Like it or not — and I don’t like it, not one bit — I seem to have become some kind of spokesperson on the subject of violent crime. I didn’t ask for this, I don’t relish it, and I’m not prepared for it. Indeed the very prospect makes my stomach churn. Violent crime is an ugly subject to consider. Yet I just fielded two calls from two different media outlets setting up interviews tomorrow. I need to get my head around this.
Some people might expect me to just keep reiterating the same speech that I gave at City Hall, but I don’t think that works. The point of that event was to express a general sense of outrage and despair to our political class, but media interviews offer a different opportunity.
What are the key points to emphasize? What can I say to keep the positive spirit of last week’s march on City Hall alive, while addressing any negative perceptions or anxieties?
I feel in my gut that the key is to be expansive as possible. We must transform our society in a positive fashion. But another part of me says it’s good to have a very specific, focused point to make. How to balance this contradiction? I don’t know.
Off the cuff, I’d be inclined to emphasize the following:
We do not need an expansion of police powers, but effective community policing. The level of distrust between the community and the police is incredibly high. Most people I’ve spoken to, regardless of race or class, have had extremely negative experiences with NOPD. The checkpoints instituted last week are not helping. A friend of mine was issued a bogus citation at a checkpoint because he got mad and yelled at the officer. That, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Better relations between community and police can only come when police are accountable to the community. Police are supposed to serve the community, after all. Put the community in charge. We need creative solutions — citizen oversight boards, perhaps.
Law enforcement is clearly a short-term measure. Some folks have said to me that there are simply no short-term measures that are acceptable. I was taken aback by this at first, but they do have a point: Our traditional system of arrest and incarceration simply reproduces the pathology of crime.
That’s why we need to think outside of traditional law enforcement measures and explore creative alternatives such as decriminalization of drugs. Pre-Katrina, 65% of New Orleans arrests were for drug offenses, while the national rate was 31%. Furthermore, two out of three convictions in our Criminal District Court were for simple drug possession. (I wonder if post-Katrina stats are available.)
But it’s a mistake to focus on law enforcement to the exclusion of everything else. We have to look beyond that in two directions.
On the one hand, the criminal justice system is broken. It’s worth noting that we have one of the highest incarceration rates in the whole world, but killers go free while we lock people up for non-violent misdemeanors. Something like two-thirds of prisoners are non-violent drug users who need treatment. They don’t get better in jail. Worse yet, the prison experience transforms petty criminals into hardened criminals. I don’t like the notion of locking people up, but I don’t like the notion of people killing with impunity either. I’m having a hard time with this contradiction.
On the other hand, we have to seek long-term solutions that address root causes of violence and crime: poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, lack of opportunity, lack of respect for human life, vast social inequities. In the wake of Katrina there was a lot of media hoopla about a dialog on race and class in America. It never happened, and it never will happen unless we make it happen. Furthermore, that dialog has to be truly inclusive across racial and class lines, or it’s worthless. If we want to talk about violent crime, we must acknowledge that violence afflicts certain communities disproportionately. We need to respect and listen to those who are suffering the most, and then we need to act upon that intelligence.
To stabilize our community we must re-establish basic public services. We should reopen Charity Hospital, reopen public housing, and provide quality education and job training for all. Each of these is a huge topic in its own right, multi-faceted and complex. But only through such long term measures will we ever achieve a more just and humane society.
Furthermore, it would be nice if I got a chance to clarify that I’m not a “leader” of a “movement.” The march on City Hall last week was a outpouring of mass outrage and sorrow. There was no coherent agenda, no set of demands agreed upon by all in advance. In fact, there was a diversity of ideas and agendas, with some in direct contradiction of others. Someone mentioned to me Monday that to stage such a protest without a coherent agenda was irresponsible. Well, perhaps so. Perhaps we have been made reckless by our grief. But then again, too many of us have been too complacent for too long. We need to find a balance and build a consensus as a community.
I don’t know. As you can see what I’m presenting here is raw and unformed. I could use some help. Your ideas are welcome. But please be gentle with me. I’m making 40 today. I’d rather be thinking about other things, but life doesn’t seem to be working out that way, and this is what I’m stuck with. Like it or not.
Update: I was on the radio this morning and Schroeder’s got the write-up.
Update: Will march help? in New Orleans CityBusiness.
Update: “Crime and Punishment: Rescue 504” appears is the January 27th cover story for Data News Weekly.