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.