Violence in New Orleans Overshadows a Complex Community

This winter there was an unusual wave of violence in New Orleans. Right? There must have been, because people were freaking out. The news covered it. Even Slingshot, out in California, wrote to ask about all the “intense shit” going down here.

This winter there was no unusual wave of violence. There was no surge, no increase, no uptick. December was a bad month, but only as bad as it usually is. There were only as many killings (and robberies and assaults) as there always are in the run-up to Christmas. What was different was white people died.

I could say it differently, but differently would be less honest. I’m not saying the deaths of these white people weren’t terrible, or that anyone shouldn’t be upset. These people were loved. They were also in New Orleans, a city that’s been U.S. #1 for per capita homicide years running, in a neighborhood so notoriously dangerous many cabbies won’t visit it. For context, there were 165+ murders of black folks in New Orleans in 2010 – not a few by cops – and six Latino victims of homicide just in the same two-week period between Dec 7 & 21st.

• The St. Roch neighborhood is no joke. I’ve had more friends robbed at gunpoint in St. Roch than in the rest of the city combined. People die there pretty often, which was why I found it strange when shitloads of “tourist punks” appeared there last fall, dozens, hundreds, swamping whole blocks. All of a sudden, out-of-towners were squatting St. Roch in numbers way beyond anything anyone can remember, and some even began panhandling there. It’s very upsetting to a lot of New Orleanians that anyone would come to one of the poorest cities of America, into one of its poorer neighborhoods, and ask the locals for money. It’s apparently so upsetting that when a horrible St. Roch squat fire killed eight people, a lot of my friends expressed anger and disgust towards the dead rather than sympathy. “Fuck those fucking kids,” said some folks who really should know better, some who were themselves those kids not so long ago. It was a shameful failure of compassion.

Meanwhile, a wave of hysteria erupted over a reported series of shootings, rapes, kidnappings, robberies, and home invasions, crimes perceived as targeting young white people in and near St. Roch. In reality, the crime victims weren’t necessarily travelers, punks, young or white, but rumor ran the streets. Panic hovered close, its wings fanning mistrust. Some of the more alarmist of us smelled a race war brewing… and some of us cleaned and loaded our guns. When a black sixteen-year-old kid confessed under NOPD interrogation to having (somehow) committed almost all the crimes single-handedly, supposedly radical whites celebrated and wished him jailhouse rape, crowing in triumph over this teenager being tried as an adult. People who in the past have supported prison abolition or bemoaned police brutality now celebrated on Facebook like a lynch mob.

How did things come to this?

For centuries, people across all social classes have come here for the same reasons: because New Orleans is exciting, because she is beautiful, and because they feel her wildness permits them to cut loose. They do things here they’d be too scared to where they came from, whether that’s dancing unselfconsciously, getting silly drunk, vocally advocating insurrection, peeing in the street, drawing graffiti, squatting a house, hiring a sex worker, or affecting a tough new don’t-give-a-fuck persona their peers back home would laugh at.

People often visit New Orleans looking for a boozy, adult Disneyland or an open creative sandbox, a backdrop for their fantasies. Sometimes people come with good intentions and feel they should be greeted as liberators. Sometimes they come without good intentions but nevertheless feel themselves exempt from the city’s mind-blowing economic disparities.

One reason people find it easy to ignore New Orleans in favor of their fantasy is that much of New Orleans is not obvious to the casual eye, nor even available. Many of the city’s problems and almost all of its rewards are simply not accessible to a visitor, outrageous as that may be to someone conditioned by life in the era of Google. New Orleans hasn’t been indexed. She isn’t searchable – there is no app.

All American cities have lives beneath their surfaces, but New Orleans’ is more ancient, more occult, and more deeply layered. Among newcomers’ frustrations is often a sense of being stranded on the outside, outside shared histories and unflyered shows, stuck on the surface while the city’s “real life” bubbles away beneath. New Orleans is indeed comprised of innumerable groups and communities that exist in relative secrecy, cultivated or de facto. Some groups are highly formalized – underground carnival krewes, tribes of Mardi Gras Indians – most are informal but still as closed.

Some newcomers remain cheerfully unaware of the layers. To them, their also newly-arrived friends and an only recently trendy neighborhood are what New Orleans is. To them, the culture of New Orleans is whatever musical subgenre’s being written up in national media, and the heart of the city is whatever fun new social spot their pals just showed them. Many newcomers bring their own groups and networks, settling into a transitory, ready-made milieu of those who dress similarly. They develop their own “scenes,” pick new favorite bars and claim, Columbus-like, new neighborhoods.

While tourist punx come to enjoy themselves, the same as any conventioneer, others visit with a determination to honor New Orleans by aiding it. Would-be activists, church groups, and idealistic itinerants all swing through town with approaches tested elsewhere, or nowhere, eager to prove useful during the weeks they will reside here. Often, all of the above end up drunk in the same bars.

New Orleans is intensely enticing. Colors are more vivid here, smells are more pungent. The dense, dreamlike atmosphere softens sounds. There’s an addictive quality to the city, and once you’re hooked, nowhere else will scratch the itch. This is what compels some visitors to stay here and build community here, and it tugs at those who’ve left. I could spend paragraphs describing it, but most people just call it magic.

Part of this magic is that New Orleans still has culture – multiple cultures – created outside the context of capitalism. We have traditions that exist outside of efficiency, cost-effectiveness and “common sense.” As the port at the mouth of the Mississippi, New Orleans was instrumental to the expansion of American capitalism into the American west, but New Orleans herself has always stood a little apart from that. Her heredity is old-world Catholic, Caribbean, African. In a nutshell, in contrast to the rest of the country, we ducked the bloody Protestants.

In an America driven by innovation and determinist notions of progress, where time, technology and life move “forward,” everything the newest and next, New Orleans remains in a deep, beautiful rut of cycles and seasonality. After a while, it’s hard to remember ever living differently.

Those who visit New Orleans to party and those who visit to “do good” have something important in common. In fact, they have everything in common. They are visitors. They are visitors to a dangerous city whose poor are not content to be passive, a dangerous city of extreme inequities where intentions count for nothing, and a city of dangerous difficulties which even the locals surmount only by sharing resources and relying on longstanding personal relationships.

One aspect of the incalculable damage done to New Orleans by the flood and subsequent diaspora five years ago was the shattering of New Orleans’ community and neighborhood networks. These vital alliances of extended family and neighbors were how many poor New Orleanians got by. When your cousin from the next block got a little windfall, you found out about it, and everyone shared. These networks can be seen in old-line carnival kr
ewes, whose members find each others’ children good jobs in a city where there are hardly any. All these extended tribes exist in contrast to the limits of the atomized, alienated “nuclear families” promulgated as the building block of American society the last five decades or so.

The death & diaspora caused by the Army Corps of Engineers’ criminally shitty levees back in ’05 flung New Orleanians to the wind; many still have not returned and are unlikely to. Thus, houses still stand empty in neighborhoods that politicians and police don’t care about. Buildings stand empty, and people looking for ways to live outside of the system of private property, who are attracted by all New Orleans has to offer, move in and squat.

Many of these wanderers come from dysfunctional backgrounds. You can tell because they don’t greet you on the street. Their life experiences or the defective acculturation they were subjected to in the dystopic anomie of millennial America have made them afraid. They affect aloofness as a defense mechanism, but that aloofness comes across here as a snub and an ugly, pointed insult. They don’t greet their neighbors, they don’t introduce themselves, they don’t say hello to strangers and aren’t willing to pause and pass the time. There are even some visitors who make noise late at night in working-class neighborhoods, who graffiti poor peoples’ houses and piss on their lawns. Small nicks deepen into bloody social rifts.

All visitors arrive knowing very little of New Orleans, because here only direct experience can inform. Some visitors survive by luck and think New Orleans is easy, but most find out the hard way. Some are violently exploited. Visitors may know no better, but whose job is it to educate them? They struggle to survive because they are not hooked into community, because they don’t have the support networks necessary to survival, but how can they participate in these networks when they don’t live here, when they’re only passing through?

The flipside to New Orleans not being an industrialized, efficient modern city is that New Orleans still operates under the plantation model. Just as the subtle complexity of New Orleans life conceals beauty, it also conceals hardship and horror. This is a city that has exploited black people to death from the date of its inception. Now in 2011, slavery is alive and well thanks to the criminal “justice” system, providing the prison labor that underwrites our tourist economy and swaths of our regional agriculture.

That’s a literal plantation system: guards on horses with guns while black men in chains hoe fields. That’s egregiously bad, and again, not always visible to the visitor, but New Orleanians of color are also exploited for their culture, a culture which is repackaged for sale to visitors. There is plenty of agency involved in this, and the system’s not nearly as simple as black & white – nothing is, here – but New Orleans is nevertheless a modern-day plantation in a number of complicated ways, and a city where your skin and class signifiers determine when you’re allowed to be where, under what circumstances. This mostly means people of color getting harassed and arrested for being in “white neighborhoods,” but it cuts other directions too.

Seeing visitors flaunt the social rules of New Orleans, those deep-running and unspoken understandings, is angering to many New Orleanians, not necessarily for noble reasons. It’s also annoying when people who haven’t lived here, without a demonstrable investment in our future, arrive wanting to effect change. It takes a lifetime to understand New Orleans; how dare someone roll into town intending to take a wrench to her? Go home; fix home. I would posit all change in New Orleans needs to come from New Orleanians, or else it’s imperialist and should be violently resisted. Likewise, all “improvements” to New Orleans need to originate with her people, or else they’re just normalization and homogenization… an attempt to impose square pegs on round holes.

Last December, were white people being “targeted” in New Orleans’ black neighborhoods? Was that a special New Orleans thing? Was it maybe a form of resistance to gentrification? The truth is, people are robbed here constantly. People are killed here all the time. St. Roch is a war zone. That isn’t cool or commendable but it’s unmistakably part of how New Orleans is. It reflects desperation, disparity and disobedience. A sudden, unprecedented influx of self-segregating newcomers into a poor neighborhood already traumatized by the flood only means new prey for the neighborhood’s pre-existing predators. It means those who steal for a living don’t have to cross dangerous neighborhood boundaries to find unarmed people with stuff, even if the stuff’s just a mandolin or a laptop.

Efforts to make New Orleans “safer” almost always arise from white people being victimized, and are annoying because they don’t seem to acknowledge how wildly unsafe New Orleans has always been for everyone.

Making New Orleans “safer,” in practice, means one of two things: either so thoroughly, terminally and permanently subjugating the city’s poor that it becomes safe for anyone to walk anywhere at any time shouting drunkenly on their iPhone without someone who has neither an iPhone nor the money to get drunk doing anything about it, or (less likely) addressing the extraordinary hardships and poverty that underlie New Orleans’ impossibly high crime rate. That crime rate is a complex expression of complex problems I would assert no visitor, no matter his or her education or intentions, can do anything about.

Making New Orleans “safer” means making her more “civilized”… and so-called civilization comes at a price. May I suggest visitors stay the fuck out of dangerous neighborhoods? May I suggest visitors understand their role as visitors, and please try to be careful, and have fun in ways that don’t imperil themselves? I hope that’s not too much to ask, or an infringement on your sacrosanct right as an American to do absolutely whatever you want all the time regardless of context, history or surroundings. I’m begging you, please don’t become a statistic. Please don’t be a martyr, please don’t be an excuse for sinister forces with power and wealth to intervene and fuck things up even more. Don’t be a poster child for those in the suburbs who already hate poor New Orleanians and who call for the further destruction of affordable housing. Don’t be a poster child. There’s already enough wrong.

But by all means, please do come visit. Come do what makes you feel good, whether that’s drinking alcohol or working in a community garden or walking around chanting prayers. New Orleans invented all the good music; enjoy some. Dance your angst off, eat some salty food. Come visit, and if it seems like all the locals care about is getting your money from you, don’t think about it too hard. When your shit gets stolen, laugh it off. Visit, and scoff at the “rich” “tourists” you see in the French Quarter. As long you keep tipping, no bartender will tell you you’re wrong. Visit, and if you spend enough money, New Orleans may limp onwards another little while, thanks to the generosity of visitors such as yourself.