The Uptown restaurant and bar robberies are a new entree on the city’s crime menu, but a nauseating one: whole rooms full of patrons held at gunpoint while masked bandits relieve them of their valuables and then pause to rifle the till.
The recent spate of these incidents — three so far, the closest four blocks from my house — sheds harsh light on our vulnerability. That vulnerability is both personal and, in a tourist town like New Orleans, economic.
Hence, the intense reaction from civic and industry leaders: the promise of a “laser focus” in bringing the perps to justice, a whopping $30,000 in reward money, a mayoral press conference and a vow of federal involvement, if warranted.
Anyone who has ever been held up at gunpoint knows, as I do, that it’s a nerve-wracking experience. But let’s not lose our heads. From the reaction to the restaurant robberies, you might think blood had been spilled! Except that shootings and knifings rarely stir up $30,000 bounties in New Orleans.
That’s because the epidemic of lethal violence — the truly bizarre and disturbing thing about New Orleans, as the mayor has rightly noted in struggling tirelessly against it — is largely a scourge of the underclass.
The upper crust may be numb to the killings, but we have not lost all fellow feeling. We are aghast at the uncivilized interruption of a good meal nicely paired with pricey wine and good company. It casts a pall over our very way of life.
Some lives count more than others, of course; some lives don’t seem to count much at all. To judge by recent bounties, the convenience and comfort of the well-to-do counts the most.
The shooting of NOPD Officer John Passaro in the Bywater two years ago inspired a $30,000 reward.* The murder of the Domino’s Pizza driver generated half as much in reward money. For all the public attention, the thugs who sprayed a 7th Ward Mother’s Day parade with bullets, hospitalizing 19 second-liners and nearly killing videographer Deb Cotton, attracted a $10,000 bounty.
And the reward to find the killer of Londyn Samuels, the 1-year-old who died in her babysitter’s arms in Central City? $5,000.
While wishing the police Godspeed in bringing the bistro bandits to justice, let’s concede that the task may not be a snap.
By contrast with most crime in New Orleans, the restaurant robbers jumped the class barrier we count on to separate us from the violence reported in lower-income neighborhoods. At the risk of trafficking in stereotypes, even before the criminals have been rounded up I’m going to go out on a limb and make a prediction: it’s unlikely that members of Comus or the Boston Club are going to figure prominently among the perps.
The bandits are not ignorant of upper-crust folkways, however — which is why they have struck such a nerve. They know that the ladies and gentlemen who dine out Uptown are not paupers, nor are many of us packing heat. We’re sitting pretty, which makes us sitting ducks.
Even with the munificent bounty, it will be interesting to see if people who know the restaurant robbers will respond to the police chief’s appeal to turn them in. Cops have a hard enough time convincing low-income communities to finger the killers and rapists who prey on their own sons and daughters. Survivors fear retaliation; many of them also fear the police.
They will be forgiven for experiencing just a touch of schadenfreude now that the fear of assault — the stifling air they breathe 24/7 — has wafted Uptown.
As is widely noted, America is becoming a two-tiered society in an age of widening income inequality. For all the national attention to our burst of post-Katrina innovation and entrepreneurship, the unemployment rate among black men tops 50 percent in New Orleans. Those lucky enough to have work often pull down the minimum wage. Poverty among children has ticked up higher than it was before the hurricane.
That does not excuse the harrowing and deplorable nature of the bar and restaurant robberies. The perpetrators must be quickly hunted down before they scare away the carriage trade in a city all too dependent on the kindness — and patronage — of strangers. If the crime wave continues, it’s probably just a matter of time before a masked gunman proves stupid or nervous enough to mix blood along with the wine spilled as everyone dives to the floor.
Imagine the headlines.
Police say they are unsure whether all three holdups are the work of a single gang. But aspiring copycats can only be intrigued by the evidence that it’s possible to take down a whole restaurant.
Well-publicized arrests will daunt would-be imitators and reassure their prospective victims. We will heave sighs of relief and make fresh plans to join friends for dinner at pricey restaurants.
But until America figures out how to more honestly address the social pathologies and economic distortions among the have-nots in a two-tiered society, we can expect the criminal class to be as innovative as any of our entrepreneurs in coming up with fresh ways to make fear go viral.
Jed Horne is an editor of The Lens. His books include “Desire Street, a True Story of Death and Deliverance in New Orleans.”
*Correction: This story originally said John Passaro was murdered. He survived the shooting. (Oct. 2, 2015)