In this file photo, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and NOPD Chief Michael Harrison address the media at a press conference.
As New Orleanians and football fans around the country still reel from the shooting death of Saints defensive end Will Smith, Mayor Mitch Landrieu made an emotional plea to residents to help curb a local murder problem that he said has become “baked in” to the city’s culture.
“We are a city, we are a country that is drunk on violence,” Landrieu told a packed audience at a Tulane University auditorium for his address on violence in New Orleans. “And we need to wake up to this fact.”
Landrieu’s address was given two weeks after Smith was gunned in a car near his wife after being involved in a minor car accident, police said.
The incident prompted widespread reaction from city residents, antiviolence groups and fans near and far. During a second line held in Smith’s honor
, several residents called the murder “senseless.”
But Landrieu reminded the crowd that it wasn’t occasional celebrity killings like Smith’s that prompted Louisiana to have the number one homicide rate in the nation.
Nor was the killing itself an anomaly for New Orleans, where a total of 1,003 men, women and children to be murdered in the city of New Orleans since the mayor took office six years ago.
Instead, Landrieu asked the audience to focus in on other families who are torn apart as every year hundreds of victims, mostly black men, are found dead in the streets with bullet wounds to the head.
“I am an eyewitness to the agony that families go through when they lose their children to violence and I’m compelled to testify to what I see and what I know,” Landrieu said.
He spoke of Briana Allen, a 5-year-old girl killed by an AK-47 in a drive-by shooting on her grandmother’s porch, at her cousin's birthday party in 2012.
Her cousin, who survived the shooting, was then again shot during the infamous Mother’s Day second line shooting that happened in 2013.
He survived both shootings, in what Landrieu called a “miraculous” chance. But that’s too often not the case, he added.
More than 4,600 people have been killed in the city since 1994, Landrieu said. Altogether, that means more people were murdered in New Orleans than were killed during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, or even during the war in Iraq.
The problem is national, he reminded the audience. Since 1980, more than 650,000 Americans have been killed on the nation’s streets, which adds up to more than all the wars in the last 100 years.
Still, in New Orleans, the violence seems deeply personal, he said, and not just because of how often residents are vocal about loving their city. Statistics show that in about 80 percent of the city’s murder cases, the perpetrator knew the victim.
That, combined with the statistic that 90 percent of those killed are African-Americans, means the culture of violence needs to be disassembled and shut down, Landrieu suggested.
“Nothing happens in isolation,” he added, “and every one of us needs to do our part. I need help. We need help.”
To that end, Landrieu urged city residents to reconsider raising taxes for the New Orleans Police Department, so more officers could be put on the street. Earlier this month — the same weekend as Smith’s murder, he noted — voters rejected a property tax increase that would boost the police and fire departments.
Taxpayers weren’t the only ones to get Landrieu’s critical eye. The mayor also denounced the state of Louisiana and the federal system for cutting social initiatives, such as mental health programs, and federal crime prevention tools, including funding that used to be funneled into local police departments.
What Landrieu didn’t do was introduce a host of new initiatives. Instead, he suggested the solutions were inherent in programs put forth already, including the NOLA For LIFE prevention efforts.
Among the programs he touted were Ceasefire New Orleans
, which specifically hones in on Central City to reduce street violence, and Group Violence and Reduction Strategy, implemented in 2012 and designed by a criminologist to target geographic areas of violent crime.
He also lauded Project Safe Neighborhoods
, a nationwide effort to target gun and violent crime.
“I say, if we made the problem, we can fix it,” the mayor said simply.
Several spoke in support of Landrieu’s initiatives at the event, including Patrina Peters, a NOLA For Life community leader.
“I am many things: a resident of the Lower 9th Ward, an advocate of mothers of young black men and a Mardi Gras Indian Queen,” Peters told the crowd. “But I am also a mother who has lost a son to gun violence.”
Peters said, that with the help of Landrieu, she had spoken to more than 300 young men who encouraged them to stop violence in their communities: an effort she found fulfilling not just for her city, but as a way to help heal the broken heart the city’s gun violence had caused her.
“I’m hoping that it will help others find their way, because my son’s death will not be in vain,” Peters said, her voice cracking with emotion.
After Landrieu’s nearly one-hour address, however, several said they were still skeptical of programs that may look good on paper but in their opinion had little effect on curbing violence.
“Ceasefire is really a tragic failure,” said Baty Landis, a member of the board of directors for the anti violence group Silence is Violence
, as way of example. “It’s a great idea but it’s not working.”
Tamara Jackson, the executive director of that same group, agreed.
“It only covers a 10-block radius of Central City,” Jackson said, adding that smaller plans like those were indicative of a bigger problem of city programming ineffectiveness.
Of the speakers, it was Pastor David Crosby with the First Baptist Church of New Orleans who seemed to strike the most common nerve amongst the program’s attendees.
“We don’t know what to do sometimes,” he said during prayer. “Or even how to understand.”