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I didn’t know Nia Robertson. And now I never will.


Nia was killed at Pal’s Lounge Wednesday night. I first heard about it through Think New Orleans and Metroblogging. Then the story was on the front page of today’s paper.

It’s a sad fact that violent crimes and murders happen on an almost daily basis here. Mostly we learn about these through the news, and shudder, and shake our heads, maybe even cry a little.

But, even though I didn’t know Nia, the story of her murder is more disturbing to me than most of these other stories.

For one thing, there’s the location, Pal’s. It’s a low-key neighborhood hangout that I’ve visited a few times and always enjoyed. It’s not that far from our house.

For another thing, there’s the whole way it went down, the sheer horrifying randomness of it. A psychotic drifter, only in town a couple weeks, freaks out and attacks people with a knife for no reason.

But most of all, what really gets to me are the accounts from people who knew Nia personally. She sounds like a wonderful person, a nice person, someone I would have liked and maybe befriended.

A neighbor named Kristy wrote the following to our Mid-City discussion group this morning, and her words encapsulate the horror, the outrage, the helplessness:

I am sitting here wondering why I am having to write this post. Nia was my friend. I saw her just yesterday. She gave me the same bright wonderful smile and asked how I was doing. She was the last person I talked to before I left that evening. She said she would call me tomorrow. I didn’t hear from her today. Instead I found out that my friend was murdered and I had been sitting next to her murderer for 3 hours. The man that would take the most wonderful beautiful person out of so many lives had been sitting there reading a newspaper and watching CNN without saying a word. How can this be happening in a place that I felt so safe before the storm? How can I be crying with loss that is so senseless? How come he didn’t turn on me? How could I be sitting next to a murderer and not even know it? HOW HOW HOW? I want to know! I watched people gather all night long to cry on each others shoulder and ask why! To most she is a story that happened close to home. I am sitting here wondering what I will do without ever seeing her smiling face again. What is this city coming to? When is someone or everyone going to step up and do
something about all this? My friend held her as she died. NO ONE SHOULD HAVE TO GO THROUGH THAT!

Some of my fellow citizens are feeling the rage now. I’m angry too, but for once I find myself thinking: This could have happened anywhere, and nothing could have stopped it.

And mainly today I am full of sorrow for a friend I never met. If any of Nia’s family or friends read this, you have my sympathy.

Another neighbor, Heather, gives eloquent voice to what so many of us are feeling.

I did not have the pleasure of knowing Nia Robertson in her life. But last night I lay awake wondering if my optimism about our city has been short-sighted. I wondered if the gems who make this city sparkle, with their radiant smiles and warm welcomes, are really so vulnerable. And how does one integrate senseless tragedy into an otherwise fervent will to create a nurturing and resilient community? Have I been naïve?

This morning, I awake to the image of a sincere smile, the manifestation of the way so many mourners are describing Nia, who I will never get to meet. People also describe me by my smile, and I feel a kinship with her. I hope she knew how loved she was. I hope she knew that she was a light in people’s lives. And I remember that the answer to my vexing questions has not changed. It resounds now more than ever.

Today, I recommit to being the change I want to see in my community. I will not make decisions based on fear. I will not hide in my house and I will not be more reserved than usual when I encounter strangers. Instead I will go boldly into the world and step up to shine a little brighter, because with Nia’s passing, we lost some of our light. It will take many of us, shining a little brighter, to forge goodness from this devastating loss. So let this intolerable bitterness shepherd us to be the better selves we wish we were.

Today, I create change the only way I can: by starting with myself.

Thank you, to those who mourn Nia today, for letting me share how she touched my life, without ever having met her. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

Update: Alan makes the case that Nia’s murder could have been prevented.

Published inNeighborsNew Orleans


  1. Random? Perhaps. Unless there was something that the local criminal justice community knew about the offender which should have kept him off of the streets. The report makes him sound like he wasn’t a stranger to resolving problems with violence — and maybe we should be asking this question of the New Jersey criminal justice system. Nevertheless, there need to be mechanisms in our society to provide help to those who would turn to violence as a way to retaliate for the injustice they feel, while at the same time deal with the underlying reasons why people feel they haven’t gotten a fair shake in society. Providing mental health services would be a very good first start, but systemic changes to the way people are treated in society would be a better part of the solution.

  2. Bart. This could not have happened anywhere. Think about it long and hard before you succumb to that sentiment. Where else would there be a larger transient population? Where else do unstable people get drawn into neighborhoods like this? Why does New Orleans have a general rise in crime? There are no services. There is no way to intervene in a situation like this. You call the police. They don’t come unless there is a crime in progress.

    How can someone threaten the life of a person and his family and walk away without talking to the police?

  3. Garvey Garvey

    I have to agree with Alan. So that’s now 11 murders within a 1 mile radius of your house–this year alone?

    I can’t imagine enduring what you endure.

  4. Ray M Ray M

    Virginia Tech had all the services in the world, police who’d come over immediately, and of course a screening process in re to deciding who to let in (although not among the most particularly selective one–it’s a state school; still, it’s not open admission there). They have mental health services. But despite the fact that the perp had received counseling (or at least a prescription for anti-depressants) and teachers talked in hindsight of his angry and mean ways and writing, he still went on to kill more people at one time than anyone else in American history, outside of a military battle setting. And I have this feeling he might have gotten around the lockable classroom doors being installed on some campuses now in reaction.

    Having a more efficient or efficacious and well-funded police force would help us all feel safer, funding every type of program shown through criminal justice policy studies as effective in fighting crime would help (after-school programs, lead removal, blight removal, whatever, and yes mental health services, even though few mentally ill go mo down their peers and slash random strangers), as would the election of a decent mayor and a vastly better DA, which a full funded office. The bar could’ve had well-paid private security. But random crimes can still be committed.

  5. David David

    I think Alan and Bart are both right. Bart’s right that, for an individual, there’s nothing Nia (god rest her soul) or her friends could have done to prevent this.

    But I think Alan’s right that, as a society, there is more–much more, hell anything–that our society could do to prevent this kind of insanity. And really, as a New Orleanian, every now and then I have these revelations that people in other places–ie, non-third-world places–don’t endure the kind of crap that we do here. Bart’s heard me say things like this before, but no number of grassroots organizations or non-profits–as admirable as they are–are going to fix this. One of the primary functions of the government is to be sole source of sanctioned martial force. And the use of martial force would be required to address this travesty–be it in the moment of, or in a preventative means as Alan described. But such action, especially prevention, requires an effective government. Just typing those words, “effective government,” almost makes me want to laugh. How’s our government looking? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

    My advice to anyone in an emergency situation here is–assume there’s no government help coming for you, because in all likelihood, there isn’t. Rather, do the best you can and call 911 only after you and your loved ones are safe. I’m being damn literal here. Here’s a rough transcript of Nicole’s 911 call when my house caught fire:

    O: 911
    N: I want to report a house fire.
    O: What?
    [What? What-the-fuck-“What?”! She’s not ordering a fucking pizza. You’re supposed to be waiting for just such a call. So Nicole took a deep breath and spoke very clearly.]
    N: I’ve got a house fire at xxx XXXX Street.
    O: OK, hang on a second.
    [At which point, Nicole was put on hold. Nicole dropped the phone and started trying to get the cats. One of my many regrets about that fire is that I told Nicole to call 911 before I told her to get the cats. Two of ours didn’t make it out alive.]

  6. The Fast for Nia Robertson

    Whenever one of our fellow citizens is lost to the violence of this city, we plunge closer and closer to that tragic midnight of hopelessness. But in spite of the darkness of these days, we must not despair, for the deaths of our brothers and sisters may lead our city from the low road of man’s inhumanity to the high road of peace and brotherhood.
    Against the violence of this city, we possess a powerful and potent weapon: Agape. Agape is not a passive, quiet or anemic type of love, Agape is a divine love. Agape is a redemptive, creative, understanding good will to humanity. When we rise to this level of love, we overflow with a love for our neighbor. When we rise to this level of love, we bring love into action and when we rise to this level of love, we forge through the chaos to create community.
    This love might be the salvation for this city. For this love proves to even the most faithfully faithless that behind the harsh appearances of the universe there is still a benevolent and unified force.
    So to take the first stride toward the unity of community, we are gathering up the forces of good will and fasting for a fellow New Orleanian. During the old ages of this city, whenever a valued life was destroyed by the degrading vortex of violence, their bright and beloved personality perished in the dark infernos of nobodiness. But no longer. No longer will we passively accept this violence. No longer will we sit quietly amidst the chaos, for today we will honor this noble citizen who saw through the storms of sorrow, who waded through the waters of weariness, and who forged through flood of futility, only to be tragically lost to the vast red sea of man’s inhumanity. This sacred soul will not be forgotten in the newspapers of yesterday. No, New Orleans will unite and together pay a marvelous tribute to a personality worthy of reverence and remembrance.
    The good citizens of New Orleans will begin their fast midday Sunday, August 26th, and continue until our community prayer Wednesday evening. Please stay posted to our website for further details on the fast. Good citizens of New Orleans, let this fast be our first stride toward peace in New Orleans.

  7. Frank Schiavo Frank Schiavo

    USAToday and Time Magazine have both reported on the crisis this city is in in regards to mental health. There are few/nearly no beds, very little services and people are dying because of it. The police, even if they were up to speed in our community are NOT trained to deal with this kind of problem and just looking these folks up for 24hrs or droping them off somewhere else isn’t the answer. Why wasn’t this years LA tax surplus money spent to open and/or create some kind of mental health service center here in this city?

  8. pj pj

    I second what David says about Nola 911. We called three times and got no answer. When I publicized the failure on the Internet, one of the citizenry said I should contact council person so and so, that they would be very interested in hearing about the failure. The e-mail came back as undeliverable.

  9. Leslie Leslie

    I am a friend of Nia’s, and while we sit and grieve for the lost of such an incredible person, we are reminded that it isnt our will…but GOD’s will. We all have sat back and reflected on how we could have prevented this incident. One of our girlfriends have been harboring the horrible thought that, had she called Nia at the time she was supposed to, Nia would have left Pal’s and met her at another location for dinner and drinks. But the truth is, none of us could have prevented it. One can not cheat death. This was Nia’s fate- unfortunately.

    This incident could have happened anytime, anywhere, to anyone. It was so random, that it very well could have been you or I. She had no link to this lunatic, nor any way of knowing he was a psycho crazed killer. There are many ppl who share space with us that are one step away from clicking out and committing a horrific crime. What can we do about that? Stay inside forever??? Nia was a vivacious easy spirited person who often traveled to places alone FEARLESS. That is a testament to how we should live our lives.

    We will miss her soooooooo much!!!!!!!!! She loved Pal’s that was her favorite bar in New Orleans!

  10. The sad part is that the killer was just “out find a victim”. usually the killers know their victims personally here in N.O. which i also find disturbing.

    I believe that NOPD should do In-House Visits to random Businesses on Random City Blocks. what they do now is Ride in their cars Or walk block without checking in on these bars. whether day light or night. Maybe it’ll help prevent Small crimes such as muggings. (which usually end up as murder cases) it is sad man….

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