Historically, New Orleans is the city of jazz, Mardi Gras, and semi-functional alcoholics. But while its residents are famous the world over for drinking hurricanes and showing their tits in exchange for plastic doubloons, their city also has a reputation for being a murderous, poverty-stricken town run by some of the most corrupt public servants in the country. In 2011 alone, there were 199 murders on the streets of New Orleans (around three a week). Defined by the amount of killings per capita, New Orleans is officially the murder capital of America, and with a homicide rate around 20 percent higher than the next city on the list (here’s looking at you, Detroit), the problems are snowballing out of control.
In addition to ongoing problems from Katrina, communities in the poorest parts of New Orleans are also being ravaged by an 8 – 10 percent unemployment rate, which isn’t helping to curb a growing culture of violence between youngsters in opposing areas. This, combined with an underground gun trading circuit, is turning Louisiana’s largest city into a powder keg.
Last year New Orleans police seized almost 350 illegal, unlicensed firearms in just two months. Although relatively clandestine for the moment, there are apparently licensed gun owners willing to buy and sell firearms for the sole purpose of distributing them on the streets of New Orleans to murderers and gang members with criminal records.
Despite the influx of illegal guns and the fact that murder rates have been on the rise for the past three years, there’s a strong feeling among residents that the government is turning a blind eye to the escalating violence in New Orleans.
A local priest from a church about two blocks from the French Quarter is trying to bring greater awareness to the problem. Father Bill Terry of St. Anna’s keeps a record of every murder in New Orleans on the outside of his church wall as an ever-growing tribute. He records the deceased’s name, date of homicide, their age, and how they were killed. I spoke to Father Terry about his project.
VICE: Hello, Father. How did the violence in New Orleans get so bad that you felt the need to start recording the deceased on your church wall?
Father Terry: First of all, I want to make it very clear that this problem cannot be blamed solely on Katrina. It’s been bad for years. It’s growing like a virus. The killings in New Orleans are a phenomenon—over 74 percent of the murders are between people who know each other. It’s different because they’re not always motivated by drugs, either. A lot of it is relational. Here people fight for turf, but not in the classic sense. It may be one neighbourhood fighting another, but it often has nothing to do with drugs or the economy—it’s bizarre.
A lot of it has to do with retaliation, too. The city has political subdivisions called “wards.” If somebody gets shot in the 7th Ward, for instance, people living there who are of this murderous nature usually decide to go to the 6th Ward where the shooter was from and just shoot somebody there—anybody at random. A lot of very innocent people get killed because of this.
How do you keep up with recording fresh murders on the wall when people are killed so regularly?
A person in the Dioceses of Louisiana gathers all the records, so we get a weekly list of the murder victims. Then, every two weeks I go outside and put them on the board.
And most of the deaths are from shootings?
Yes. Ninety-seven percent of the murders—believe me—are by gun.
Where are all these guns coming from?
They’re very easy to get. Some gun dealers haven’t followed the federal laws and have created a black market conduit where these assault weapons can be purchased easily without licensing or background checks. And if the dealers get caught and shut down, the inventory is still out on the street for resale. We have a lot of guns stolen from houses during break-ins, too. There’s a whole sub-culture involving black market weapons here. There’s a very violent industry in New Orleans, and drugs don’t seem to be the main cause, so it’s got to be this underground dealing of weapons.
No wonder there are so many shootings. What are the worst incidents you’ve had to record on the murder wall?
We’ve had three and four-year-old children shot who were just sitting in their living room.
Memorial for a murdered child.
That’s very grim.
It is grim. But if we don’t stand up and constantly remain a powerful presence against this urban violence, then we’ve given in.
What do you think needs to be done to curb the violence?
First, we need a total revamping of the social culture. Personally I think that could take ten years. But there needs to be more support for grassroots programs that help take children off the street and properly educate them, which is what we’re doing now. We run art classes.
Have you been successful?
Yes, we have been for the two and a half years we’ve done it. Our children have stopped engaging in nefarious activity—I mean kids start early here. Kids are carrying guns at ages 13, 14...
Kids that young are actually going out and murdering people regularly?
Oh yeah, they are. It starts off with “I need protection.” Then that changes the mind within the child. Whenever children are surrounded by violence they grow up to become violent themselves. Just look at young rebel armies in places like Africa and Southeast Asia.
What kind of problems do children growing up in poverty in New Orleans have to deal with?
Well, I have one young man in our Anna’s Hearts program who is nine years old and now the head of his household. His mother’s in jail; his father’s a drug dealer. Every day he sees dozens of men sitting out on his front porch dealing drugs. So what’s his future going to be? He’s going to aspire to that. When he first came here he was a failing student, cursing me out like I was a street dealer. After one year of us looking after him he’s getting As in school and tells me he wants to be a pastor.
It’s great that St. Anna’s is helping kids out like this, but what is the government doing to help?
Good question. Let’s just say there’s a lack of government involvement in the social fabric of this country. Our mayor is trying, but he just doesn’t have a lot of money to do it.
I hear the police in New Orleans are pretty corrupt too.
They’re not all corrupt. The city has a history of public corruption, but now it also has the highest conviction rate for public corruption and the least tolerance for it. These days, if you’re a crook in politics out here you’re probably going to get caught and prosecuted, which is a good thing.
Has the murder rate gone up again this year?
On All Saints Day we read out the names of every single murder victim for this year. I read out 176 names. The city of New Orleans had killed 176 people by November first.
Photos by Derek Bridges.