Friday, August 10, 2007

"SHOT OFF THE LADDER"

DAY 10


Consciousness, caution, racism, and one perception of the reality of the violence in New Orleans.


Last night I was driving down the off ramp of 1-10 heading east at Esplanade and North Claiborne. There was at the curve near the bottom and I noticed a dark form of a human leaning against the barrier wall. I thought at first it was someone who might be hurt, in the next instant I wondered if someone was panhandling for money, then I wondered if it was someone waiting to rob one of us - but then there were too many cars to rob any one car coming off the off ramp and there were too many witnesses. Then I realized that it was oddly, a police office. His car was to the back of him illuminating his shadowy figure. As I got closer he flashed on a bright light onto me and spoke into his walkie-talkie. Then he turned the bright light off. It temporary blinded me. As I drove to the bottom of the off ramp I see that there are 5-6 police cars parked at the bottom. 2 police officers standing to the left of where your car comes to a stop before merging into traffic - with flashlights both look into your car. Other police officers are dealing with people that have been pulled over. I look into the flash lights and say hello. It is a reflexive action. I am terrified. I have been in these safety check points by day and now I know that they are even more intimidating at night.

I know intuitively that I have nothing to worry about. I am from out of state which means I am either a volunteer, someone working on the rebuilding effort or a tourist - and secondly, I am Caucasian and a woman. Knowing this does not keep me from feeling the intense intimidation created at these “safety check points.“ To me, they feel intensely threatening, very scary, and somehow, without understanding how, morally wrong.

(Note:why did I write that I intuitively know that I have nothing to worry about?" I feel as if racial profiling is occurring and I intuit that I don't fit "the profile". Each time I have been in these situations I have felt that what I am witnessing is a form of racial profiling even as there are Black New Orleanian police officers involved).


These are “safety checks” for seat belts and whether the diver has a current brake sticker (like an inspection sticker). A New Orleanian Rasta I was speaking with, Mandela, told me that they used to use these “ safety check points” to catch criminals as many of the young hoods had beat up cars with violations and that gave the police the right to pull them over and inspect their cars. He told me “Katrina changed that - now they all have new cars.”

I have never seen this type of police behaviour anywhere else I have lived in the United States. I have only ever seen this practice in the predominately Black American neighborhoods of New Orleans.

I know in my heart of hearts that this type of police intimidation and tactics would never happen uptown - near Audubon Park, Whole Foods, or on Magazine Street.

These type of police tactics would never happen up North in Massachusetts where I come from. I can just imagine the community in the “valley” around Hadley, where I come from, the people would be absolutely outraged. There would be protests on the common and in the streets, posters on the telephone poles, articles written, and eventually a discontinuation of this type of police tactic. When I speak with local Black New Orleanian’s about this, hoping to find matching indignation, they just shake their heads in resignation. And I understand why - this is the South and this is how Black Americans are treated in the South. I really naively thought before coming to New Orleans that racism in this form was over in this country. Not only is it not over, it is alive and well in the South. The shocking part of it is that those that “have” don’t get that until they help lift up their brothers and sisters who “don’t have“, their brothers ‘will’ eventually come into their neighborhoods and begin stealing from them and killing them and their children.

It is my belief that when there is nothing inside of a young man but rage and emptiness - if there is no hope, no education, no possibility for a future and all around him he sees people with obvious wealth out enjoying themselves, spending money on indulgences and living in financial comfort - this “empty” being will be attracted to all that glitters and being “empty”, take that which is not his to take, without a second thought. For the thoughts never had time to be planted - in many cases there was no one there to sow and water them, even worse, the ground was barren for the seed to grow.

Horace once said, “If your neighbors fence is on fire, it is your business”. There have been 117 murders in New Orleans since January - I would say there are many fences on fire in New Orleans.

I cannot say enough about how these police stops - safety checkpoints - are really intimidating. I know the police officers are dealing with an uncontrollable amount of murders and crimes (especially shootings) yet this form of intimidation and if you will excuse me for saying so - this form of blatant disrespect, does not seem to me that it would help the situation much, it seems as if it would aggravate the situation and police and community relations. Black American New Orleanian’s who are innocently caught up in the violence in their neighborhoods need to feel that the police are on their side, watching out for them, that they care about the community. (There have been some recent marches. Yet, sadly in this crisis, there are not enough officers for this to happen - and then there are the corrupt officers). In the opinion of someone “who has only been here a minute” that is the only way the intimidation of the local thugs and violent criminals living in their neighborhoods is going to be faced., the only way neighbors are going to feel safe enough to report what they saw that might lead to a conviction is when they feel that the police force is “with” them. Unfortunately the New Orleans police force is under staffed and there are not enough officers or funding to “walk the beat“ and build community relations by interacting with the community on the street.


A night of intense 'off ramp' experiences in NOLA

My fourth ’night out” since I have been in New Orleans (February of 07’) began and ended with intense “off ramp” experiences. As I was driving down the off ramp off of 10 West onto South Claiborne Avenue on my way home late last night, I was half way down the long off ramp when a white SUV came speeding up behind me. The driver began flashing their high beams at me to get out of the way or speed up even though there was no where to pull over and I needed to slow down to get off the sloping off ramp, not speed up.

I just did what I needed to do for my own driving safety, and got off the of ramp safely.


The white SUV behind me could have pulled away speeding into the next lane at the bottom of the off ramp, instead the vehicle slowed down and began to pull up next to my car, looming ahead of us was a red light and I quickly realized that we were the only 2 cars on the road. I ‘knew’ in that moment that I needed to let the driver pass me by, and that I needed to drive even slower than their vehicle and when we got to the red light, I knew not to pull up ‘next’ to the SUV. The driver ended up being a young Black American in his 20’s. His eyes and body language were full of rage. I could tell he was saying angry words to me through his closed windows. As we pulled up to the light, I kept back the front end of my car, keeping it parallel to the rear of his vehicle - and as we sat at that very long red light he kept looking back at me and saying what seemed to be angry words. To keep busy in this uncomfortable situation, I pulled out a piece of paper to write down a thought that had come to me earlier in the night for this posting and I could tell when I looked up again, it might have occurred to him that I was writing down his license plate number (Texas plates). It came to me also that if the situation escalated I could pick up my cell phone and act as if I was making a phone call or even dial 911 if needed. I knew instinctively that something was wrong with him as his rage did not relate to the situation and I knew that I needed in those moments, to act submissive, as I would in the woods if I encountered an enraged animal. I kept my eyes down and made limited eye contact. He was off to my left and I knew that by my not pulling up next to him, that it would be awkward for him to reach back and get a clean shot at me. Uh, huh, you just read what you thought you read. I knew that if I would have pulled up next to him at that red light after his behaviour on the off ramp and subsequently pulling up to next to me, that if he had a weapon, he would of used it on me. I knew it within my very bones that the rage he was displaying was dangerous and that I needed to be careful. I was and when the light changed to green, I continued to drive slower than him and he eventually sped away.


The violence in New Orleans is a part of the reality of the long-term volunteering environment.


A contractor who came here from Colorado was killed in front of his house in July (see story link). A builder was shot yesterday. He was working in East New Orleans. Those who killed him asked for all his money, he gave them everything he had and they shot him in the head anyway. I was just told by a policeman that these a "new" targets for those who are criminals. The contractors and builders are busy working in the houses and are not aware of those who would do them harm. The robbers are thinking "they are working hard - got plenty of money".

Volunteers are not being targeted. At least at this time, if anything, local New Orleanian’s (even the most hardened criminals) know and are deeply grateful for the volunteers (I am not sure how deeply grateful the robbers are). The local New Orleanian's know without a doubt that without the volunteers, their families houses would not have been gutted, help would not have come like it did - for the locals know more than anyone else how the government failed them profoundly when it comes to the aftermath of Katrina/Rita and the levee breaks.

I saw on the local news last night that there is a group from Massachusetts volunteering with “security” in the 9th Ward. This to me is absolutely wrong and I feel that if this continues with volunteer groups that it can break down the work, love, gratitude and healing that has been built since volunteers have come to New Orleans to help. I feel having “security” at a volunteer site is destructive to community relations and race relations. In my opinion, if a volunteer group feels that uncomfortable about coming here, they should not come at all and send donations to groups on the ground. If a volunteer group still wishes to come after they have thought it through and planned, and they are nervous about their safety, they could ask community members and neighbors to pull up some chairs and sit around the house they are working on. This would deter any nefarious young people from bothering the volunteers and keep good community relations. When I watched the news I saw this group of “white folks” in a predominately Black New Orleanian neighborhood with “security” who were volunteering, I was, in that moment, embarrassed and ashamed to be from Massachusetts.


I was in the 9th Ward the other day at
Emergency Communities "Goin Home Cafe" visiting a volunteer from Canada, Barb, whom I met online. She was working with the EC volunteers in the Lower 9th Ward at the kids camp for a few days doing art therapy and hoping to bring back pictures of what it is like down here 2 years after Katrina and the levee breaks.

As I walked in to the hall where the kids camp is held, at the end of their day, the kids from the neighborhood were at the table eating snow cones that Barb’s friend Dave, had bought for everyone. What my consciousness remembers of what I saw, is the Caucasian 20 year old kids with the beautiful children from the neighborhood sitting close together, some kids sitting on laps, everyone is at the table eating the snow cones. And in that precious moment I saw what the people who have volunteered at
EC have brought to this Lower 9th Ward community. Racial lines and prejudices are being wiped away and healed by their presence. It is happening through their dedication, in their commitment to feeding the people who continue to suffer, (really good clean food, some of the locals will kid around and say “the food is too healthy, we they need some fatty “real“ food“), EC offers residents much needed Internet access, tools for rebuilding, and help with gutting, and most important of all, for the children, a summer camp program daily. In my opinion, EC offers tangible forms of hope for the community, meeting their real time needs. Most of all I in my heart I remember the peace and joy in the small corner of the big room they were sitting in, especially in the children. These children who know and have known, incredible suffering and pain, I see them in my minds eye content, peaceful, and eating snow cones and for those brief moments in time they knew peace and love …


"Your generation is different".

An elderly Black New Orleanian whom I was talking with in the street was saying to me just yesterday in a conversation, “it is your generation and the younger white folks that are coming here to help us, you’re a different generation”. “You know a 20 year old white woman and young man came into my house and they and others gutted it”. “That would have never happened years ago. Your generation is different.” He then went on to describe painful years of how he and others were segregated and treated with humiliation in public. This was a reality I cannot comprehend, but for him, and many other Black New Orleanian seniors, it is still in a reality that resides in their consciousness’ and hearts. I believe that is why I spend so much time in the 9th Ward, with the “people of the heart” who reside here, people who have known real sufferation and tribulation, who have witnessed incomprehensible violence, people who have been treated unjustly (and many continue to be), and yet their “humanity” in spite of all this, is ever bright and humbling to me, when ever I meet and spend time with them or are visiting in their neighborhoods.

You know for me, when I look around and see the state of what I perceive to be “race” relations in New Orleans on the streets where recovery is occurring, I perceive first the influence of the young hippies (Rainbows, wanderers and travelers, college students, etc). Many of them know what it is like to live on the street, to live rough, they live “amongst” the hardest hit of the population and help them in tangible ways. Then there are the religious folks. Many of the groups ask for nothing in exchange for their help, generosity and kindness, then there the religious groups which tries to convert as they help. Then there are just folks working their jobs in the streets and I am thinking of a beautiful woman I met one day that works with Tulane as a psychologist who comes down to spend time with the police officers at the 5th district. She is just there “ for them and with them” and you can tell from talking with her within a few minutes, that she really cares for the people on this force. There are thousands like her, many New Orleans residents helping when and how they can.

This is the reality on the ground ‘I know’ here on the ground in New Orleans. I have met many people that are from here and many people who have come here that do not see race, they only see need, and respond with compassion.


That is how I believe we are intended to meet the violence - with compassion and the gift of hope.

It is a reality volunteering in New Orleans, that a few of us might lose our lives, be robbed and or raped in doing our work in New Orleans - I made peace with this when I first came here, that this is what I was willing to sacrifice in order to help my brothers and sisters who are suffering. The city of New Orleans is a very violent place right now. More so for Black New Orleanian’s. They are suffering the most with deaths and as victims of shootings. That is the reality on the ground - 3 people were murdered here yesterday. The reality here for many Black American New Orleanian’s is poverty, long standing generational illiteracy, and mental illness. Mental health care is almost non-existent in a city where the majority of the population nearly died and as Mandela, who barely survived after being caught in the flooding and going a week without food and water, told me “ the floods came on Sunday morning, by Tuesday we knew no one was coming for us. We went for up to a week without food and water. Dead people were everywhere in the water around us. By Tuesday we just looked at each other”, he then looks at me as he looked at others on that day, with questioning in his eyes, then he says, “at that point people just began to say everyman for himself.”

"Here, literally, government didn't come to the aid of the people." --Ivor van Heerden

Yes, the violence in New Orleans 2 years after Katrina is intense. Drug usage (the coping tool of the suffering populace and the addicted) is rampant and the drug lords are fighting for turf - the old ones have been coming back and are fighting it out with the new ones who have taken over their turf. Old scores are being settled. Young mentally and emotionally “empty “ (sadly, mostly Black New Orleanian men) with weapons, rage, and/or no consciousness at all, are on the streets killing each other. When speaking with Mandela of the violence, he told me he wants to write a book about his experiences in New Orleans as a Black New Orleanian trying to rebuild his home for his family, he is going to call it “Shot off the Ladder“. He told me he believed until recently his chances of being shot when he works on rebuilding his home were 50-50, now he believes they have shifted to 60-40. His wife and daughter cannot come back to the house being in the condition it is in, nor with the violence. He tells me he is lonely and misses his wife, he tells me that he never thought it would take this long or be like this.



If you come to New Orleans to volunteer follow my advice - be conscious and cautious.

Conscious of who is around you and what is occurring (without fear) and proceed with caution. There are some young people between their mid teens and 30’s that if inspired to do so, whether by crack or mentally illness, will kill you in a moment - often randomly. It was explained to me that it is so easy to pull the trigger on a automatic weapon, you barely feel the pull of the trigger. Those who are killing think nothing of taking another’s life as they themselves …have no life.


IN PEACE.


RELATED STORIES:

Murder Cases Get New Life Times-Picayune

14-year-old admits to setting deadly fire

Nagin: News of killings keeps "New Orleans brand out there"

New study shows neighborhoods are incubators for criminals

Wife, friends of man slain in Carrollton say they're leaving city WWWLTV.com

Sorry about the craziness with the fonts and the line spacing - it is what happens with this program when you add pictures after posting... :>(


Post script:
I wanted to add photo's from Washington Avenue between S. Claiborne and St. Charles for this posting but got a late start. I am tired, I have been working hard this week and was up late writing this post and re-writing it this morning. The word "tired" is key. In order to follow my own advice about consciousness and caution, I can't just go to Washington Street around the C.J. Peete projects and Oreatha Haley Blvd. on a Friday afternoon during a heat wave. First of all I don't belong there. I am not of the neighborhood and on a Friday there are going to be more young people out, especially by the snow cone place and my walking around taking pictures of their neighborhood and the visible hardship related to their suffering, I felt intuitively, is not what I should be doing. Instead, I will go there on Sunday morning when everyone is going to or coming home from church. I know from previous expereinces in the negihborhoods I am speaking about, that the vibration and people on the streets is different and I can have conversations with the neighbors and let them know what I am doing and why. I'll insert the picture at a later date.

Conciousness and caution.

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