In New Orleans, Too Many of Us Know Victims of Gun Violence (Video)
On Mother's Day morning, I found the Sunday edition of the New Orleans Times Picayune on my lawn. The picture here shows that day's front page. The headline of the feature story on the left reads, "Mothers talk about losing a child to violence." For many readers this is already yesterday's news, overshadowed later that Mother's Day by another mass shooting injuring 20 people, but as a resident of New Orleans, I can't simply shelve it away and move on.
The woman in the upper right corner of the graphic holding a picture of her daughter is Margaret Washington. Margaret is one of my church members. Earlier at church, before I had opened the paper and seen the front page, I had hugged her tightly. She is one of the few non-relatives I come in contact with who knew my mother. My mother passed away in 2008 and was almost old enough to have been Margaret's mother. They weren't close, but they knew each other as Dillard University alumni and as members of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
|Front page of the New Orleans |
Times Picayune, Mother's Day 2013,
featuring mothers who've lost children
to gun violence.
I knew Mother's Day had to be difficult for Margaret. On October 1, 2012 her daughter Marguerite, a student at Dillard, was shot to death while visiting her boyfriend in New Orleans East. I still remember getting the phone call from my aunt. Someone out to murder the boyfriend, Justin Alexander, shot through his window, wounding him and killing Marguerite.
Later on Mother's Day, I went with my daughter when she drove my son to his job in the French Quarter. Around 3:15 p.m., on the way home, we drove down St. Bernard Avenue in the southern part of the Seventh Ward at the edge of the historic Treme neighborhood. We live in the northern section of the ward closer to Lake Pontchartrain.
I had forgotten about the parade, so my daughter and I ended up driving through part of its route. The parade hadn't started yet. The crowd waited. Groups of friends laughed and talked. Some already had their beers out. Folks grilled food on corners. Extended families with children and elderly among them joked around. Some trucks on the side of the road had "Happy Mother's Day" signs, and women strutted about in heels, some of them still in their Sunday best. Behind it all shotgun houses—some with peeling paint, some refurbished—and hole-in-the-wall eateries and bars served as a backdrop for a sunny afternoon with typical New Orleans festivity.
It was not the first time I'd been in a car crawling through a parade crowd, and I doubt that it will be the last. I considered filming the scene with my iPhone as I've done before, but I decided not to. I had that creepy feeling that something bad was going to happen; however, I kept it to myself. My children, both adults, tell me that I worry too much about crime in New Orleans, and my worry makes them anxious when all they want to do is live their lives and have fun.
We arrived safely at home, and then my daughter went to work. At 5:15 p.m., I received a news alert in email: "At least 12 people were shot at a Mother's Day second-line parade in the 7th Ward. The youngest victim, according to [Police Superintendent] Serpas, is 10 years old." As the evening went on, the number of wounded went up; eventually it reached 19. By Friday, the number was 20, according to NOLA.com. Fortunately, no one died.
When I heard the news on Mother's Day, I wish that I could have been as shocked about the shooting as people who don't live in New Orleans. I wish I had the privilege of gasping, "My God! Who shoots into a crowd of parade goers?" Unfortunately, all I could muster was, "Lord. Here we go again."
Is New Orleans Another Newtown?
On Monday, the day after the shooting, I received an email from BlogHer's News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch looking for people willing to write about the Mother's Day shooting. Immediately, I was angry in a way I couldn't understand. I figured that people not from here thought the incident was another "mass shooting story" like Newtown or Aurora, but I knew better.
I figured New Orleans would be all over the news for the wrong reasons again, CNN, ABC, NBC up in our faces aiming their cameras at our freakish dysfunction. I kept thinking, these people aren't here. They won't understand. They don't love us. Some of them will just watch like we're a train wreck, too. Oh, I hope they catch these guys, lock 'em up, and throw away the key.
Testy, I wrote back:
Why does BlogHer want to cover it? It's bangers shooting into crowds, which unfortunately is not that unusual down here now and not the kind of story [the website] has covered before. I'm not against the coverage. I'm just curious. Why now and what's the angle? It happened in my ward. I drove through the crowd about two hours before it happened.
Grace wrote back very graciously explaining her ideas on a possible angle. She thought that perhaps people would see a connection between this story and the gun violence/control debates that emerged after Newtown, the discussion that seems to have been shelved. She mentioned the 5-year-old who shot and killed his sister and the numbers of young people dying from gun violence around the country. She also said that perhaps the story was that the New Orleans shooting would not be perceived as the Newtown shooting had been.
There was nothing wrong with these possible angles. Her thoughts were reasonable, but still on edge, I wrote back with a mouthful of grit churned by grief, saying our shooting was not like Newtown's. Furthermore, I wrote, given that Congress failed to pass even weak gun control legislation after the Newtown massacre, what hope did families in New Orleans have of relief?
I don't want to take up more space here, so you may read the entire email at my blog. I ended my email with the following list:
Below are just a few of the [gun violence] stories I have either mentioned or [have] been aware of or [have] been connected to in the last year. I add them so that you or anyone else reading will know why I am so frustrated.
- Yesterday morning, Mother's Day, a big front page spread on our daily paper's front page of mothers who've lost children to gun violence, one of whom is a friend of mine. Her daughter was shot last year by someone who was after the girl's boyfriend.
- [At my on-again/off-again blog The Urban Mother's Book of Prayers] December 17, 2012: Stray bullet from shootout hits child in school bus, New Orleans.
- September 2012: Drive-by shooting through Midcity (stray bullets, very Wild West)
- [Affecting me more directly] August-October 1 of 2012: Cousin shot and paralyzed, neighbor shot and killed, friend's daughter shot and killed
- May 30, 2012: 9 shot at birthday party, New Orleans. Five-year-old dead.
- March 3, 2012: New Orleans mothers of gun violence victims featured on CNN.
- Beginning of last year: 47 shot in 12 days.
And there are many more that I've left out.
For instance, I did not include in my email incidents of people shooting at each other in crowds earlier this year, such as the February shooting on Bourbon Street that wounded four bystanders. Neither did I mention the Martin Luther King holiday parade shooting. Mayor Mitch Landrieu referenced that incident when he addressed the community regarding the Mother's Day shooting (video). He called such shootings "unnatural" and declared that the city won't stand for it.
Gun Violence Affects Many in New Orleans
Mulling over whether I should write anything about the Mother's Day shooting, I was concerned that I might be so frustrated that I would sound like a screaming lunatic. By taking issue with what felt like outsiders discussing our constantly publicized dirty laundry, was I saying that I didn't anyone to discuss our shame, this epidemic of violence we can't seem to end? No, I couldn't be saying that. I wouldn't have started a blog called the Urban Mother's Book of Prayers if I thought that. However, I have neglected that blog because I needed to stop thinking about the violence. I needed to stop thinking about it so much that I stopped watching the news for months.
Then came all the police talk about the Mother's Day shooting, video of the shooting, and surveillance photos that showed one shooter. The NOPD backtracked a little on what staff had said earlier regarding the existence of up to three shooters. So, I considered the possibility that what I had said to the editor would prove wrong. Perhaps it was a lone, crazed shooter. It's not as though New Orleans doesn't have its share of people who lack mental health care and proper medication. That was the ordinary human thinking in me and maybe even hoping that the city did have one crazed shooter. A lone shooter out of his mind is a simpler problem to have.
The journalist in me, however, thought, No. Talk of one shooter is a police Jedi mind trick, an attempt to trip up the perpetrators while officers go about the business of catching the bad guys. It's some careful, cover-your-behind speak, too, probably massaged by a communications or legal professional. There was more than one shooter, I thought, looking at the guy in the surveillance shots, Think about the number of people wounded. And that medical student said the shooter appeared to be aiming at someone. Don't be stupid and think this is a lone gunman like the Sikh Temple shooting or that movie theater tragedy. This is gang-related, another revenge crime. New Orleans is not Colorado. It is not Newtown.
And then I noticed what appears to be a child running alone near the shooter in one of the surveillance photos.
New Orleans is not Newtown, but are the children of New Orleans and families of New Orleans any less deserving of national concern?
Since the Mother's Day shooting, the NOPD has arrested two alleged shooters, brothers Akein and Shawn Scott, and five other men and women have been charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly harboring the brothers. Akein, 19, the first arrested, is the one seen allegedly in the surveillance photos. According to multiple media sources, he was out on bail at the time of the shooting, released following possession of heroin and illegal weapon charges. His brother Shawn, 24, reportedly has a long criminal history as well, but he says he didn't do it. Police say the suspects have a gang connection and are drug dealers.
One of the young men arrested for allegedly harboring the brothers is Justin Alexander. WGNO news reported Thursday night that he is the same Justin Alexander who was wounded last year when a gunman seeking to murder him killed Marguerite Washington instead. What a small world, you might say, but I would say that gun violence in New Orleans is a virus. It incubates in a distressed social climate that we perpetuate and gains power in the agonistic mindset that agitates disaffected youth. We hope it won't spread as we stand by helplessly, but it creeps closer each day to people we know and love or to people we don't know yet but should protect. And too many people are being touched by this disease, sometimes repeatedly.
Take the story of Ka'Nard Allen. Ka'Nard is 10 years old. He is the cousin of Briana Allen, the little girl who was shot at the outdoor birthday party last year. That was Ka'Nard's birthday party, and it exploded with violence when a young man running from gang members shooting at him ran into the party. The shooters kept shooting, and a bullet not only killed Briana and a mother in her car not even attending the party, bullets also wounded Ka'Nard. His mother says he's how afraid of his own birthday.
Ka'Nard was also at the Mother's Day second line parade. A bullet grazed him again. Yes, the world seems small, but is not that small yet; gun violence is huge. (The community, including a local hotel, has reached out to Ka'Nard to make this year's birthday special.)
There are many children who've been affected by violence in New Orleans, such as these who were counseled at school the day after the second line shooting.
But before Mother's Day, there were others running and wounded, if not in body then in mind as you can see in the documentary Shellshocked.
And there's Margaret again representing many mothers in New Orleans who've had to face losing a child to violence, who now have a bond no parent wants to share.
There's Deborah Cotton, as well, a local reporter who covers second line parades and defends New Orleans's rich culture. Last year, exactly one day before this year's Mother's Day shooting, Park Triangle Productions uploaded a video of Deborah talking about violence in the city, and this year Deborah was among the wounded at the second line parade. Friends and fans have raised more than $6000 online so far to help pay for her medical care and recovery.
So, this gun violence virus infects even the lives of those who are not criminals themselves: children, college students, mothers, journalists, fathers, and people simply watching parades. It's important to say this because so often those who have not been directly affected think the gun violence problem has nothing to do with them, that it only strikes the poor, the uneducated,and criminals who know other criminals. That's what we've been told to make us feel comfortable: "Don't worry. If you don't know any gang members, you're safe." But we're not safe. What can we do to solve this problem, to stop it from is spreading? Surely we must know that this is not merely a New Orleans problem, and we can't run to the suburbs forever. Eventually they, too, become urban. Surely by now we've figured out that we are all connected.
Chicago, Camden, Newark, Philadelphia, Memphis, and other cities struggle with gun violence, too. New Orleans is not as alone as it feels at this moment. Dare we ask what's driving the rage, misery, and despair and where do all the guns come from?
What Can Be Done About Gun Violence?
I wish I could say I have the solution, but all I can tell you is what we've done in the past—demand more jail time and tougher laws—doesn't work. Excluding Louisiana's loose gun laws ("worst gun murder rate in the nation"), the state has some of the toughest laws on almost everything, and many of these laws, especially harsh sentencing laws, are already more likely to keep African-Americans incarcerated than whites. But most of the people in prison are not serving time for violent crimes, and the state may even be imprisoning people for profit.
Louisiana has exceptionally high incarceration rates and unwisely sucks money from education budgets to fund prisons. Our state leaders seem more willing to spend taxpayer dollars to lock people up than they are willing to spend those dollars on infrastructure, job creation, and preparing minds for a fruitful future.
Toss in New Orleans's particular law enforcement problems that have caused its jails and police department to be forced into federal consent decrees and add to that its clogged court system, and we have a recipe for long-term suffering.
The challenge for Louisiana, New Orleans, and America as well, then, is to stop looking for the easy way and what we think will be the cheaper way out.
None of this is to say that the shooters and their accomplices do not deserve jail time or that they should be coddled. What's being said here is that we need new solutions, not a return to what barely worked in the past and does not work for our current era. What's apparent is that we're still failing too many of our children in New Orleans because it was not that long ago that these young men and the women involved were children exposed to violence.
I want to end on a happier note. Here is the opening of my first of many attempts to write this essay:
As a New Orleanian, I hate to even write about this Mother's Day mass shooting. I'm embarrassed. But a do-over of the Mother's Day second line parade has been scheduled, and the Original Big 7 Social Aid and Pleasure Club that sponsors the Mother's Day parade will accept donations for local brass bands and the victims of the shooting. The mayor has spoken as well as a number of local columnists saying we will not be moved. We will not let this incident change our free-spirited nature and the culture that makes our city essential to American life. Knock us down, we get up dancing. This is New Orleans; that's how we roll.
So, there. I've said what my people down here love to hear, the promise of good times, and I actually believe those words. I just get a little blue sometimes. It seems my city must overcome many kinds of floods, but as John Boutté sings, "these blue days will fade away." Living in New Orleans you learn: hope shall prevail.