You may not have noticed it. After all, there have been plenty of distractions: the holiday season; the Saints' frustrating first round playoff loss; and the start of the Mardi Gras season. These are all pretty big deals. But the fact is, New Orleans is in crisis. In 2010, there were 175 murders in the Big Easy. And it looks like the vast majority of both the murderers and the victims were black young men and boys.
I have heard people argue that New Orleans' murder rate has been high for decades and most of the murders are drug related. So if you steer clear of drugs and bad neighborhoods, then you will be okay. The fact is, however, this rationalization and seeming acceptance of the high murder rate is proof that we are in crisis in the worst way.
We are shell shocked.
Shell shock is a stress reaction termed during World War I. It was used to describe a neurosis caused by soldiers affected by the terrors and rigors of war and combat. Soldiers were so disturbed by the horrors of war that they were incapable of managing basic life decisions. Shell shocked soldiers were indecisive and unable to prioritize. They suffered constant mental fatigue and appeared disconnected from their physical surroundings.
Similarly, New Orleans has been focused on everything except the high murder rate. And rather than focusing on solving the problem, over the past several years, the city has focused on everything except the root causes of crime, like the failing education system, the lack of recreation programs, execrable poverty and sub-standard housing.
In recent months, elected and appointed leaders have been taking steps to remedy New Orleans' shell shock-induced neurosis: aggressively rooting out corruption in the police department; reorganizing and better funding the New Orleans Recreation Department; and reorganizing public education. Many of the steps are controversial to say the least and they are clearly still in beginning stages. But this is better than nothing.
As we work through the process, I proffer a dose of unorthodox medicine that may help New Orleans to confront, or at least become aware of, its shell shock-induced stupor.
A group of local filmmakers have produced a compelling local film about the realities of growing up in New Orleans' blood soaked streets. I have talked to the teenagers featured in the film about the scores of friends and acquaintances that they have seen shot, maimed and murdered in New Orleans. Regrettably, their stories were not very different from my accounts about my own teenage years. The stories hit home for me, but I suspect the stories are compelling no matter what your experiences might be. And they shed light on what policy makers often miss. Constant structural, family and personal barriers make prison, disability or death by murder, drugs or sexually transmitted disease more likely for black New Orleans teens than reaching the age of 25 as a productive member of society. That is a crisis.
You can hear some of their story and support the filmmakers' quest to address our shell shocked state here.