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”

Speech

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 HelenHill.org 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.

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. HelenHill.org is already in place with more to come. A march on City Hall is already being planned:

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

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”

Horrible Tragedy

This is the worst, most impossible news I’ve had occasion to pass on. I frankly am having trouble believing it’s real. Paul and Helen were Mid-City residents until their home was flooded. ROX viewers will know from episode #90, Fat — the cute vegan couple with the pet pig. I wish it was a bad dream. They just stopped by our house Sunday night. I’m too scared and angry and sad to even say more at this point, but plenty more must be said and done.

First, excerpts from nola.com, then words from Robert Thompson that begin to express what I’m feeling but can’t articulate.

In the sixth murder New Orleans murder in less than a day, a woman was killed and her husband shot in their home this morning at about 5:30 a.m., said New Orleans police, who found the bleeding husband kneeling at the door of the couple’s home, holding their two-year-old son in his arms.

The toddler was not hurt; the husband, 35, underwent surgery at Elmwood/Charity Trauma Center, police said, where his son was also taken for examination. The woman, 36, was pronounced dead at the scene.

The slayings, for which police offered no motive, capped off a wave of bloodshed severe even by New Orleans standards, and comes three days after Police Superintendent Warren Riley called a year-end news conference to put a positive spin on last year’s murder total of 161, which he called the lowest in 30 years. On a per capita basis, however, even the most optimistic projection of the post-flood city’s drastically shrunken population makes that murder rate an increase over previous years…

— At 5:30 a.m. Thursday, police were called to the Rampart Street killing. Neighbors of the couple later identified them as Helen Hill and Paul Gailiunas, a married couple who first came to the city more than a decade ago, and just moved back in August after a post-Katrina exile in South Carolina. The neighbors said Gailiunas was a doctor and Hill a freelance animator and filmmaker.

From: Robert Thompson
Date: January 4, 2007 1:33:48 PM CST
Subject: [FaubourgStJohn] Horrible Tragedy

News has just arrived of the murder and shooting of two of the most kind and generous people who this community has ever seen. I met HELEN HILL at our coffeehouse community space where she was teaching class for the New Orleans film collective. I’ve never met a more pleasant person. She now lies dead from being shot in her Marigny home. Dr. Paul Gailiunas was also shot while carrying their newborn child. The child is unharmed, but Paul is seriously injured, but likely to survive. Paul’s clinic saw many poor people, including some of my employees in an Esplanade clinic. He has received numerous Community Awards for his work with homeless and under privileged. His band, “The Troublemakers” entertained with a progressive political commentary, a testament to love and action against injustice.

These people didn’t deserve this! We don’t deserve this! When will this insanity stop? A lifetime of love snuffed for who knows what. I wish Paul and Helen had made the selfish decision and stayed in Canada or wherever…how could we waste their gift…and this is the fifth murder in the last 14 hours. I can’t believe this couple wants our bowed heads or silent prayers. What they would want is action. I can’t take this anymore. Does anyone else feel this level of outrage? Does anyone else feel we must get the guns off the streets, we must eliminate privileged and underclasses, we must stop drug exploitation, we must not tolerate racism, violence, hate…

I for one believe that unless we do something to make fundamental changes, we have pulled the trigger and fired the shots that have killed and destroyed these beautiful beings. I’m taking this one personally.

Robert Thompson

Happy International Flag-Burning Day

Now more than ever, it’s time to remember that the Fourth of July is International Flag-Burning Day. To celebrate, I’m posting this fantastic anthem (mp3) by New Orleans’ own Troublemakers. It is truly one of my favorite songs ever.

A lot of Americans get whipped up about the notion of anyone “desecrating” the American flag. But remember, this is International Flag-Burning Day, a time to burn all flags representing every nation. But the lyrics of the song speak for themselves.

I’m sad to say that the Troublemakers appear to be defunct post-Katrina. However, I have it on good authority that bandleader Dr. Paul Gailunas plans to return to the Crescent City in September with his wife, the talented filmmaker Helen Hill, and their son Francis Pop. That is also cause to celebrate.

Have a happy one, and don’t let the smoke get in your eyes!