On Friday, two days before the bloody mayhem at Frenchmen and North Villere, I was having lunch with a friend on Magazine Street.
My friend has spent a lot of time in Mexico, but not as recently as I have. What’s it like down there, he wanted to know — aren’t you worried about the cartels, the violence. I said we haven’t felt threatened. I don’t deal drugs; I don’t traffic in pirated DVDs; I’m clearly a gringo — they don’t want the trouble that comes from messing with gringos. I knocked on wood as I said these things, so as not to tempt fate.
Then I proposed an analogy: Look, I said. We live in New Orleans, one of the most murderous cities in America. Do you feel threatened? If you deal drugs in the roughest parts of the city, you should. That’s a choice you’ve made, as the police soothingly remind us every time another citizen goes down in a high-crime area. But as you walk back to your office on Canal, do you feel at risk?
Deb Cotton would have dismissed my remark as stupid when I made it. She knows violence in this city doesn’t distinguish so clearly between the good guys and the bad. Sunday afternoon, she might have said, “I told you so.”
Except she wasn’t saying anything. She lay unconscious at University Hospital following surgery after she and 18 other people were injured when bullets were sprayed into the crowd around 2 p.m. at the Original Big 7 second-line parade. The Mother’s Day violence broke out toward the tag end of the procession as a second line maybe two to three blocks long reached Frenchmen and North Villere streets.
There is a bitter irony here. Deb, a videographer, has been documenting second-line parades and other manifestations of the rich New Orleans street culture she loves. She also has struggled to come up with an answer to the violence that threatens to destroy that culture and the city itself.
She calls the violence “unnatural” — a word the mayor has also used. “As a black woman, I have a particular investment in seeing the black men in my tribe do better,” Deb says in an interview for a Web documentary. She describes herself as a devotee and proponent of the city’s culture, a culture of the streets – of brass bands and jazz funerals and second-line parades. She also offers a warning about a culture that thrives outdoors and that is open to us all: “At any given moment, something can jump out.”
She speaks with particular concern about the groups of young men who trail along in the wake of these street festivities. It’s not the second-liners, themselves; it’s certainly not the musicians. “It’s someone with a beef; someone showing up to settle a score.”
Deb’s a blogger, the one known as Big Red. She has had occasion to excoriate “mainstream media” for seeming to blame the crime on the culture, for blaming the shootings on the second-liners. The parades don’t cause the gunfire, she has rightly contended, but she acknowledges that there’s a correlation between the parades and the violence for which they provide a backdrop — and that’s what deeply worries her.
In the aftermath of the Sunday shootings, Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas noted that the event was blanketed with police and vowed bravely that they will catch the perpetrators. With help from witnesses to the crime and the community in which the young men live, perhaps they will.
Meanwhile, what do the rest of us do?
Our open-air culture and its availability to all is the truly distinctive thing about New Orleans — the thing that keeps the city vibrant and a mecca for visitors from all over the world. Lose that, and we’re Omaha. Omaha without even a stockyard.
Deb is not alone in arguing that for New Orleans to thrive, these cultural traditions must be preserved in all their vitality — not just relegated to the life-size diorama that is the French Quarter.
I have known Deb both as a friend and as a colleague since she got back from post-Katrina exile in Texas. She videotapes the public forums The Lens puts on from time to time. She was a part of the New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance (NOCOG), the nonprofit that counts The Lens among its affiliates and that nearly lost another member to a bullet. Rafael Delgadillo of Puentes New Orleans was shot and initially blinded fleeing bandits who tried to hold him up as he drove through the city late one night two years ago.
Deb believes the violence can be addressed and of course it must be, but she traces its roots dauntingly deep into the soils on which this city stands. She speaks of joblessness and poor education. She talks about the history of racial oppression, but also of the history of corruption, the theft, and the squandering of the few resources the city has to tackle its problems.
The thievery is, of course, common knowledge: the fake service organizations set up and systematically looted by politicians and their kin. The more insidious and intractable problem is the sheer cynicism of an elite that for so many years tolerated a school system that frequently graduated seniors who could not read or write or add; that to this day presides over a water system that leaks half its capacity before a drop reaches the customer’s tap and a jail that appears to be run by inmates free to drink, rape and in some instances, leave the premises to roam Bourbon Street. And so on.
Jobs. Better schools. An end to corruption. Deb’s prescriptions for the violence to which she has now fallen victim are broad ones. Surely there are near-term steps that also must be taken. Programs to defuse vengeance and retaliatory shootings before they are committed have shown early promise in Chicago and other cities. The pre-Katrina community policing initiative also returned results right here in New Orleans — before the funding was cut and the cops abandoned foot patrols and got back in their cruisers.
But this much is clear from what happened Sunday to Deb Cotton and the other innocent bystanders. The time for talk is over, perhaps especially the foolish talk that would suggest you can stay out of harm’s way in today’s New Orleans.
You can, of course; you can lead an almost entirely bulletproof existence here, as in Mexico. The New Orleans version requires that you not leave your home and that you remember never to sit by an open window. That you armor your car — as the rich do in Mexico. That you quietly lament that New Orleans’ vivid street culture will atrophy and die without the wholehearted participation of enthusiasts like Deb Cotton. But that you accept it as the price of safety in a city whose leaders so far have had zero success reining in the violence.