Do black lives matter? In a high-crime city, apparently not. New Orleans is a sad reminder that good policing and prosecution save black live
New Orleans was supposed to be different by now. Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office in 2010, replacing Katrina-era Ray Nagin, who is serving a 10-year federal prison sentence for corruption.
Landrieu made it clear that his critical task was to cut violence. “The city of New Orleans is not safe,” he said back then. “Something is drastically wrong.”
Something’s still drastically wrong.
Last month, football player Will Smith, who won the Super Bowl with the Saints in 2009, was shot to death after a minor car crash in New Orleans’s tranquil Garden District.
Smith had little in common with the average New Orleans murder victim — except he was a black man. His killing spurred Landrieu to bluntly make that point. “In New Orleans,” he said in a speech at Tulane University shortly after, “over 90 percent of our murder victims are African-Americans.”
“The question is, do we care?” he asked. “Because some people still think that black lives really do not matter.”
Since he took office, Landrieu said, “1,003 men and women [have been] lost to murder . . . And less than 24 hours after Will Smith was killed, another life was taken.”
New Orleans regularly has the highest or second-highest murder rate in the country. If New York had that murder rate, we’d have 3,910 deaths a year, instead of, last year, 352.
But numbers aren’t as wrenching as one almost unbelievable story that Landrieu told.
He reminded the audience that Briana Allen, a 5-year-old black child, died during her cousin’s 10th birthday party, shot in the head by a gunman with an AK-47. What happened next? Briana’s father, a drug dealer, is believed to have killed someone in retaliation — and is in prison for life for a different crime.
Briana’s uncle, too, “would be dead within the year,” Landrieu said, “ambushed by two men with assault rifles.”
And the 10-year-old birthday boy, who was wounded himself? Five months later, his stepmother murdered his father — and months after that, the boy was wounded again, shot at a parade.
What’s going on?
New Orleans starts with a disadvantage. Consider: New York’s Police Department and other agencies took nearly 4,000 guns off the streets in 2014, often through proactive policing. Last month alone, the NYPD took three guns from people in the subway — two from people allegedly trying to evade the fare.
Lots of these guns come from the South — where laws are laxer — so they don’t have as far to travel to get to New Orleans.
Plus, taking illegal weapons off the streets is expensive, hard and dangerous. New Orleans has never been good at preventing murders, rather than prosecuting them.
Ironically, failing to prevent murders perpetuates another tragedy: a high prison rate. Louisiana has triple New York state’s incarceration rate. As Landrieu said of a different killer who shot a different child, the state has spent more than half a million dollars to keep him away for life.
Too bad for him a competent police officer didn’t stop, question and frisk him committing a lower-level crime, and then take away his gun.
There’s a rough-justice element, too: People arm themselves and feel safer. But it didn’t help Smith that someone in his car had a loaded revolver.
And it’s far too common for white and black New Orleanians to dismiss crime victims as deserving what they got.
Last weekend, for example, white Tulane grad Thomas Rolfe, a former Mitt Romney campaign staffer, was shot to death near a gas station at around 4 a.m. The natural reaction on New Orleans message boards was to say that he can’t have been up to any good wandering the ghetto alone.
Maybe not, and maybe he was helping a lost nun cross the street. But either way, he didn’t deserve the death penalty.
Nor do the small-time black drug dealers and robbers who are among those who die. They deserve the rule of law, not street justice. Cities like New York, with low murder rates, care enough about criminals to police and prosecute them competently rather than see them kill or be killed.
Indeed, in his speech, Landrieu said we “especially” have to save “those we ignore, the thieves, the drug dealers, the so-called thugs. These lives matter.”