In a few days, I’ll be making a presentation to a special interest group of the AERA titled “The Role of Blogs in the Rebuilding of New Orleans.” My plan is to relate certain prominent stories that have emerged in, around, through or about the local blogosphere since the flooding of the city in 2005. I thought I would share my notes here as I complete them. So this is the fourth of the five stories. I welcome any feedback.
My first three installments in this series might have given the impression that I was doing personality profiles. That’s not my intention. I mean to look at the top stories emerging from the post-Katrina NOLA blogosphere, not personalities per se (though in Ashley’s case, the personality is the story). Hopefully this installment will make that clear.
On third-to-last day of 2006, Dinerral Shavers was murdered in a senseless act of street violence. On the fourth day of 2007, Helen Hill was murdered in a bizarre home invasion. Dinerral and Helen weren’t the only people killed during that week. I believe there were at least ten others. But Dinneral and Helen were prominent exponents of New Orleans culture. Dinerral was a musician, a drummer in the Hot 8 Brass Band, a music teacher at Rabouin High School, the founder of that school’s first marching band. Helen was an artist, an award-winning filmmaker, and a friend of mine. Both were well known and much-loved in the local community. Also, it should be noted that Dinerral was black and Helen was white. Dinerral was a native New Orleanian, a product of the public schools, while Helen was an out-of-towner and a Harvard graduate — a fact I never knew until I read her obituary, but all of this factors in to what came next.
The loss of either of these individuals would have raised a public outcry. Their back-to-back murders sparked an inferno of discontent. Violence in the city had virtually disappeared after the flood waters receded, but as people returned, so did the bloodshed. The body count began to rise, and so did public concern. Five young men were murdered in a single incident in the summer of 2006. But it was Dinneral and Helen’s murders that galvanized the city as a whole. Their sociability and their divergent backgrounds meant a huge segment of the local population was in mourning. Within days a public march and rally was organized. Thousands of people from disparate neighborhoods converged on City Hall as the world watched. This may have been the largest public demonstration in the history of New Orleans, or so I’ve speculated. I do know that I’ve attended many protests over the last decade in New Orleans and this was far and away the biggest one I’ve ever seen.
So what does this have to do with blogs? The March for Survival, as it was called, would have happened without blogs, but blogs did play a role. Bloggers were writing about the issue of violent crime before, during and after the march. I wrote about Dinerral’s murder and of course Helen’s. Through connections made in the blogosphere, Karen Gadbois and I were among the dozen speakers at the rally. I posted the text of my speech on my blog minutes before joining our march from Mid-City. My boss read it and sent me a brief critique; I got his message on my Blackberry as we marched down Canal Street with Anderson Cooper and incorporated his revision at the very last minute.
My speech at the rally was a defining moment in my life. Four years later, I have to say there are one or two more revisions I wish I’d made, but for the most part I stand by my words. The repercussions continue to unfold. As a result of that speech, I got to attend a week-long leadership seminar at Harvard — and these days I’m the president of a grassroots organization which aims to build a transformative project in the heart of New Orleans. It is impossible to show direct cause and effect but I believe all these things are linked.
But this isn’t about me, or any one person. What makes this story salient is that it was a come-together moment for the city. A necessary moment. It was the time when we looked at each other, we who had lost so much, and said we can’t allow this. We can’t allow New Orleans to continue with this astronomical murder rate. As Rev. Raphael said, in a speech so much more eloquent than mine, we came together “to declare that a city that could not be drowned in the waters of a storm, will not be drowned in the blood of its citizens.”
Of course, no matter how well-attended and well-intentioned, a march and rally don’t bring an end to violence. It would be naïve to expect that. We are still struggling with the highest murder rate in the land. Nevertheless, the march was something that had to be done, and it was an important statement of civic priority. On that day, with the world watching, we showed that the City That Care Forgot is not the city that forgot to care. The hard work of actually improving the situation on the ground continues to be pursued by organizations like Silence Is Violence and others. And bloggers continue to write about this issue.
Once again, HBO’s Treme provides further validation of this story’s status. The March for Survival will be portrayed in the second season.