shooting, I was so distraught that I’d mistakenly thought they had both been killed. When I realized Paul had survived, for one brief second I actually thought, that’s worse. A horrible thought, I suppose. I wasn’t thinking of Francis at the moment. But that’s how difficult it is for me to imagine Paul without Helen.

Paul’s gifts as a songwriter and musician were a wonderful complement to Helen’s talents in the visual arts. In Halifax he led a band called Piggy. In New Orleans he led a band called the Troublemakers. He also had a solo act: Ukulele Against the Machine.

Ukelele Against the Machine

I passed along a couple MP3s to a Times-Picayune reporter and they were posted on I’d like to share them here as well.

Health Care Is a Human Right” is an anthem that really lays out Paul’s philosophy as a doctor and a humanist, and it’s a great example of the peppy, political, ska-inflected rock music the Troublemakers played.

The Maharishi Effect” is a gentle love ballad which I am certain Paul wrote for Helen. I used to think this verged on sappiness, but now it just seems like pure sweetness, and I can’t get it out of my head. Listen to the lyrics:

Many of us here find it hard to trust
We know that life tends to play many cruel tricks on us
But all I can think about is love, sweet love
Every mosquito in the air is a turtle dove
Wedding cakes are all that I keep thinking of

Yes, life certainly does play some cruel tricks. But this is beyond cruel.

Paul is leaving New Orleans today with his son. I wish we could provide some comfort and support, but his family will have to do that for now.

There’s so much more I want say but I can’t find strength or the time.

Helen Hill Will Not Be Forgotten

Yesterday morning a friend of mine was murdered. Those are some words I never wanted to type, never thought I would type, words I still can’t really believe.

If you ever met Helen, she was a friend of yours too. I believe she befriended everyone she met. If you never met her, well, now you never will, and that makes me so sad I can barely stand it.

She was, quite simply, the nicest person I’ve ever met. I’m not exaggerating. She was so nice you thought it wasn’t real, that maybe she was putting on an act. But she was for real.

Besides being a kind, sweet, gentle and happy person, Helen was also a creative genius, a talented artist, a maker of animated films. That’s how I first met her. We both had work in a show in Shreveport, curated by Courtney Egan, and we shared a ride on the way back to New Orleans. That was six years ago.

Since then I’d always hoped to collaborate with Helen more, and now I will never have the chance. The closest I got was a segment for ROX #90, wherein we had a good vegan lunch with Paul & Helen and their pet pig Rosie. You can watch it if you like. That was three years ago. It was shot at their home on Cleveland & Clark in Mid-City.

Here’s a photograph of Helen & Xy. It’s not particularly glamorous, but it’s the only one I have.

Helen & Xy

This was taken a year ago, just before Mardi Gras, when they stopped by our house for a visit. Helen and Paul were still trying to get back to New Orleans then. There house was rendered uninhabitable by the flood. I believe Paul was a little skeptical. He wondered if coming back was the right thing. But Helen really wanted to return.

She loved this city.

It galls me that I have to use the past tense.

How could this happen? We live in a violent city. We often say, “It could happen to anyone,” but we also figure most of the murder victims and perpetrators are part of that big game of drug trade and blood feuds. Helen was not a part of that game. She was shot in her own home. Police aren’t speculating as to motive, but it was likely an attempted robbery. Knowing Paul and Helen as I do, it’s safe to assume they were not armed and would offer little resistance or threat to an invading robber. I can’t imagine they were targeted as individuals. I can only conclude that this was a case of collateral damage, a panicked kid with a gun and no respect for human life. In other words, completely senseless.

It’s tempting to think of this as a post-Katrina phenomenon, but that would be a mistake. We should not forget that in June of 2004, eight people were murdered in just over 24 hours. We cannot blame everything on Katrina. It is a societal problem.

It’s still shocking, appalling. A talented artist and a doctor gunned down in their own home with their child right there.

When I say “doctor” you might think they were rich, and thus a target for robbery. But Paul is like no doctor I’ve ever met. He has dedicated his professional life to helping with the poor. Trust me when I say they did not live an ostentatious life. They had nothing to steal.

How to respond? Should we give up on New Orleans and flee the city? Should we arm ourselves to the teeth? I’ve contemplated both options. But I believe that Helen would have wanted us to keep fighting for justice and a better city. If you are reading this in New Orleans, and you’re not actively involved in working for the future of this city, I challenge you to get involved, now. We are, quite literally, fighting for our lives.

Helen Hill had friends all over this city and the world. Creative people, politically engaged. Check Nola Nik for some pix and links. is already in place with more to come. A march on City Hall is already being planned:


It is time for our elected officials to face up to the violence that is strangling our neighborhoods.

Come march with us to City Hall to demand action Thursday, January 11

Marigny-Bywater residents and ALL concerned New Orleanians, please come to a planning meeting this Sunday, January 7 at 1pm at Sound Cafe (2700 Chartres St.)

More info: 504-948-0917

But I believe this is only the beginning. We will never forget you, Helen. We couldn’t forget you even if we wanted to. But we want to remember. Your life was too inspirational to be forgotten, your death too unfair.

We need to go place some flowers on their doorstep. I’ll close this entry with the article that appeared on the front page of today’s paper.
Continue reading Helen Hill Will Not Be Forgotten