Somber Reflections

It was five years ago today that I got the terrible news that Helen Hill had been murdered in her home. She will not be forgotten.

A few months ago I had the decidedly bittersweet pleasure of viewing Helen’s final film, The Florestine Collection, which was completed by her husband Paul Gailiunas. A true labor of love, the final product is a really fine piece of cinema. It was a trip to chat briefly with Paul at the screening, as I never thought I’d see him in this city again. I regret I wasn’t able to spend more time catching up with him, but parental responsibilities intervened.

I suppose this would be a fitting time to mention that ROX #96 is finally complete. (Read my production notes if you are not clear on the connection.) We’ve broken the episode into three parts for online viewing. Part 1 touches on Helen’s passing. Watch it now.

Meanwhile, what of the city and the persistence of violent crime? I can’t say it any better than this missive from SilenceIsViolence:

Today begins a month of somber reflection, and of focused rededication, for the community-led movement that has come to be known as SilenceIsViolence. Five years ago on this day, local musician Dinerral Shavers was murdered as he tried to protect his family — and a week of cruel, relentless killing took hold across our city. When another beloved local artist, filmmaker Helen Hill, was shot in her home one week after Dinerral’s death, the Times-Picayune declared that “Killings Bring the City to its Bloodied Knees.” For once, such a headline did not seem overly sensationalistic.

The city banded together after that week in early 2007, marching together by the thousands to City Hall, and demanding that city leadership do more to support victims, to fix a broken criminal justice system, and to partner with a population frankly desperate for a safer, more civil city. City leaders stood, and listened, and vowed to make the homicide crisis their #1 priority.

Five years later, where are we? Sadly, in a city that is, if anything, less safe than before. The homicide rate has climbed steadily over the past year, and for the first time since 2007 we risk losing 200 of our residents to murder this year. Beyond unacceptable, this situation in a city our size is actually insane.

From time to time, city leadership utters the same vows we heard in 2007: that safety is the #1 priority, that proactive services for vulnerable young people, and support for victims and their families, are a city-wide focus. But those vows are starting to sound pretty empty.

Certain families do receive support. They are the families of victims like Dinerral and Helen — victims who, for whatever reason, grip the public’s attention and the media’s concern. But in the five years SilenceIsViolence has spent working with victims outside that spotlight, we have seen hundreds more who never receive material, emotional, or basic logistical support in the aftermath of their loss. Most victim families have a hard time even reaching their own homicide detective or prosecutor by phone. Meanwhile, the first thing we now learn about victims of violence from the police and the media — and often the only thing these families will ever see in print about their loved one — is a prior arrest record. This without consideration of the severity or relevance of these records, or even of whether the arrests were ever tested in a court of law. And without the slightest compassion for the families that must read these postings, and whose sense of betrayal and further eroding trust in the system is eating away at any chance of constructive community/system collaboration.

Last week, many of you answered our call to support these forgotten victim families. You sent contributions that have purchased clothes and food for sisters and brothers of those lost; furniture for witnesses who must independently relocate; and childcare for parents who have lost a partner. Thank you for your unquestioning compassion for those in need. Tragically, this need only increases with each passing day, and we invite the support of every concerned citizen who is able to give something to a traumatized family. We are happy to connect you directly with those families, or you can make a tax-deductible contribution to SilenceIsViolence, and we will distribute 100% of the donation for you. Those who contribute $75 or more will be recognized as “Peace Agents” for 2012, and will be invited to participate in our annual second-line parade, to be held on April 1 of the coming year. You can donate or reach us for family contact information by visiting our website, www.silenceisviolence.org.

Over the coming month, as we approach the annual Strike Again Crime (January 23-28), SilenceIsViolence will seek to re-engage our city in remembrances and efforts on behalf of these who are victims of, or vulnerable to, violence. Each week, we will tell you individual stories about the families we serve, and the victims they mourn. These stories are compiled in a Victim Allies Project report to be released at the end of January, including data detailing our findings over the past year with respect to law enforcement, criminal justice, and other official civic interactions with these families.

Details about Strike Against Crime week activities will be forthcoming over the coming weeks, as well. Meanwhile, thank you once again for your support during a year that has been very difficult for all of those who desire a more respectful and safer New Orleans.

Please join me in supporting SilenceIsViolence.

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