Hard truths

Jul 11, 2013 by

Yesterday evening, I posted the following somewhere in the realm of the ether and pixels:

“What I’ve not been saying lately (that was also noticed by another friend, who mentioned such privately):

 

The similarities between Wendy Byrne’s murder (which I wrote about late Monday evening) & Ashley Qualls’ murder (early Tuesday morning) haven’t escaped my notice. In each case, a woman was shot after arguing with three male suspects (and I’ll not be surprised if the suspects in Qualls’ case, if identified, are also juveniles).

 

It’s the kind of déjà vu all over again that makes me think, “F*ck it — what’s the point? Has anything really changed between January 2009 and now?”

What I didn’t say: Is it time to think about moving on?

I did not anticipate the responses that I started receiving in fairly short order; apparently this line of thinking touched a shared nerve.

One friend commented, “Wow, you are right. Sadly similar…hate this.” Another added, “Another reason for our daughter [currently attending college elsewhere] to not come back to NOLA.”

Craig had more on his mind regarding this subject: “This is, in part, why we are leaving.” He elaborated: “If it was just crime, my attitude is it’s never gonna change. We bought into that and it’s just assumed and you go outside and try to be proactive and do what you can. What’s tossed me off the wagon is the unchanged or, in some cases, degradation of city government’s attitudes.”

I replied: “Violent crime was straight up a part of why I left New Orleans in the ’90s, but I don’t think I’m ready to blow town again this time around.

“The only thing that has changed on my block since Wendy’s murder is that we now have cameras on that intersection. It’s not like the regard for others’ lives has improved significantly since then, or as if our criminal justice system has turned a corner in a way that inspires consistent confidence.”

A former French Quarter resident added, “…there have constantly been armed robberies at the very corner… where Wendy was killed. Infuriating. Love the Lower Quarter but the desolation at night and total lack of police presence is what got me out of there and, in turn, made me not regret leaving even for a moment.”

Caroline expanded upon the similarities between the two murders separated by four and a half years’ time: “I had the same thought. Both smart, strong women who argued (as I refuse to begrudge them!) for their right to safely use our streets and lost their lives. Also both women who lived [or] worked in those neighborhoods and knew them well. Being attacked in a familiar place is horrifying.”

She continued, “In a town where we use parades and second lines to claim public ownership of the streets, the violence of criminals and NOPD are constant reminders of the instability [of] our beloved right to dance, costume, and walk safely in public. We pay a brutal price.”

Another friend commented, “It’s hard to wave the NOLA flag at times; two of my friends left town for good last week. I moved one to Nashville over the weekend and she felt guilty for being somewhere so ‘nice’ and needed my permission to enjoy the quality of life…”

For comparison purposes, I noted: “Seattle had 26 murders in 2012; its population for that year was estimated as being 616,500.

“New Orleans had 193 murders in 2012; our population for that year was estimated as being 369,250.

“(But the only time I’ve been the victim of an armed robbery happened there [in Seattle], not here… knock on wood.)”

Darneshia, a mother of two young children who moved away from New Orleans in March 2013, had plenty to say from direct experience about crime in New Orleans:

“I was burglarized twice there” and was also the victim of a “hit and run. (They never found the perpetrator or the car that was supposed to be so damaged that it couldn’t have gotten far.) My mom had a coworker that was shot point-blank on his own lawn because he got into an argument with a neighbor over accidentally cutting the grass slightly past his property line. I had a close classmate [who was] shot in the head by the guy by whom she was pregnant. Bastard got off. Exhausting.”

She added, “I just felt like people were content throwing money at a situation in hopes that it wouldn’t reach their front door. But it does, it always does. What does it look like when you have to file TWO claims against your insurance in one month? When, on the next street over, a 70 year-old man is murdered in his own driveway? How are you supposed to feel?” She continued, “I get the occasional ‘Don’t disparage MY city!’ bit, but how on Earth can you continue to ignore what’s going down here? And it’s really not abating.”

I think that she hit the nail on the head with this characterization: “I really am heartbroken that it didn’t work out between me and New Orleans. I feel sad sometimes. It feels like a divorce after you tried long and hard to make it work but it just wasn’t meant to be but you’ve decided to sometimes meet up on holidays.”

Craig, half of a couple that recently made the decision to put New Orleans in their rear view mirror, added: “Well, I figure one of the many great things about New Orleans is, even when you split up, you can still go back to each other from time to time and bang like the old days and sleep well and get up and have coffee and say, ‘That was great! We’ll do it again sometime! I’ll call ya.'”

In true New Orleans fashion, this demonstrates how we routinely cope with hard truths around here (ribald and off-color-to-distinctively-dark humor). It is both a celebrated art form and the Band-aid fix we apply to our collective psyche. But effective as it might be at dulling the sharp edges of troubling thoughts, it’s never quite enough to soothe the pervasive uneasiness.

At a time when New Orleans is being lauded as the “fastest growing city” in the country, it’s also true that we’re simultaneously losing some of the best among us — through victimization as well as a silent yet continuous exodus. I believe that those who are choosing to leave could be described as the collateral damage resulting from that which isn’t improving over time.

What more can the average law-abiding citizen do to foster improvement at this point? The cards which count the most are not in our hands, especially when those who appear to be career criminals continue to benefit from seemingly more favorable odds. How much longer must we wait for the turn of a friendly card that will genuinely improve our public safety?

I frankly don’t care about what happens to the World Trade Center site (beyond preventing the squandering of public dollars on the proposed “iconic structure” boondoggle). I do, however, care deeply about improving the odds of all New Orleanians to live with greater safety between now and the time when we will celebrate the tricentennial of our city’s existence — that would be the most meaningful accomplishment, improving the quality of life for our city’s residents and visitors alike.

When will it be announced (with fanfare rivaling that which is reserved for crowing about blockbuster movies filming in our city) that plans for improved public mental health services and greater access to drug treatment programs are in the works? The New Orleans Police Department continues to struggle with its lowest staffing level in four decades’ time — why is it not possible to bolster the funding necessary to attract and retain well-qualified police officer recruits to address this?

I’m not sure what comes next. What I do know is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to “go outside and try to be proactive and do what you can.”

(Meanwhile, as we were sharing our thoughts, a friend confirmed that the descriptions of the three suspects that were overheard arguing with Ashley Qualls just prior to her death are “incredibly sparse.” And I received two separate emails from the City of New Orleans announcing that a man was “gunned down” at approximately 7:00 PM at the intersection of North Dorgenois and Dumaine Street, and another man was found “shot to death” shortly after 9:00 PM in the St. Claude neighborhood.)

The prevalence of violent crime in our daily lives as citizens of New Orleans must be addressed in ways that are measurable and consistent. The status quo is unacceptable. Stasis is not an option. And no amount of “festivalizing” or scheming about prominent property redevelopment will make these hard truths any less intolerable.

(Photo by K. Wright. All rights reserved.)

(Photo by K. Wright. All rights reserved.)


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