Been Down So Long January 25, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in Crime, cryptic envelopment, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
In my own country I am in a far-off land
I am strong but have no force or power
I win all yet remain a loser
At break of day I say goodnight
When I lie down I have a great fear
– François Villon
This poem opens Hunter S. Thompon’s HELL’S (Hells) ANGELS – The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. The violence, the criminality tied to drugs, the pride in their pack trumping all ties to the mainstream culture they dropped out of of, of if you prefer which left them behind.
If you think it all sounds familiar, it is. Substitute any ward of New Orleans for the colors and you are there. The only unique thing about our city is how wide and deep this current runs.
Why did those young men of the 1950s and 1960s become Hells Angels? Perhaps if I were getting paid for this, I would take a couple of hours and skim the book and see what sort of sociological spelunking Thompson did, but I recall none of any depth.
What I do know, and do not require a degree in sociology to understand, is what is happening all around us in New Orleans. It is as simple as people who never give up against those who simply give up hope. It will sound like a sentimental excuse, but its a simple fact: we are living with the product of the second and third generation of people who have given up. I bookmarked a story a while back from the New York Times story Many Children Lack Stability Long After Storm, in which I found this quote from one of the people of Renaissance Village, an isolated collection of poisonous FEMA trailers on a gravel lot in the middle of no where:
Jermaine’s father, Joseph Griffin, has had trouble holding on to steady work and said he did not see much value in his son’s attending school this semester because he had already missed so much class. “If he doesn’t get no credits for it, what sense does it make for him to sit up in there?” Mr. Griffin said. “I was going to try to get him a job.”
If dad can’t find a steady job, what luck for the son the high school dropout? If the schools and the streets are a dead end, where else is there to go? If you’re not churched or your church itself has bought into the victim myth of no responsibility (how else to explain the phalanx of ministers who endorsed disgraced Rep. William Jefferson), where then do you get some guidance and strength to find a way out? That leaves parents, but even in the NYT story of a household with two parents, if the parents have already given up what can we expect of the children?
The same hollow eyes and gunman swagger you see in Somali pirates on the evening news, that’s what you can expect when culture and government and all of the things that make a civilization start to break down, and people just give up and do what they have to do to survive. And when the parents have given up, when they accept the street as the way it is, you start down the road that turns out the young men who jack ships off East Afraica and who stalk our own streets.
This Happens All Over, Cliff remind us. Yes it does, and Cliff’s answer the is real answer, but who the hell is ready for that intervention? How are we to convince the mothers with kids going down the slide to hell to step up and make a difference? Like that dad above, they don’t see the way out. It seems to be for them just the way things are. We are left considering the mother’s who turn in their children, sending them to prison for the rest of their lives. A heroic act in a strange way, but too late for the victim or the young perps.
Now I read Keith Spera’s column in the Times-Picayune and I wonder who else feels as he does, who else is closing in on that tipping point, the same place I found myself in Washington, D.C. when two people died within a block of my house in a few months, and a brutal abduction/rape/murder began in the alley (but ended a mile away). We were living their with my infant daughter at the time, and we finally fled to the suburbs.
I wrote long ago that I’m not ready to retreat, not this time, but I’m not such a brave fool to not worry about that commitment. I know as I knew then that we cannot just retreat behind our bars and alarms any more than we can retreat to the Northshore.
In the end, I return to the famous old misquote of Edmund Burke that came to me two years ago, not long after Helen Hill died.
I am no more ready to give up hope now than I was a year and a half ago. Confronting the crime problem is no less daunting than contemplating how to rebuild a city more damaged than anything seen since World War II. All that is required for evil– and in the city’s case entropy–to triumph is that good men and women do nothing, as the famous misquote of Edmund Burke runs. Just as apt is an actual quote on the issue of American independence also from Mr. Burke:
When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one…
The good have already begun to combine, NOLA Slate tell us, in reaction to the lastest horrible crimes, to demand action and to take action themselves. What remains to be seen is if this effort can be sustained, if it can push our dysfunctional, near collapse police department and our weak and vacillating city government to do something.
As I sat in my car outside Elizabeth’s finishing a cigarette before diinera song came on the radio (in plaintive Appalachian a capella, but Billy Brag will have to do for this link). It put me not in mind of the labor movement of the early twentieth century but crime run amok and what we as citizens can do about it. it was this that put me in mind of crime and Burke. It was after I got home that I read Spera’s piece, and as I sat on my porch the song ran through my head over and over again. All I could think of was the meeting Slate has chronicled over Wendy Byrne’s murder, and the panic on my neighborhood mailing list over two crimes Saturday morning. It may me think: what the hell are we going to do about this?
We have all spent and given too much to be here to walk away now. So which side are you on, boys, which side are you on? Will you run to the Northshore, or add some iron and lights to the house and never venture out? Or is it time to stand up and demand immediate action and results, or dire consequences, for Riley and his boss Ray Nagin and from the entire city government.