That's the burning question since 5,000 New Orleanians marched on City Hall two weeks ago. The subsequent Martin Luther King holiday offered an auspicious time to ponder the effects of the march and to remember an American apostle of nonviolence and racial rapprochement. In a rare show of force and racial unity on Jan. 11, black and white New Orleanians demanded an end to the seemingly intractable violence that has made our hurricane-battered city one of the nation's murder capitals.
Just two days before the march, Mayor Ray Nagin, Police Superintendent Warren Riley and District Attorney Eddie Jordan had renewed their public vows to stop finger pointing and to work together for improved public safety. Nagin and others also unveiled a series of familiar anti-crime initiatives, such as taking cops off desk duty for street patrols and hiring a nationally known consultant to vet NOPD. Marchers weren't satisfied and still called for their resignations.
Cynicism runs deep. Even some demonstrators doubt that the march will help cut crime. Anthony Radosti, a retired NOPD detective and vice president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, disagrees. "[The March] changed attitudes," he says.
Dr. King, writing in 1964, observed the empowering effects of mass protests: "[D]emonstrations have a creative effect on the social and psychological climate that is not matched by the legislative process. Those who have lived under the corrosive humiliation of daily intimidation are imbued by demonstrations with a sense of courage and dignity that strengthen their personalities."
The process of speaking truth to power can have desirable effects on those who wield power. Police Chief Warren Riley, after months of downplaying increased homicide rates, spoke frankly in our cover story last week as public discontent escalated. "We're going to have some tougher times before they get better," Riley admitted. In a roundtable on crime on WWL-TV last week, DA Jordan took responsibility for the failure of his office to locate a former police officer/witness in an armed robbery case; a reporter found the cop in one hour.
We're always happy to note examples of candor in government. For some reason, Mayor Nagin continues to duck responsibility. After getting drummed at City Hall by the marchers, a seemingly somber and contrite Nagin told reporters: "I am not going to talk about any other entity, whether it be the state or the federal government. My pledge to the citizens of New Orleans, from this day forward, is that everything that I do ... will be totally and solely focused on making sure that murders become a thing of the past in our city." Four days later, at ceremonies honoring Dr. King, Nagin blamed federal and state officials for New Orleans' post-Katrina woes. Regrettably, the mayor showed no remorse for his administration's well-documented failures to prepare the city for the storm or his own numerous failures to lead during the long recovery period.
Echoing Dr. King, Nagin urged New Orleanians to persevere, to "go on anyhow." The mayor likened New Orleanians to the 2,000 Memphis residents who braved stormy weather to hear the civil rights leader's last address on April 3, 1968 -- the night before his assassination. "We know a few things about storms in New Orleans," Nagin said. New Orleanians survived "a storm of neglect" when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to maintain the levees breached by Hurricane Katrina. "We lived through a storm of apathy when federal officials left us to fend for ourselves after the floods," he added. "We continue to live through a storm of indifference, when it seems that a state program intended to provide a road home has become a road that leads only to disappointment and heartache. But we are determined to 'go on anyhow.'"
Referring to the march, the mayor said, "Think of what 5,000 people working together can do to change our community. If all of these people become involved in Neighborhood Watch, community patrols and court watchers -- just a few of the programs we are implementing to deal with crime -- criminals don't have a chance."
We agree with those sentiments, but UNO criminologist Peter Scharf says Nagin's plan is merely a collection of tactics. A long-term crime-reduction strategy is needed, one that also addresses the city's grinding poverty, poor education system, health-care shortages and social ills. "Everything in New Orleans is about race, politics and personal interests," Scharf says, noting a growing national perception that New Orleans "is becoming an ungovernable city." Simply put, crime is strangling our recovery -- and our social, economic and political divisions are the rope.
So, what now -- after the march?
The hard work is just beginning. Citizens must stay united and keep the pressure on City Hall. Our elected leaders must give us a real plan, not a mish-mash of tactics, along with timely, accurate police reports and reliable (audited) crime statistics. We also need a competent district attorney's office that delivers results, not excuses and papered-over statistics that only serve to hide a dismal conviction rate for street crimes.
In his 2003 memoir, Growing Up King, Dexter Scott King, the youngest of Dr. King's four children, recalls how he and his siblings acted when their father returned home from a march. "[W]e'd hide from him, trembling with excitement; he'd find us, have us jump off the refrigerator top into his arms." Dr. King then divided his time equally among his children -- "what little time he had left."
New Orleans has little time left.