A Hot Summer: One Loss Is One Too Many
It's May. High schoolers are approaching final exam week, college students have returned home for the summer, work hours have been doubled to save up for vacations, graduation and festival season is among us, and it's hot as cheese outside. While summer means freedom and relaxation for many of us, this time of year has given me anxiety for some time now.
Hearing "Lawd, it's gonna be a hot summer," in New Orleans is a double entendre. New Orleans summers have broken heat records over the past three years, with just last week (May 15, 2018) marking our hottest May date in history. While some citizens and news reporters jokingly celebrated this new record, I could not help but to question what this meant for Black New Orleans. Among Black New Orleans youth, "It's gonna be a hot summer" translates to "It's gonna be a bloody summer." As of May 2018, New Orleans has reached 72 murders. In 2017, we surpassed Chicago in murders per capita. In 2016, we reached an increase in murder for the second year in a row, and 2015 marked a surge in murders after having a two-year drop. Studies have been done on New Orleans specifically, seeking to find whether or not an increase in temperature causes an increase in crime. There has been no scientific evidence to prove such, but quite frankly, I could care less about data and statistics in regards to something that we as young, Black, New Orleanians know all too well.
The high murder rate in New Orleans is representative of urban communities across the country. Wherever you find high levels of violent crime, you'll find high levels of poverty, low income levels, poor education, and lack of resources. To fully understand how to move forward and formulate solutions, one must first understand how we got here in the first place (bare with me here).
"Redlining" is a discriminatory practice in which various services were denied to Black and brown people, including through the raising of prices. Lines were literally drawn on maps to designate Black neighborhoods as "hazardous" and designate zones that kept Black people out of white neighborhoods. Banks would deny loans from residents in Black areas, ultimately causing a domino effect of decline. Then came public housing, which was segregated from the jump (the Iberville Projects were originally built for white residents, the Lafitte Projects were built for Black residents). Then, through a process called "urban renewal," large construction projects (ex. the Claiborne Interstate) were built to create physical lines of division, isolating Black areas.
In the previous NOIR 'N NOLA article, "From Basin to Backatown: The Untold Story of Storyville," I explained how the Storyville district came about. Prostitution, gambling, and other illicit activities were tolerated in that one area to make it easier for authorities to regulate. Same rules applied with segregation. Once you contain and isolate a group of people into designated areas, it becomes much easier to control them. "The Crack Era" is known as the 1980s-1990s American Crack Epidemic, in which there was a surge of crack cocaine use among Black communities across the nation, including New Orleans. The introduction of crack cocaine destroyed our communities: homicide rates doubled, drug distribution was prominent, and users either suffered tremendously, got hooked, and/or died from the effects of the drug. There has always been talk and circumstantial evidence that the government played a huge role in bringing not only drugs, but also guns and assault rifles into the Black community. Whether you believe this or not is up to your discretion. All I know is, Black people barely had access to decent housing, jobs, and education during that time. To think that we had access to planes and boats in Nicaragua, Cuba, Colombia, and wherever else to even obtain these guns and drugs is literally laughable.
We see a NOLA.com article about a shooting in a certain area and check in on friends and family to make sure they're okay, "I heard they shooting over there." We send "Be safe" to each other every time we leave the house and "Let me know when you make it inside" after leaving any function. We fall to our knees at early morning/late night phone calls saying that a loved one just got killed. We see a tweet saying "so and so got shot" and call around in a period of panic to make sure that's not OUR so and so. Next, it's the "Rest In Peace" pictures and videos, and the reality actually starts to settle in. A week of disbelief. Then the funerals, R.I.P. shirts, cutouts, and the second lines. While New Orleans is incredibly unique in the use of jazz funerals and second lines to properly send a loved one home, we experience this tradition ENTIRELY too often. Once the celebrations of life have ended, we have to return as functioning members of society while carrying the trauma and stress surrounding loss along with us.
Nobody talks about mental health when it affects Black people, and if it is discussed, it's with a negative stigma. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that develops in people that have experienced a traumatic, shocking, or stressful event (ex. death of a loved one, natural disasters, abuse, etc). This month, Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill summed up PTSD in the Black community in his Breakfast Club interview:
"A lot of people are really hurting, and seeing a lot of bad things. Traumatized from being in ruthless environments, and really got something going on, but the only way we was taught to express ourselves is through anger. [...] People getting murdered left and right, this is what you seeing. You can be in the army three months, and see somebody get killed in a bush, one of your cadets. You probably knew him for a year and a half -- what about the lil kid you grew up with [...] you see him five years later with his brains blown out on the curb. I don't have PTSD?"
This is the reality for many Black people across the nation. On top of childhood trauma, this generation of Black New Orleans is the Katrina generation. Some of my peers watched family members die in flood waters, were stuck on roofs and interstates, witnessed or experienced stabbings, shootings, and sexual assaults, and watched this city deteriorate before their own eyes. Therefore, Black New Orleanians are susceptible to PTSD in various forms: childhood trauma, exposure to violence, and natural disasters.
There is a complex form of PTSD known as collective trauma, including transgenerational trauma. Transgenerational trauma is the trauma transferred from the first generation of trauma survivors to further generations of offspring. I have only ever heard about transgenerational trauma in reference to the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. I don't know but uh, I think that 300 years of slavery, nearly a century of segregation, and 65+ years of mass incarceration, police brutality, and the War on Drugs would constitute as transgenerational trauma within the Black community.
Mental health is so deeply embedded in our communities, we don't even know where to begin to talk about it. Budget cuts have diminished affordability and accessibility to mental health resources and we have the crime numbers to show for it. While I am in no position to diagnose our entire community with mental illnesses, I do know that as a whole, Black New Orleans has been traumatized in more ways than one. Although we carry our trauma well and decorate our resilience through it as a badge of honor, the main point is that we should not have to.
Too many of us have become numb and desensitized to this problem. There is NOTHING normal about having to be overly cautious every time we step out of our homes. There is NOTHING normal about us growing up without the childhood friends that we started with. There is NOTHING normal about having to question the intentions of everyone around us. There is NOTHING normal about Black mothers burying their children and being left to pick up the pieces. And there is NOTHING normal about Black people seeing the grave before they even reach 25. The crime has become so normalized, we start making excuses for it. "It's like this every summer," "That's how the game go," "Everything happens for a reason," "He was into stuff like that," etc.
What makes New Orleans' crime so hard to contain is that it is always senseless and over absolutely nothing, making it harder to pinpoint. If it was just a gang problem, you could easily classify it as "turf wars," but you have dudes from the same hoods, same group of friends, sometimes the same FAMILY, "beefed out" and killing each other. Back in the day, there was at LEAST some form of a "G-code" where women and children were off limits, but today they don't care whether you're male, female, pregnant, sick, young, or elderly. We have strayed so far away from the sanctity and value of our lives. It's a generation of young dudes feeling like they have nothing to live for, so they don't value your life or their own. Others have dealt with so much in their adolescence that they feel is if the world owes them something. Some are imitating what they see in their environment and think that "role" will earn them respect. Guns give people a sense of control in a situation, a sense of control that historically, Black people have not had in the greater scheme of things. While I understand the societal factors that got us to this point, I will never, ever see justification in senseless violence.
We've been set up. Our communities were systematically isolated, the tools to kill one another were thrown right into our laps, and we fell for it. Instead of hating racist systems and working around them, we hate the man that looks like us, from the same conditions as us, with the same underlying goals and dreams as us: to be successful. Many people blame New Orleans' crime issues on a "crabs in a bucket" mentality: as soon as one person starts climbing to make it out their condition, there is another person that drags them back down... "If I can't have it, neither can you." We've seen it every time a young person was killed just before they reached their peak or their prime. That "crabs in a bucket" mentality comes from a lack of resources. If the goal is to eat, but the food isn't being distributed evenly, then any living being will naturally go into survival mode, "It's either me or him." In survival mode, one only looks out for themselves, in fear of going hungry. Can you imagine how different things would be if the one that made it out returned back with enough food for everybody?
"I gotta get out of New Orleans" is not a solution to crime when people that you know and love are still here, and every other urban city in America has these exact same issues. At some point, ALL of us need to hold ourselves and each other accountable, because between that man in the White House, police brutality, and gentrification in our neighborhoods; we don't have time for this.
We cannot say "Free so and so" when so and so is a killer, but then be devastated when we know the victim. We cannot continue being complacent with those that are into things that threatens their lives and the others around them. We cannot only care about violence when it's just someone we know. We cannot keep glamorizing a lifestyle that has caused so much destruction to our community. And to be clear, hip-hop sheds light on violence in our communities, it doesn't breed it. We have a moral responsibility to be real with ourselves, each other, and implement EFFECTIVE change on a smaller scale within our personal relationships.
In the process of editing this piece, two additional homicides occurred before I even ate breakfast this morning. There is no clear solution to a problem that existed long before me and you. There isn't just one way to solve this, as crime stems from a number of factors, but I have faith that this generation will be the shift in culture that New Orleans has needed. We owe it to ourselves and the ones that we've lost to change this culture of violence in our city, because Lord knows we can't afford any more losses.
While in this summer heat when everybody's nerves are bad, there ain't no telling what minor conflict could result in violence. The crime in New Orleans has been an issue for decades now, and we can no longer wait around for local and federal governments to fix it. Although laws and legislation are important, we do not have the time to wait decades for "change" through policy. Our friends and family are being killed now.
This is my vow and intention to advocate for and implement change in our community, with combatting gun violence at the forefront. This is my challenge to all of you to do what you can with what you have, and push change in your daily lives and interactions. It won't be overnight, and we may lose more over the course of this, but continue to do the work on your end; whether that's encouraging a friend to stop hanging around the wrong crowd, or serving as a positive influence to a younger cousin or sibling. Pool your talents together as Black New Orleans, and put it back into the city, ward, and hood that made you. The same energy that we have when someone talks down on our city is the same energy we need to have amongst each other, daily. The same way we are in defense when people come in and try to change our culture, is the same defense we need to have for our lives. To the ones that "made it" or are up and coming, you have the platform now. Use it and extend a helping hand, even if no one ever extended it to you. This city produces the GREATEST, most talented and resilient people in the world, but if we aren't putting it back into our communities, we did it for all the wrong reasons.
The New Orleans that we wish to see is in our hands now. The sooner we're able to look at each other as reflections rather than competition, I know we'll be 'ight. To all the ones that we have lost due to senseless murder -- your life did not go in vain. Somehow through this culture of violence, you slipped right through our hands and as a people and as a city, we failed you. Without you, there would be no NOIR 'N NOLA. This brand is what it is and began when it did in honor of the young, Black souls that's supposed to be here.