Je t’aime New Orleans. The vibrant people, music, art, history, food, architecture, atmosphere, and laissez-faire attitude of the city inspire relaxation, romance, and freedom. Earlier this year, my husband (then brand-new boyfriend) and I enjoyed a spontaneous post-New Year’s Eve romp in the Crescent City. On a road trip from East Texas to our home in Atlanta, we stopped through New Orleans to savor chargrilled oysters at Felix’s and vibe to King James and the Special Men at Sidney’s Saloon. Though cold, rainy, and relatively empty, the city was intoxicating. My date and I kissed on street corners as we stumbled into the wee hours of the morning through dark and beautiful enclaves. Drunk on cheap bourbon and passion, we somehow made it back to our hotel after stuffing our faces with warm Café Du Monde beignets. Months later, I realized I fell in love with my husband in New Orleans. Now, that was a good time; and we will be rolling back through this February 2017 to laissez les bons temps roulez one mo’gin.
Like most elements, New Orleans has its good and bad sides. Known for celebrating this natural balance of dark and light in the human spirit, New Orleans maintains a culture that paradoxically inspires life and death. Ironically, as my love was budding in the French Quarter, the city claimed its first noted murder of 2016. Myeisha McDaniels, 22, was shot and killed on Jan. 2, 2016, at 8:49 p.m. She had recently graduated from Dillard University with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Twelve months later, McDaniels’ death is a red dot on New Orleans’ murder map hosted by the Times-Picayune. She’s one of 176 humans killed in 2016. Red dot number 32 is former New Orleans Saints defensive leader Will Smith, who was shot and killed by Cardell Hayes following a minor car crash on April 9. Months later, dots 91 and 92 hit too close to home for entrepreneur, reality television star and NOLA native Toya Wright, whose two brothers, Ryan “Rudy” Johnson, 24, and Joshua “Fish” Johnson, 31, were found shot to death in a car just after midnight, July 31. The ex-wife of Lil Wayne, who also hails from New Orleans, shared with People how she learned her brothers had been killed: “I got a call from my sister-in-law and she was like, ‘Your brothers just got shot,’ ” recalls Wright, who was hosting a party in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at the time of the call. “The music was loud and I’m [thinking], this can’t be real.”
But it was and is real for others on the murder statistics map, which includes red dot 166, Tyre Smith, 18, who was killed on Dec. 4 in Treme. According to NOLA.com, “Police said the incident was originally classified as an untimely death, but when the coroner arrived, a puncture wound was discovered in the man’s neck.” There are also unborn babies, TBDs (to be determined), an 88-year-old woman, teenagers, and 2-month-old Justice Willard Brown Jr. The list notes that the murder rates for New Orleans were up from 2015, which closed at 164. Further, 2015 presented a spike from declining rates in 2013 (156) and 2014 (150), the latter exhibiting the city’s lowest murder total of the last four decades.
While this spike is intriguing and sobering, New Orleans’ murder map illustrates only a blip on the radar considering the ominous view of the entire country. While Chicago’s murder map uses the less analogous blue dot to represent the blood spilled on the city’s streets, the homicides reported by the Chicago Tribune totaled 779 for 2016, up 311 from 2015. This rise correlates with the number of shooting victims reported by the Tribune: 2016 saw 4,368 humans shot in Chicago; in 2015, that number was 2,989. The number of attempted murders by bullet in 2016 included nine people shot Thursday, Dec. 29. On Wednesday, Dec. 28, 10 people were shot. The city, nicknamed “Chiraq,” is taking note of the rise. A recent Tribune headline on this very topic noted, “Persistent, random and spreading: Chicago violence has soared to levels not seen in nearly 20 years.”
Quiet as it’s kept by media talking heads and politicians, most don’t realize Chicago has nothing on St. Louis. According to FBI data, the city has the highest per capita murder rate in the country. It has risen more than 60 percent since 2000. The 2016 St. Louis murder map uses a mix of colorful dots scattered across a map of the city to represent the various methods by which some 309 humans were killed. A white dot notes the Jan. 2 beating death of a woman whose male neighbor was only a “casual [acquaintance],” notes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. On the map, there are other colorful dots: green notes death by asphyxiation; gray is a suspicious death; blue represents a police shooting; yellow is a stabbing; baby blue is child abuse; red, the most plentiful color, notes a shooting.
Though devastating, murder map statistics in cities like St. Louis and Chicago fail to intrigue me in the way of those red dots on New Orleans’ murder map. NOLA is a small, Southern settlement whose soul shines from deep within the bones of its architecture and through its natural beauty with charm and ease. It is a city built to welcome people in, give them a seat at the table and a shot of bourbon, to boot. The city depends on tourism and newbie residents seeking a new way of life in the “Big Easy,” a moniker meant to describe the easygoing way of life in the city. But life in New Orleans is anything but easy for current residents. As Toya Wright told People when her brothers were brutally murdered, “Murders happen every day and this is another dark night in New Orleans. You hear about stories like this all the time, but it doesn’t really hit you until you get that call. It hits so close to home.”
This reality is echoed throughout the media. According to AreaVibes, an organization that ranks the best places to live in America based on a “livability” score, New Orleans ranks second on a list of the “10 most murderous cities in the United States” (No. 1 went to Detroit). AV, which based its data on murder rates per 100,000 residents, shared that New Orleans’ murder rate is “41.3 per 100,000 residents. With a population of 343,000, the city puts 156 new murders on the books each year.” While AV’s research may be skewed based on readership and intention, Neighborhood Scout presented similar results. Basing its data only on cities with 25K or more people, it ranked New Orleans the seventh most deadly city in America. An area map notes that one’s chance of becoming a victim of murder in New Orleans is 1 in 104.
Not surprisingly, that chance is higher if one is a Black male. Most of the red dots on NOLA’s murder map represent Black men who, like Will Smith, were killed by other Black men. This visual presents a decades-old scourge impacting the mortality of Black American men. The subject of 1990s movies, hip-hop unity songs, and “state of the Black community” addresses by the likes of Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, “black-on-black” and “brother-on-brother” crime are a most lethal comrade to crooked cops in brutalizing Black males. To blame is a lack of cultural consciousness seeded in Black boys due to poor parenting, community and family ties, and education — plus other socioeconomic factors impacting housing, diet, and quality of life — feeding a legal system set to criminalize their every movement from the cradle to the grave. Just last year, Jefferson Davis Parish in Louisiana voted to ban “sagging pants,” creating the latest in a seemingly unending list of ethno-criminal offenses. New Orleans is a veritable playground for these conditions; thus, the city gets more deadly each year — likely a microcosm of what has been happening in cities like Chicago and St. Louis, as well.
To many Black men, it has become a game of “kill or be killed.” Even Cardell Hayes, who was just found guilty of manslaughter for shooting Will Smith, wasn’t some crazed and violent killer per family and friends. The father was simply one of two Black men driving in a city where those who are aware of the deadly murder statistics are “strapped,” and ready to protect themselves in the face of senseless violence. According to Hayes, both he and Smith were armed and it was likely one of them would fall in the draw. Hayes testified that he feared Smith. “I knew for a fact that I was going to get shot,” he said before recalling Smith’s words that were also heard by witnesses: “… you got your gun. Well, I’m going to get mine and I’ll show you what to do with it.” I dare not say Hayes was the lucky man, but a red dot he is not, and his son will see him again.
Other Black men have also tried to outwit their odds of becoming a grim speck on New Orleans’ murder map. Red dot 164 represents Ricardo Hollins, 40, who died on Nov. 30, just six months after publishing his debut novel, Murda Capital. The dark narrative is a fictional account of his life growing up in the deadly Magnolia housing projects in New Orleans. Family members say the father of three was a poet who intended to continue publishing books. His aunt, Jacqueline Hollins-Franklin, 55, told NOLA.com, “It was his way of getting off the streets and saying to young Black men ‘Don’t do what I did. Don’t go down this path.’ ” Speaking of the shocking loss, Hollins-Franklin recalled, “We had come out of a fear he would be killed in the streets. … Since he was 25, we had thought he had made it.” Hollins was shot while standing on a street corner chatting with a friend.
Whether Black, White, male, or female, the bloodthirsty murder map of 2016 is bad news for New Orleans and worse news for the families and friends of those killed. While NOLA doesn’t pride itself on being Disneyland-safe and small-town-squeaky-clean, at some point the bodies will need to stop piling up if the good times are to continue to roll. Perhaps there’s hope. Last month, the New Orleans Health Department and partners hosted the fourth annual Youth Violence Prevention Summit in New Orleans. The summit is a part of Democratic Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s strategy to reduce the murder rate under his program Nola For Life. The Nola.gov website states the event united “youth, service providers, city officials, community members, and organizations to engage in meaningful dialogue and participate in topics related to violence prevention.”
“Violence is preventable, not inevitable. I commend the work of our Health Department and dedicated partners in treating violence as a public health issue, and ensuring that prevention is a part of the NOLA FOR LIFE strategy to end the epidemic of murders in New Orleans,” said Landrieu. “Today’s fourth Annual Youth Violence Prevention Summit demonstrated our continued commitment to uplifting our young people. … By standing with our youth as a community, we can stop violence from happening before it occurs.”
12.2.16 Youth Violence Summit Health Dept. Mayors Office New Orleans, LS, Photo credit: nola.gov
Still, Landrieu’s got some work to do if he’s truly committed to effecting change. Journalist Ivory Jones, who was born and raised in New Orleans, says, “After the fiasco of Ray Nagin, Mitch Landrieu said all the right things to get the Black vote. He promised to help our communities rebuild and bring jobs back to the city. Instead, we’ve gotten a ramped-up tourism push, with the majority of money going into making the city more convenient for tourists, while the locals struggle to find affordable housing. In a city that only had Black mayors since the year I was born, I think many had hoped that he would bring about a change in the city. Unfortunately for them, the change hasn’t been in their favor.”