On Wednesday,* March 9, a gunfight broke out in broad daylight at the intersection of Pauger and N. Villere streets. It’s the site of a notorious open-air drug market, well known to everyone in the neighborhood as well as to city officials, as “Mike & Ike’s” — the former name of the convenience store there. It’s also just yards from the Homer Plessy Elementary School.
Neighbors have little doubt about the perpetrator: a 23-year-old career felon who is a fixture at the intersection. They say he opened fire on a passing car, which returned fire.
The school immediately knew what to do. It went into emergency lockdown, and fortunately no one was hurt or killed. Their response was well-rehearsed for a reason: It was the second such shooting in that same spot in little more than a week, the first having occurred after school hours.* Sadly, for a school within a thriving drug market, incidents like this have become the expectation.
The terror of violence is just one of the most visible aspects of destruction to come from this market. Places like it throughout the city sell heroin laced with fentanyl, the compound responsible for the current epidemic of overdose deaths. The drug market’s continued existence speaks, above all, to the failure of the Orleans Parish Criminal Court to intelligently assess the risk to the community posed by repeat offenders.
Neighbors here in the South 7th Ward — the area bounded by St. Claude, N. Claiborne, St. Bernard, and Elysian Fields avenues — are quite sure they know who initiated the March 9 shooting and the one before it. Like other regulars of the drug market, he has had several visits to criminal court in recent years, only to be deposited back on the same streets. Residents here are painfully familiar with the phenomenon; on Mother’s Day 2013 two brothers opened fire on a crowd of revelers at a second-line parade just two blocks from Pauger and N. Villere, injuring 20. The gunmen, in a prior run-in with the courts (one of many for the pair) had been deemed “low risk” and were released.
According to Criminal Court records, the man suspected by neighbors in the most recent shooting was arrested and charged with aggravated battery in 2009. In 2012 he was arrested with a gun and drugs. In 2013 he was again arrested with a gun and drugs. In 2014 he was arrested with a stolen car and drugs. Last December he was arrested while in possession of 37 crack rocks, again at Pauger and N. Villere.
In other words, despite depleted ranks, low morale, and the necessary but burdensome constraints imposed by a federal consent decree, local police and their federal partners have proven themselves adequate to the task of arresting this lawless individual over and over again. And over and over again the court has put him right back on the street, his criminal skill set enhanced each time by the graduate seminar course that comes with a short stint in the parish prison.
Despite finding itself in a drug-saturated war zone, Plessy Elementary has achieved distinction in the few short years since its founding. With an arts-integrated curriculum, dedicated staff, and a student body that reflects the diversity of New Orleans, it has emerged as a sought-after enrollment option for families of elementary-age children.
To safeguard Plessy we should do everything possible to remove armed drug dealers from the neighborhood. We community members and school families need to take action. Our Constitution guarantees equal protection for all Americans, regardless of skin color or income, and freedom from violence is a most basic right. We should begin by reminding ourselves of that.
As long as gun-toting felons freely prowl the school’s perimeter, dealing drugs, we must demand a visible security presence — at least during school hours, if not around the clock. We need to be willing to collect information about these destructive activities, share it among neighbors and school staff, and tell the police, judges and our City Council representatives as often as we observe violent felons in the area, like the one we suspect was responsible for initiating the March 9 gunfight. Representatives of the school declined to offer comment for this column.
It’s fashionable these days to decry focusing law enforcement assets on low-income communities touched by extreme rates of crime. That criticism is offered as “culturally sensitive;” but it’s fundamentally wrong-headed, and the outcome makes for a special kind of inequity.
Squeamishness over law enforcement intervention promotes extra-legal “street justice,” like the shootings that occur around the Pauger and N. Villere drug market. The residents of the South 7th Ward deserve more attention from law enforcement, not less. And that intervention needs to be more effective, not just a matter of rounding up suspects, walking them through the court’s revolving door and setting them back out on the street.
No more preventable violence in the Homer Plessy School Zone!
Post script: The 23-year-old suspected of triggering the March 9 shootout was again arrested on Monday, March 21, at 3 p.m. at Pauger and N. Villere. He has been charged federally with being a felon in possession of a firearm and of being in possession of a firearm in a school zone.
Austen Ward is the founder of the South 7th Ward Security District and the Lauren Tanski Friendship Park. He’s a husband and father.
*Correction and clarification: As first published, the column misstated the day of the week as Friday. That the earlier shooting was after school hours has been added for clarity.