The Queen City of the South is under siege. No, not from hurricanes. This time, the siege is from within. New Orleans is known as the city that care forgot. But it’s been hard to let the good times roll in the Big Easy when the dice keep coming up snake eyes.
New Orleans is in a battle to stay afloat as it deals with major street crime, corrupt politicians, and a dysfunctional criminal justice system where even federal officials can no longer be trusted. Author James Lee Burke writes about this corruption and dysfunction in his novel Last Car to Elysian Fields. “One of the most beautiful cities in the Western hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by forces of nature.”
New Orleans is a city that for years has had the highest per capita murder rate in the nation, where multiple killings often happen on a daily basis, a town that is rated as one of the five most dangerous cities in the world. But even with such a reputation, it was hard to fathom the recent shootings of 10 tourists on Bourbon Street. And such violence is not a unique event. Just last year, “Gunfire erupted at a parade to celebrate Mother's Day, injuring 19, including two 10-year-old kids,” according to police. Such violence goes beyond the street shootings that seem to happen almost daily in New Orleans. When a gunman indiscriminately fires into a crowd, it’s an act of terrorism.
Many crimes go unreported out of the sense of frustration that nobody will do anything about it, anyway. Recently, a young relative of mine was walking uptown from the French Quarter. Just across Canal, in one of the busier sections of the city, a man steps out of nowhere and without rhyme or reason, punches him in the face. In an instant, my relative had become a victim of the “knockout game,” a brutal ritual where street thugs approach an innocent bystander and try, in one blow, to knock him out. He suffered a concussion and had his jaw wired shut for weeks. This type of street violence seems to happen all the time.
Another blow to confidence in the city’s leadership hit this week, when the former two term Mayor Ray Nagin was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for taking bribes while in office. Nagin will be remembered as the mayor who ran off to Dallas with his family when New Orleans was plummeted by Hurricane Katrina. And when the murder rate continued to clime under his watch, the best observation he could offer was: “Oh well, it keeps the New Orleans brand out there.”
Current New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has asked for state and federal help, and for good reason. After Katrina, the governor sent in 300 hundred national guard troops to maintain order. And this time, he needs to send in a lot more. Recently, the governor of Colorado committed more than 600 guardsmen to help feed cattle whose welfare had been threatened by the blizzards. If you can bring in more guardsmen for cattle, the state should be willing to do it for people.
Some might argue that the presence of soldiers on the streets will dampen tourism. Not so in my opinion. After Katrina, I hosted a daily radio program in New Orleans and was out each evening for walks and to meet friends for dinner. National guardsmen were prominent throughout the downtown area, and we all felt much safer because of their presence. So turn loose the National Guard Governor, to give a comfort level to the millions of tourists who help drive the state’s economy.
New Orleans can be either a unique place to live and work, or it can slowly drift into the cosmos due to a justified fear of crime. There’s a fight to keep the bright, dynamic young leadership in the city and be an integral force in molding the future of New Orleans. But it all begins with feeling safe, doesn’t it? And right now, the Crescent City still has a long way to go.