There is nothing left to say about George Carter that will overcome the sorrow felt by family and friends who knew him better than I did.
George was the 15-year-old found shot to death on Piety Street around dawn on Oct. 21. News reports picked up on his membership in Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, an organization co-founded just after Katrina by my wife, Jane Wholey.
In the early going, George, then 8, was the youngest member of the group, and among the most endearing. He’d get up on a milk crate in order to see over the podium at news conferences where the Rethinkers launched their impressive campaigns. They worked to improve campus safety, upgrade cafeteria food and tackle other issues associated with an environment in which — the basic Rethink insight — they had a lot of expertise and a vested interest at least as great as any adult.
In those days, George called himself a “Pre-Thinker.” When HBO came to town to make an Emmy-nominated movie about Rethink, “The Great Cafeteria Takeover,” the cameras loved George. So did fellow Rethinkers, among them his brothers Victor and Vernard and their sister, Victoria.
Inevitably, reports of the killing — a gunshot to the skull fired at close range; the corpse found face-up in a weedy lot — included reference to George’s hard work for school reform. And just as inevitably, the canonization of George Carter has been followed by his demonization.
Though the case is open and police are not ready to comment on the record, local news sources have quoted the owner of a convenience store a couple of blocks from where the killing took place. He contends that George was one of two boys who robbed the place at gunpoint the night before he was bumped off. The hooded kid in the surveillance video does not look much at all like George, but who knows?
It would not be the first time a teenager from a low-income neighborhood got sucked into the world of crime and violence that flourishes in the absence of a just economy and meaningful jobs. And it would not be the first time a boy took a bullet for no good reason.
The shopkeeper speculates that because one of the robbers was not wearing a mask and would be more easily tracked by police, the other boy, his accomplice, killed him for fear of being ratted out. That’s an elaborate theory in a city where a bullet to the head can follow far simpler transgressions, like looking at someone’s girl the wrong way or coming up short on money owed for a $20 bag of weed.
One can hope that public concern and continuing media attention will keep cops on a case they might otherwise let quickly go cold. And one can hope that eventually truth will supersede speculation about what happened in the hours before George was found staring up at the sky through lifeless eyes.
For the time being, the truths we know with any certainty are these:
- George was neither a saint nor a demon. He was a kid with big dreams trying to grow up in a very sick culture.
- It’s a culture governed by gutless, well-dressed politicians and lobbyists who will do everything in their power to avoid doing the obvious, which is to make guns less common than faulty airbags and oversized sodas.
- It’s a political culture that refuses to reward hard work with a living wage, for fear corporate campaign donors will squawk.
- Thus it becomes a political culture that perversely fosters development of a parallel economy centered on drug dealing, convenience-store stick-ups and other forms of delinquency.
No. Sensible gun controls don’t end violence. But as nations with smarter gun policies have demonstrated, when guns are less ubiquitous, schoolboy differences are more likely to be settled with fists than with bullets.
The gun culture is, of course, integrally bound up with that other great American folly, the so-called war on drugs. A demonstrably futile campaign, it has made America the most incarcerating nation on earth, Louisiana the most incarcerating state in the nation and New Orleans, by some accounts, the most incarcerating city in the most incarcerating state.
The war on drugs is the crazy last hurrah of a hypocritical moralism that has packed prisons disproportionately with brown and black males and that has turned these same prisons into very efficient factories for the production of career criminals.
One of the Rethink themes that George had been vocal about was the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the way wrong-headed school expulsion policies put kids on the streets and then in prison. Perhaps he knew the streets more intimately than we want to acknowledge. But George was still enrolled in school. In fact he was in the NET, one of the charter schools New Orleans has created as an alternative to expulsion and the streets. Ultimately, the streets claimed George anyway.
It is a symptom of our sickness that in order to pay much attention to yet another teenage homicide, media first had to portray George’s dedication to school reform as something unimaginably rare — when in fact there are thousands of teenagers in New Orleans with values and a sense of purpose. And now, rather than look to the deeper causes of the malaise that claimed his life, we are trying to dismiss him as just another rotten kid who had it coming.
The more brutal truth is this: George Carter was just a kid. And now he’s dead.