Facebook friends told Christopher Brumfield to seek revenge on the group of kids that attacked him July 26, while he was walking down St. Roch Avenue around 9 p.m.
"A lot of people react with vengeance, but I don't believe in vengeance," Brumfield said. "They say, 'These kids should have been shot,' and I'm like: No! They're kids, they're lost, they're f—d up, OK? They're kids."
The minute Brumfield saw a gang approaching with small, billy club-like wooden bats in their fists, he ran. It was no use. He says they pushed him to the ground and stomped on his face and feet, stopping only when he crawled into oncoming traffic on Claiborne Avenue, where motorists stopped to help. An anti-crime march through the neighborhood had concluded just hours before.
Brumfield, an artist and art teacher, has had a headache for the two weeks since the attack. He is being treated for chronic migraines. He's also moved to his hometown of Baton Rouge — permanently. But, he says, he wants to see the city of New Orleans identify the kids who need help and make sure they are getting the help they need.
"I knew the dangers before and I still know the danger," Brumfield said. "I'm still not getting a gun, and I still care about these kids. Nothing has changed. I have not changed. That's important, because ... you know, when something bad happens to you, you can't let that make you bad."
One night after Brumfield was attacked, Bill Murphy, another local artist and the vice president of the Faubourg St. Roch Improvement Association, was attacked on his way to buy groceries. A third resident, Michael Martin, came forward later and said he had been similarly attacked at the end of June but had not reported it. All the attacks followed the same general pattern: The men were kicked to the ground and severely beaten, and though some possessions were taken — Brumfield's cellphone, Murphy's laptop — the men's wallets, with cash in them, were untouched.
Brumfield has no doubt the attacks are related. Murphy agrees. "It's a loose group of roughly the same people," Murphy says. "It's a roving mob, I would say, but it's related, no doubt." Murphy added that he did not believe the teenagers who attacked him were involved in the neighborhood drug trade. Drug dealers, he said, typically don't want anything to draw attention to their profession.
New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) 5th District Commander Christopher Goodly told Gambit last week that there was no proof the attacks are related, if only because there isn't enough evidence to prove they are.
"We couldn't tell if it was the same group of individuals or a trend that was starting to happen," Goodly said. "At this point, we don't know if they're related. It could be a group of kids, 10 did one of them and 10 did the other. You just don't know."
Nevertheless, the attacks have St. Roch on edge.
"Everybody's scared," Brumfield said. "And they're scared in Bywater and they're scared in Holy Cross and they're scared in Marigny. They're scared everywhere. [NOPD Superintendent Ronal] Serpas shows up at the crime walks and lies and then disappears again. He said the crimes weren't related. I have no idea how he thinks he knows that. You have no suspects, you haven't found anybody, but you think they're unrelated.
"It's the same group of kids," Brumfield insisted.
The muggings followed other recent violent crimes, including the shooting of a man in St. Roch June 13, several attacks in the neighboring Faubourg Marigny and a shooting in the French Quarter that left one woman dead and nine other people wounded June 29. Last week, a drive-by shooting in the Lower 9th Ward killed two people and severely injured two children and a man was fatally stabbed in the French Quarter.
"Whenever you do something that you're not supposed to do, that kind of gets your adrenaline racing," said Darrell Tobias, who attended both St. Roch crime meetings. The 24-year-old recent college graduate grew up in the Upper 9th Ward. "By them not having any recreational activities in the district, I'm assuming that that's like the highlight of their life right now. They can do these mischievous activities and get away with it, for one. They don't know any better."
The wave of violence inspired New Orleans District C City Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey to organize a series of community meetings in the Marigny, French Quarter, Algiers and St. Roch to address the crime issue and allow residents to voice concern and tell their stories. Serpas and Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro have been present at all of those meetings, and their responses to questions and concerns are always the same: NOPD is understaffed; Mayor Mitch Landrieu has not allocated enough money to the department to keep officers on staff; and both offices are doing all they can, and they need help from the public.
Tobias agreed. "It's starting to become overwhelming to the officers in the district," he said. "The whole department, the NOPD, is understaffed. ... I would want more help if I was an officer." For his part, Cannizzaro has reiterated the need for people to report crimes when they happen and for residents to petition local government to invest more in fighting crime.
A request for an interview with the staff of the St. Roch Tavern, located near the site of the attacks, garnered no takers. A daytime manager said no one at the bar felt comfortable talking about the crime issue.
Andy Antippas, who has lived on St. Claude Avenue since 2003 and opened Barrister's Gallery there in 2006, said when he and his wife first moved in, they hardly saw anyone walking down the street. "Now we see women with their baby carriages and people walking," he says. "We can hear them at one, two o'clock in the morning. So I think the street has gotten a lot better, but there isn't a single street in this city where personal vigilance is not important. It certainly is here."
As for the recent attacks, Antippas said the level of violence is unusual for the neighborhood, but it's not necessarily new. "That sort of thing happened before in town," he said.
"I think we let our guard down," Brumfield said. "Five years ago, I wouldn't have walked down St. Roch at 9 o'clock at night. I just wouldn't have.
"You always know things can happen, and you hope it doesn't happen."
Brumfield said one of his attackers was a student at one of the schools he has worked in since Hurricane Katrina. Though he never taught the boy, Brumfield said the student had a reputation. "I remember him as one of the troubled kids," he said. "If we don't get these kids now, if we don't deal with these problems, if we don't do psychological evaluations on them and figure out what's going on and get them therapy and get them in groups and get them functioning, then they're just going to get killed or end up in prison. That's not what we want."
Brumfield said New Orleans children need city-sponsored summer camps. "And they need social workers at those summer camps, talking to kids, identifying kids who are doing violence, finding the kids that are at risk for violence, and finding the kids who are being beaten at home and finding the kids who are being molested at home," he said. "There's two reasons: not just protecting us, protecting them. They deserve amazing summers. They deserve all of that, I believe."
Last week, NOPD's 5th District released a security camera video of what was termed a "simple robbery" at the corner of St. Roch and Claiborne Avenue on July 26 "at or around 10 p.m." — the time Brumfield was attacked. At the monthly Faubourg St. Roch Improvement Association's Aug. 14 meeting, Goodly said simple robbery is defined as the taking of a person's belongings using force or intimidation. That's currently how both cases are categorized, since the bats used to beat Brumfield aren't necessarily considered "dangerous weapons," Goodly said. Still, the district attorney's office could change that charge.
Brumfield thinks the police downplayed or ignored the attack, at least initially. "To be very clear, the reason why this blew up is because I have a lot of friends and I was mad and it went viral [on Facebook]," he said. "The police did not issue a statement. The police had not done anything until it went viral."
As of Aug. 15, the NOPD had made no arrests in the case, though Goodly said at the Aug. 14 meeting police had a list of suspects and were hoping for more witnesses and community members to come forward.
If you have any information about the case, you can earn up to $2,500 as a reward for submitting anonymous tips to Crimestoppers. You can submit an online form at www.crimestoppersgno.com or call (504) 822-1111.