Photos by Michael Winters unless otherwise noted
It was just after dark when Michael Martin, 56, was walking back to his home in New Orleans’ Marigny neighborhood, after helping a friend move. At the time, Martin was caring for his dementia-ridden mother, and was anxious to get home, as his long-time partner, Eric Webb, was the only person there with her.
“I really was walking through a neighborhood that I don’t think the people who live there walk through at night,” Martin said.
As he approached an interstate overpass, the division between St. Roch and his Marigny neighborhood, Martin heard laughter from a group of children, no older than 13 he believed. It was summer after all, and while dark, he didn’t think much of the roving group of middle schoolers, until he was struck from behind.
He was then thrown to the ground as the children kicked and slammed fists into Martin’s head and chest. Eventually, he was straddled by one of the kids and choked out until he fell unconscious.
While Martin is wary of calling the assault a hate crime, he does feel the rapid gentrification happening, in both the St. Roch and Marigny neighborhoods, could have something to do with his beating.
Photo by the author
“That neighborhood is under a ferocious amount of gentrification pressure,” Martin said. “I mean gay is a bonus... if you don’t like gentrification, you probably don’t like old white faggots either.”
Martin is a prominent actor and director in NOLA’s theater scene, and he and his boyfriend, Webb, have deep-seated histories of violence in their Marigny neighborhood, where they’ve lived since the early 2000’s.
“Eric and I were held up at gunpoint by a young man on a bicycle,” Martin began. “That was on our way to a Harry Potter movie. I had my arm broken with an iron pipe in a French Quarter assault, back in 2002. We also had someone break into our house looking for drug money,” Martin said. “Mother fucker came in through the bathroom window.”
“Were there any others, honey?” Martin asked Webb.
“Oh, right,” Martin said, glancing over, “Eric found a dead body in the front yard once.”
Despite the extreme levels of gentrification happening in these two neighborhoods, both south of the French Quarter and along the Mississippi River, they are still two of the most criminally violent places in the United States.
Just last weekend, two teenaged girls were gunned down and killed in a drive-by shooting that wounded five others, blocks from where Martin was attacked. Two toddlers, ages two and four, were among the critically wounded in that shooting. As of this writing, there have been 24 murders this year in and around the St. Roch and Marigny neighborhoods. Fourteen of them have occurred since June. Perhaps the most depressing of the bunch was the death of 59-year-old Brenda Hal, who was hit in the neck by a stray bullet while playing cards inside a friend's house.
And in a community riddled with blight, drug addiction, and shootings, residents are now more concerned than ever. After a violent and bloody summer, the children of these neighborhoods, some as young as 11 years old, seem to be taking out their frustrations on an unfortunate and unlikely group: artists and gays.
Bill Murphy, a local installation artist, was the second victim assaulted. He, too, was walking home when he was struck from behind, and knocked down. Murphy was then kicked and stomped on, similar to what happened to Martin, by a group of eight children.
“I don’t remember much,” Murphy said. “But when I woke up the next day I had a bunch of sneaker prints on my forehead.”
Sneaker prints are still visible after Murphy's beating. Photo by Bill Murphy
Murphy is friends with Tysean Riles, a 21-year-old New Orleans native and fellow artist, who at one time was also a troubled adolescent.
Riles believes these children aren’t necessarily targeting any group or type of person in particular, though Riles says older white men are “less likely to be packing heat,” especially if they have an effeminate walk about them.
“Kids be bored. And then they see an old white person walking funny or something and they want to fight them,” Riles said. “If they think you look weak, they’re going to mess with you.”
The kids perpetrating these assaults, many of whom, Riles says, attend an elementary school across the street from Murphy’s house, need to find guidance and mentorship through whatever means possible.
“The community needs to reach out to these children. We need computer labs or basketball games,” Riles said. “Have white girls helping black kids with homework, something.”
“I think it’ll work. I’ve been around these neighborhoods long enough to see it work. It worked for me. It worked for my friends,” Riles said. “But then once it stops, people gonna get killed because they don’t have anything to do.”
At 14, Riles found salvation when he was exposed to installation projects and began sculpting with artists in his community. He quit attempting burglaries and focused exclusively on his art and caring for animals. People around the neighborhood now call him “Safari Man.”
He’s raised a fleet of goats, an iguana, snakes, a pot-bellied pig, and currently cares for two Shetland ponies, which he keeps at Murphy’s house.
Recent neighborhood association meeting to promote non-violence in The St. Roch Neighborhood/i>
Christopher Brumfield was the most recent, and also the most severely beaten victim, in this string of adolescent attacks.
Coincidentally, he was on his way to support a Roots of Music Fundraiser, a local charity that helps at risk youth through mentorship programs and music education. And for years Brumfield himself had worked with elementary and high school students around that area as an art and ceramics instructor with, the now defunct Recovery School District.
Similar to the other two cases, it was completely dark when Brumfield heard a group of kids laughing, though he didn’t realize how much trouble he was in until he saw the dozen or so middle schoolers were armed with bats and large wooden sticks.
“Luckily I was paying attention and could run,” Brumfield said. “Once they caught me though, I had to crawl into the street to get away. They were hitting me the whole time.”
Brumfield’s pants were ripped down, in an attempt to emasculate him, and his feet and head were stomped on by the dozen or so teenagers, while others hit him with clubs. Before being knocked out, Brumfield even recognized some of his former students, from an elementary school he had taught at, perpetrating the beating. He was forced to crawl into oncoming traffic to get away, and the children only fled once they were confronted by the headlights of a passing car.
Weeks after the assault, Brumfield was still experiencing severe headaches and trauma and had moved to Baton Rouge to stay with family. He isn’t willing to write these children off as lost causes though and feels that poverty and systematic neglect have led to this escalation in violence.
“The real problem is that we’re failing the kids all over New Orleans. We’re failing them socially, educationally, in every way.” Brumfield said. “I’m watching kids in this city not get what they need again. It’s about poverty and it’s about kids and families that don’t have resources.”
Police have made no arrests in regards to the assaults.
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