It's Mardi Gras in the murder capital of the United States. New Orleans' most raucous parties and parades take place this long holiday weekend, which culminates on Fat Tuesday.
Carnival season officially kicked off on January 6th, a day that also closed out a week when more killings took place in New Orleans than in Iraq. New Orleans has seen 22 murders so far this year. New York, with 30 times more residents, has a 2007 murder count of 43.
The steady flow of national news reports that New Orleans has the nation's highest per capita homicide rate could not be more poorly timed. Tourism, responsible for 35 percent of New Orleans' budget and 85,000 jobs, has the power to make or break the city's still faltering recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
Tourism, says Mary Beth Romig of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, "is a perception-driven industry. If people think the city is not safe, they're not going to come." The crime wave, Romig says, "is a challenge for us. But it's nothing but good news to tell people that we have more police on the streets."
In fact there's been an all out troop surge in New Orleans.
The New Orleans Police Department is 85 percent re-staffed, while the city's population has been cut in half. Reinforcing local law enforcement are 300 National Guard and 60 state troopers, costing the state $500,000 a week. And the head of the notorious Orleans Parish Prison -- whose guards abandoned thousands of detainees in flooded, locked cells without food or water for days after Katrina hit -- has dispatched corrections officers to help patrol the streets.
Residents are concerned that the amassing of law enforcement, though it may improve the city's public image, will do little to improve public safety unless the local police force roots out corruption, gains community trust and addresses underlying causes of community destabilization.
"Why can't the NOPD solve the crime problem?" asks Robert Smallwood, an information technology consultant and longtime resident of the French Quarter. "Part of it is that they're corrupt to the core. It's common knowledge that they're in on it in terms of the drug trade."
A neighborhood survey by the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission found that only 38 percent of residents think the police department does a good job preventing crime and just 43 percent feel that police are trustworthy.
Smallwood stayed in the city during Katrina and wrote a book about his experience called The Five People You Meet in Hell. "I was one of the so-called 'looters,'" he says. "People were helping one another out, trying to get basics like food and water. The cops were watching. They had already taken all of the cigarettes and good meat."
Ursula Price, an investigator with the criminal defense organization A Fighting Chance, explains: "Police-community relations are a terrible problem in New Orleans. People are legitimately afraid to call the police or cooperate with them. There are documented cases of civilian retaliation against witnesses because cops leaked information."
The police are making a record number of arrests, about 900 a week. They're just not getting the bad guys. According to the watchdog organization Safe Streets Strong Communities, 80 percent of detainees in the parish jail are being held for non-violent offenses, mostly low-level drug and alcohol charges. Two-thirds of the city's murders go unsolved.
Price describes the case of a woman "who called 911 about a domestic violence incident. Instead of trying to help her, they ran her name and ended up arresting her on an outstanding traffic violation."
Advocates like Price don't dispute that the city has no a choice but to spend heavily on law enforcement. "But accountability and standards don't cost anything," she says. "There need to be consequences for officers who break the rules and they need to get out of their cruisers and interact with community members, respectfully, instead of treating everyone like a criminal."
Corlita Mahr who works with a local interfaith organization refers to them as "cops-in-cars" and says: "I only see police on my block when they're there to arrest somebody."
National Guard troops stationed in New Orleans, though most of them don't have civilian training, may be setting a better example. The New Orleans Times Picayune's Paul Purpura recently reported that Guardsmen, who call themselves "Task Force Gator," "sometimes employ an approach used in Iraq" of tossing brightly colored rubber balls emblazoned with military insignias to local children.
On January 11th, 5,000 New Orleanians picketed City Hall demanding that local leaders find answers to the crime crisis. The tipping point for the rally was the killing of a white film maker, Helen Hill, in the Faubourg Marigny district, a hot spot for nightlight that sits adjacent to the French Quarter. Hill was the first white victim in the murder wave. Most of the killings have involved African American youth, slaying one another.
Ultimately, says Ursula Price, the conditions in which New Orleans' children are living is the root of the crime problem. "I'd like to see just one investigation of a murder that looked at what's going on in the lives of the people involved."
The conditions are stark. Six graders are on waiting lists to get into public school. Public housing, though most units were undamaged by the storm, remains boarded up. There is no public mental health care in a city whose residents disproportionately suffer from depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Much of the city's infrastructure remains crippled; many of its streets are still piled with debris, burnt out cars and power lines. Graffiti still covers many abandoned buildings. In some neighborhoods the writing is still on the walls: "You loot. We shoot."
Not counting state and federal funds, law enforcement currently represents one-third of New Orleans' city budget. "We're banking against our children," says Reverend Sekou Osagyefo, "because of the kinds of investments we're making in arresting and incarcerating them, instead of rebuilding their communities."
Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie figures it's Willie Horton time again. Gillespie issued a statement condemning the anti-Bush voter mobilization project America Coming Together for employing people with past felony convictions.
"Democratic voters should be leery of opening their doors to political operatives until the Democrats can assure them that a convicted felon won't be on the other side," Gillespie cautioned.
But apparently, one man's dangerous felon is another's friendly poster boy. Former boxing mogul and Republican bad boy Don King is currently on Gillespie's payroll. King served three and a half years for manslaughter, has been indicted on federal felony charges including racketeering and tax fraud, and has most recently been hired to lead Republican public relations efforts in the African American community.
Gillespie's hypocrisy is obvious. It also contradicts his president's message of redemption for people coming out of the criminal justice system. In his 2004 State of the Union address, President Bush proposed a $300 million Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative to "expand job training and placement services." In Bush's words, "America is the land of second chances and when the gates of the prisons open, the path ahead should lead to a better life."
America Coming Together is taking Bush's call seriously, offering not only employment but also a chance for people with felony convictions to serve their communities and strengthen democratic participation. Given the dismal and demoralizing rates of voter participation in recent US elections (51 percent of eligible voters in 2000 and 49 percent in 1996, the lowest rate since 1960), more participation is good for democracy, period. Hiring voter outreach workers who have felony convictions is also good public policy.
According to a report released by the American Bar Association: "The most important predictive factor as to whether an offender will become a recidivist appears to be employment. Those who find work are less likely to re-offend.... To the extent that legal and attitudinal barriers to employing people with convictions can be removed, the chances of work increase and the likelihood of recidivism decreases."
Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, also sounded the call in an address to the ABA "to start a new public discussion about the prison system." He said, "It is the duty of the American people to begin that discussion at once." Kennedy cited the biblical promise of mitigation at judgment if one of your fellow citizens can say, "I was in prison, and ye came unto me." The same applies to those leaving prison and returning to their communities.
Ed Gillespie could learn a civics lesson or two from the very people he is stereotyping. Ethea Farahkhan, an organizer for the NAACP's Houston Branch and the Texas Unlock Your Vote Campaign says, "I'm a mother, a grandmother and a formerly incarcerated person. I've been registering people to vote for over 10 years, this is my life's work. You can't just tell people to have a stake in their community, you have to show them how."
Paul Robinson is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force in Mobile, Alabama. He mobilizes voters and advocates for the re-enfranchisement of the 4.7 million Americans, including at least 100,000 veterans, who have lost the right to vote because of mostly non-violent felony convictions.
Mr. Robinson says, "First I served my country. Then I served my time. Now I'm following in the tradition of our national civil rights heroes from Alabama by bringing my people out to vote. I have the right and the responsibility to conduct voter outreach in my community."
This year 600,000 people will return home from prisons in the United States. A total of two million Americans – or one in 143 people – are incarcerated, and five million Americans have a felony conviction. People who have a felony conviction but have rebuilt their lives against the odds should be encouraged. Harassing them for doing the right thing is shameful.
Did some of the ACT employees make past mistakes? Undoubtedly. To err is human. But these workers are maintaining gainful employment and demonstrating accountability and connection to their communities. They are to be emulated, not shunned. Our job is to encourage their reintegration, not banishment.
I should disclose that this matters to me because I care about democracy in my country, and also because the issue hits home. My husband was convicted for a felony. He served seven years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He is a full-time proponent for social justice and effective public policy. I couldn't imagine a better role model for his two sons. To suggest that he's a threat or that he should be prohibited from engaging in voter mobilization would be the real crime.
The people that the RNC has publicly vilified aren't criminals lurking in the dark. They are our sisters, brothers, fellow church members, and co-workers. We all interact daily with people with felony convictions. Perhaps Gillespie is more threatened by real grassroots voter mobilization than by working with people who have felony convictions in their past.
The day after Super Tuesday, Bay Area teenagers demonstrated what it's going to take to get money out of politics. In the winter rain at 5 pm, 500 youth -- outraged at the passage of a California ballot measure that will spend $5 billion in the next ten years prosecuting 14 year olds as adults for as little as $400 in property damage -- rallied in the belly of San Francisco's shopping district.At 5:30 the assembly took to the street, on march to a site they'd targeted once before: a four-star Hilton Hotel, symbolic of W. Barron Hilton's $10,000 investment in passing Proposition 21. The most draconian juvenile justice law in the nation, Prop 21 passed by a margin of 62 percent. Renamed "The War on Youth Initiative" by its young opponents, Prop 21 has galvanized a new protest movement determined to get money out of prisons and into schools.If incarceration is today's analogy to Jim Crow segregation, then California is the Deep South of the prison problem. By 6:00 pm, the rowdy but disciplined protesters had converted the chandeliered Hilton lobby into one of the first sit-ins by the hip-hop generation. Around 7:00 pm, San Francisco police arrested 150 young people who committed non-violent civil disobedience in the name of their future. Not bad for a movement that, less than 24 hours before, got trounced at the polls."The by-product of the passage of Prop 21 is that we now have a stronger youth movement," says Pecolia Manigo, a 17 year-old student organizer. "We'll keep rising up until we overthrow the system that funds prisons instead of our schools." Mangio's organization, the Third Eye Movement, is part of Critical Resistance Youth Force, a northern California coalition that has swelled to include 38 youth groups united to fight Prop 21. Youth organizers in southern California also mobilized thousands of young people and accomplished unprecedented walk-outs from middle and high schools. A statewide youth summit called "Upset the Set-Up" is scheduled for early May. Organizers say they'll use the event to hatch a pro-active campaign against the prison industrial complex, one untangled from high-finance electoral politics.Though it was defeated on election day, the new youth movement went up against Prop 21 with all its might. The law prescribes year-long prison sentences for 14-year old graffiti writers and felony charges for middle school students found guilty of any activity construed loosely as "gang recruitment." Prop. 21 undermines the concept of rehabilitative juvenile justice in California and could conceivably do national damage, given the role of the state's initiative process in spawning past tax revolts, "three-strikes" laws, anti-immigrant hysteria and the dismantling of affirmative action.The youth movement against Prop 21 bravely faced the Sisyphean challenges inherent in waging an electoral fight: how to "get out the vote" from an electorate that fears youth of color -- and often buys into the demonization of them as "superpredators" -- as well as from friends and family who think voting booths have all the relevance of rotary phones.At the same time, anti-Prop 21 organizers redefined what it means to "win." The movement's leaders used Prop. 21 as an opportunity to build long-haul organizing drives and sustainable coalitions. According to Van Jones of the New York and San Francisco-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights: "History will record Prop 21 as a trigger. This is the beginning of an incredible movement that's going to change the face of politics in California and in the country." Jones underscores the power of the new civil rights movement and its capacity to win the hearts and minds of the public: "Prop 21 was only defeated in counties where the youth organized and protested. The youth know what they're doing. They won't stop until they break the back of the prison industrial complex. And they're starting right here in Calabama."That "back-breaking" strategy -- which centers on marrying long-term movement-building with short-term electoral fighting -- was pioneered in the Golden State by an organization called Californians for Justice. This approach naturally attracts young people: over 40 percent of the volunteers in CFJ's last campaign were under 20. CFJ's army of young recruits attempts to mobilize those labeled "occasional," even "unlikely" on voter lists. "We take on issues that impact low-income communities of color and screen the voter lists for who's impacted by these issues," explains CFJ Co-Director Abdi Soltani.California's ballot initiative process, designed to circumvent the state legislature, has historically attacked constituencies marginalized from the electorate. CFJ's counter-strategy is to build political power from the grassroots. Young people are crucial to this plan, but are disinclined to engage in a political process that has neglected and scapegoated them. With Prop. 21, CFJ saw the alchemy of youthful cynicism into potent outrage. Kim Miyoshi, the 27 year-old statewide director of the No on 21 field campaign, suggests that the 2.5 million Californians who voted against Prop 21 would have nearly doubled had people under 18 been able to vote.Over the past decade, 45 states have made it easier to try kids as adults (in some states, this means children as young as 12), but Prop. 21 -- because of the sentencing power it grants prosecutors; the limitations it places on juvenile probation; the death penalty it creates for certain gang offenses; the manner in which it defines and criminalizes "gang" association and the confidentiality it breaks of juvenile court records -- is the most sweeping and punitive policy in the nation.The 43-page initiative makes no funding provisions and, according to the California Legislative Analyst's Office, will cost state social programs over $300 million a year. In 30 years, Prop. 21 will require 22,000 new prison spaces at a cost of $1 billion. Though its proponents and the Columbine-fixated media report otherwise, Prop. 21 is not a response to a "juvenile crime wave." From 1990 to 1998, California's juvenile felony arrest rate dropped 30 percent; juvenile homicide arrests fell 61 percent. In both categories of crime, African American, Asian and Latino youth showed far greater reductions than white youth.CFJ's Emmanuelle Regis doesn't need statistics to state her case: "I take Prop. 21 personally." A 19 year-old student in San Diego, Regis lost a family member to police violence and grew up in schools she describes as prisons. Like her Vietnam War protest predecessors, Regis has a vested interest in stopping the US war on crime. For young activists, this means there are rallies to secure, media appearances to make, organizations to build, hip hop benefits to produce and -- in the case of legislation like Prop 21 -- new votes to tap.People of color increased from 20 to 30 percent of California's electorate in the 1990s. Half of the state's population, people of color vote 10 percent less frequently than the general electorate. CFJ views this through a magnifying glass and sees a huge pool of potential voters. CFJ combines voter turnout with traditional grassroots base-building and targeted 500-600 precincts in low-income communities of color in its "No on 21" campaign.The racial divide in voter participation is linked to a deeper disparity. Two-thirds of Californians over 40 are white, but over 60 percent of those under 20 are youth of color. The "browning" of California is disproportionately young. This demographic shift, combined with the fact that only 14 percent of voters have children in school, corresponds with a dismal disinvestment from public education. According to UC Berkeley Cultural Geography Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore, California spends $10,000 per minute -- every minute of the year -- on prisons and less than half of that per student, per year on K-14 education, ranking the state 41st in the country in school spending.Prop. 21 scapegoated youth of color while apparently ignoring the criminal incivilities of older white people. Since 1990 the violent felony arrest rate for white Californians over 30 has increased 20 percent. For every other racial group over 30, this rate decreased.Given the public's deception about California's real crime culprit and its fear of "violent gang youth," the movement against Prop. 21 had a significant PR problem. The media messages important to seekers of social justice were not necessarily the ones that would prove effective with the increasingly diverse, yet still disproportionately white, middle class Californian electorate. For instance, the results of focus groups told grassroots campaigners that their instincts to focus on Prop. 21's racist implications -- making graffiti and gang recruitment felonies and tracking more youth of color into adult courts and prisons -- were incorrect and would not resonate with traditional voters. Pre-election polls showed most voters supporting any alleged attempt to crack down on gangs and not particularly caring about disproportionate racial impact.Keeping this in mind, media-savvy youth organizers reminded their elders in the civil rights and juvenile justice establishments that progressives never win by playing to the middle. Youth campaigners schooled themselves on the mistakes of past campaigns. Conceding that "yes, there is an immigration/crime problem, this just isn't the best way to resolve it" or insinuating that "yes, youth are predisposed to behave violently, but we just need to prevent it" not only fail to win the battles -- they also end up costing the war.Instead, youth organizers framed hard-hitting messages about the human and fiscal impact of Prop. 21 and soundbited the reduction in youth crime. They leveraged new resources and support from the entertainment industry, labor, teachers and gay and faith communities and kept their eyes on the prize of sustaining the grassroots movement.For emergent youth organizers in California, it was never about winning or losing on Prop. 21, but always about building the movement. Prop. 21 was an opportunity to develop political unity, train lifelong leaders and build an unshakable foundation. Says youth organizer Ryan Pintado-Vertner: "We were determined to come out of this fight with something we could hold on to -- and that's the movement. We got momentum. So we didn't lose."Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union is investigating legal challenges to Prop 21. The most immediate concern is the state's use of two separate ballot summaries of Prop 21. Pre-election polls showed that given one summary -- the one on the ballot in only nine counties -- only 24 percent of voters supported the measure. Given the other summary -- the one used in the huge majority of counties that used inflammatory language like "gang-related felonies," "home invasion robberies," "car jackings," and "drive-by shootings" -- they voted in favor of the measure. California Attorney General Lockyer has called the use of two dramatically different ballot statements a mistake.To request information or offer support contact Critical Resistance Youth Force at 510.444.0484; 1212 Broadway, Suite 1400, Oakland, CA 94612, www.YouthEC.org or Californians for Justice at 510.452.2728, 1611 Telegraph Avenue, Room 206, Oakland, Ca 94612.An earlier version of this article appeared in The Nation.