Friday, February 09, 2007

New Orleans' Iraq

New Orleans is under siege, or so it seems. The t.v. sound bites are as familiar as they are tired: Crime is brimming over, thugs control the streets, people don’t feel safe in their own homes. What was once verboten (and racist) – that law enforcement should focus on young black men – now seems the received wisdom. Indeed, the Sheriff in neighboring Jefferson Parish unabashedly and unapologetically suggests that targeting law enforcement at black people in white neighborhoods has helped dampen crime there. Perhaps there is proof to be found in the statistical pudding. It’s hard to overlook the fact that most murders here involve young black men (children?) killing other young black men, in what appear primarily to be turf disputes involving drugs. And the mushrooming murder rate seems only the trailing edge to a massive crime storm. Avoiding crime these days is a lot like dodging rain drops – you just hope you don’t get soaked in a downpour.

Of course, Sheriff Lee’s approach likely won’t so much control crime as merely displace it. More precisely, even if this approach can dampen the latest crime wave, it does nothing to address the root causes of crime, which means we’re likely to see another flare up in the future when we let our guard down. (Nor do I mean to suggest that the Sheriff could address that issue or should be held accountable in that regard.) And I’m not so sure that the community as a whole is in a privileged position to criticize the Sheriff on this point. At least if you’re judging by the latest march on City Hall – where throngs of mostly white citizens berated the Mayor and Police Superintendent with chants of “enough is enough” – you’d get the feeling that the public’s hysteria reflects not necessarily that there are too many murders (of course there are), but that those murders are now seeping into white neighborhoods. (The offending straw that broke the camel’s back seems to have been the apparently random murder of a white woman at 5am in her home in the Marigny, while her surviving husband was shot while clutching their young child.) One can’t help but think that the public’s reaction would have remained somewhat muted if all murders were business-as-usual, black-on-black, turf war disputes. The black community’s conspicuous low turnout for the march on City Hall arguably fuels that perception.

Our present crime control approach seems nothing more than a scheme to corral crime into certain areas. The question is where to corral it. In the past, most murders seemed localized to housing projects and other poor, and mostly black, parts of town. A client observed that the closing of most public housing in New Orleans may be animating the apparent crime diaspora. As that theory goes, because most public housing and many poorer neighborhoods remain largely uninhabited, the criminal element may be migrating to more affluent neighborhoods. No doubt, that view feeds off of a deep-seated cynicism (and racism), but perhaps there is something to it. After all, the public didn’t rise up and march on City Hall in years past (early 1990s?) when the murder rate here spiked, but most murders were of the black-on-black-in-the-projects variety. And thus Sheriff Lee’s approach may simply return us to the halcyon times when murders happened, but not in my literal back yard.

As one friend recently observed, this City’s (and probably most Cities') take on crime control – and really social problems in general – has been a lot like the war on terrorism: Let’s fight them over there (Iraq), rather than have to fight them here and everywhere. Much like the war in Iraq, however, that is an easy starting point, but it won’t be mistaken for a plan to address the problem. And we’ve never really had a plan, and certainly no urgency, for addressing the root cause of problems in poor areas and projects. If we are serious about getting crime under control, rather than merely displacing it, we have to put our might into disrupting the cycle of poverty that undeniably fuels crime. Otherwise, we may end up ceding our City to warring factions and spiraling violence.

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