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Birth of a Movement 

The Jan.11 march on City Hall, which united blacks and whites against crime, has started something that may be New Orleans' best shot at redemption.

For those of us who love New Orleans as a life force, the surging crime, dead neighborhoods and passivity of Mayor Ray Nagin were bound to reach a tipping point. The murders of Hot 8 drummer Dinneral Shavers and filmmaker Helen Hill, on consecutive Thursdays, kick-started an unlikely coalition of musicians, writers and artists to plan the Jan. 11 march where 5,000 protestors massed outside City Hall.

The galvanizing issue was nine murders in the first eight days of the year; but a thematic architecture emerged at the rally about sources driving the violence -- a deteriorating NOPD, schools in poor neighborhoods lacking programs for at-risk students, and prosecutorial failures by DA Eddie Jordan's office. Perhaps the most memorable cry of the protesters was, for the cradle of jazz, the most bitterly ironic: "Music in the Schools!"

A protest of this size has not occurred here since the 1960s' civil rights era, nor has a crowd cut across racial and class lines as this one did. Downtown office workers joining a protest march is as rare as snow in New Orleans.

Organizers of the march, concerned about any appearance of whites' indifference to black-on-black crime, chose the name Silence Is Violence for their organization. White speakers stressed the need to identify all victims and reach out to their families. Silence Is Violence has a Web site of the same name (www.silenceisviolence.org) and has been receiving financial contributions from around the country, according to a founder, author Ken Foster, a Bywater resident.

"We're trying to prioritize," Foster tells Gambit Weekly. "A key issue is the DA's office not bringing enough cases to trial. We're looking at ways to document cases that went wrong. People have been talking to me about having court watchers." Another priority, says Foster, is coordinating an agenda with other neighborhood groups "and figuring out a structure to communicate."

Silence Is Violence is the brainchild of three people who were passing acquaintances until Shavers and Hill were killed. Foster lives a few blocks from the Sound Cafe, the coffee shop and jazz club run by Baty Landis, who teaches music at Tulane and works closely with the Hot 8 Brass Band. Foster teaches creative writing at Tulane. The two were dumbstruck on learning of Hill's death when Helen Gillet, a cellist with the Frenchmen String Quartet, walked into Sound Cafe in her own dark mood.

"We spent a few minutes looking at each other and said, 'Let's do something," Landis says. Casting lines to artists and friends was one step. They also sought out African-American leaders like the Rev. John Raphael, whose church is in Central City.

Most of the victims over the years have been young black males from scarred streets. Shavers and Hill had given greatly to the town. Dinneral, 25, was the bandleader at Rabouin High School. At his cathartic, overflowing funeral, youngsters were sobbing on the steps of Fifth African Baptist. Hill was an activist filmmaker whose sense of social justice had drawn her back to the city after Katrina. Her death spurred independent filmmaker Tim Watson of Ariel Montage to field two camera teams and post edited footage of the march on the studio Web site and You Tube for free use.

Meanwhile, a consciousness about the fate of the city and failed leadership was rising from other corners.

"Artists are the blood and guts of culture," Jacqueline Bishop, a New Orleans painter known for a shimmering tropical naturalism, said in an NPR commentary two days before the march. Bishop's words were a virtual call to arms: "The common mission for each community rally reads: 'It is time for our elected officials to face up to the violence that is strangling our neighborhoods.'"

At City Hall, the mostly white crowd cheered the arrival of African Americans marching from Central City. It was remarkable to see chaperoned girls from Sacred Heart and Louise S. McGhee schools cheer Raphael as he thundered, "A city that would not be drowned in the waters of a storm will not be drowned in the blood of its citizens!" Blacks, who still hold a slender majority in a city that has lost half its pre-hurricane population of 450,000, made up about a fourth of the crowd. The significance of the crowd's racial composition was not in its numbers, but in the palpable sense of unity across the racial divide.

Nagin was the protestors' chief target, with police chief Warren Riley and DA Eddie Jordan not far behind.

Nagin stood stone-faced behind a dais as Helen Gillet, a native of Belgium, introduced each speaker, politely tamping down the shouts of angry people who wanted Nagin to speak. "He was not invited to speak," she reminded the crowd, underscoring that the protest's purpose was for officials to listen.

Nagin held a press conference later that day, saying, in effect, that he got it.

The crowd's chant, "Music in the schools!" was a reference both to Shavers' role as a high school band director and to cultural advocates' longstanding pleas for a school band program as a means to reduce violence and counter gang culture. The paucity of services for impoverished youngsters before Katrina has worsened, providing a jagged contrast with the boost given to New Orleans' most famous native son. In 1913, a 12-year-old Louis Armstrong was arrested for firing a gun on New Year's Eve. Long ignored by an absent father, Armstrong was sentenced by a judge to the Colored Waifs Home, which later became the Milne Boys Home on Elysian Fields. He got his first horn there and throughout his life credited the music program, under Captain Peter Jones, with setting him on the right road. Milne has since closed, and nothing like it took its place.

Of the many people who spoke outside City Hall, Glen David Andrews, the Hot 8 trombonist, stood out like a fiery angel in a bas-relief.

"Get on your job!" he shouted at Nagin, who stood below the dais, to bursting applause.

The tall, lanky jazz musician did a verbal pivot, lambasting people with guns at second lines. "We don't want you! Stay home!"

The crowd yelled, "Music in schools! Music in schools!"

Andrews, who lives in a FEMA trailer, turned back to Nagin, taking his stem-winder to another threshold: "I'm scared to death of the police. I'm coming home from Preservation Hall, and they say, 'You come here!' I got on a black suit with a horn! Do I look like I'm selling [crack] rocks?"

Andrews' passion was a sharp break with musicians' traditional stance of remaining apolitical. Gigs for fundraisers and public events can hang in the balance.

As speaker after speaker denounced the crime, a parallel theme emerged: government's failure to respond to poverty. The crowd was repudiating Nagin's politics of social Darwinism -- the strong rise as the weak slide. In a city with weak police, weak public schools and threadbare social services, not even the strong live in peace.

Soon after Katrina, with most people displaced, Nagin turned to the Urban Land Institute, a Washington think tank, for help in rebuilding the city. As if gods from Olympus, architects and planners descended on the few functioning hotels for meetings that augured a Paris-sur-Le-Mississippi. Plans called for a "smaller urban footprint" -- writing off the worst-flooded areas, such as the Lower Ninth Ward and eastern New Orleans.

A mantra hummed in the dry neighborhoods, Uptown and the Garden District: "Now we can get it right" -- a city wiped clean of the underclass -- smaller, whiter, more prosperous. Nagin breezily touted a "market-driven" recovery, telling neighborhood groups to submit their plans to City Hall. Despite his promises to the contrary, anything "market-driven" presumes that poor folk stuck in other cities with FEMA rental vouchers would not return.

In his re-election campaign last year, Nagin backed off the "smaller footprint" talk but still managed to charm a lot of whites, who no doubt saw him as no friend of the underclass. Meanwhile, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson helped bus in displaced poor people to keep a black man in City Hall. Sharpton and Jackson are conspicuously absent these days, as displaced project dwellers clamor to get back into the complexes HUD hopes to demolish.

That bizarre coalition -- blacks abruptly supporting a mayor they had largely disliked before the storm, and conservative whites embracing him as the antithesis of his liberal opponent, Mitch Landrieu -- got Nagin his second term. But coalitions must be cultivated after they are forged, and the mayor, for all of his good intentions and legendary charm, failed at that because of a huge mistake he made long before Katrina: he failed to build on the reforms made by the former police chief, Richard Pennington. In addition, instead of hiring an "outside" superintendent after a national search, he turned to Eddie Compass, who unraveled during the hurricane's aftermath, and then replaced Compass with Warren Riley.

Riley had three suspensions as an officer as he rose through the ranks. One was for failure to investigate a police officer accused of domestic abuse by his girlfriend. Pennington later fired the cop in question. The woman was murdered; the case remains unsolved.

As the recovery failed to gain momentum, addicts and thugs straggled back into New Orleans and NOPD's street forces shrank. National Guardsmen help patrol the streets, but the problem beyond NOPD is the lack of programs for poor youngsters and a strategy of crisis resolution in the schools -- projects with scant support in Nagin's "market-driven" recovery.

"We're trying to keep up with the momentum under way," Landis says of Silence is Violence. "We've begun a program in the schools, bringing role models in the arts to workshop with the kids and have frank discussions about violent crime. We draw the connection that this is a lifestyle choice on the part of the artists to take their energies in a positive direction. A big part of the idea behind the program is that we'd like to invite kids to become part of the solution to fight violent crime.

"What worked about the march was inviting everyone to participate, and that inspired such a passionate response from many groups that we want to build on that. The kids are often just talked about as symptoms of a problem. Will this [project] turn the tables overnight? No, but it is a serious start, and if we get a couple of strong kids to work with us, then they become role models with their peers."

Rabouin High School Principal Kevin George met with Landis and embraced her project as a way of helping students respond to the trauma of their bandleader's death. Hot 8 band members have been to the school for workshops, trying to keep student band members focused.

Other activists involved with Silence Is Violence were working on a manifesto and mission statement as Gambit Weekly went to press. How far they go is anybody's guess. For now, the burgeoning movement represents the best shot at redemption for a city on life support.

Jason Berry, a longtime Gambit contributor, is author of the novel Last of the Red Hot Poppas and a visiting professor of creative writing at Tulane University this semester.

click to enlarge A protest of this size has not occurred here since the - 1960s' civil rights era, nor has a crowd cut across racial and - class lines as this one did. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • A protest of this size has not occurred here since the 1960s' civil rights era, nor has a crowd cut across racial and class lines as this one did.
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