New Orleanians March to Protest Crime Wave

Thousands of people demonstrate on the steps of New Orleans City Hall during an anti-crime march. The city has had nine killings since the new year began.
Thousands of people demonstrate on the steps of New Orleans City Hall during an anti-crime march. The city has had nine killings since the new year began. (By Bill Haber -- Associated Press)
By Peter Whoriskey and Julia Cass
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 12, 2007

NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 11 -- Thousands marched on City Hall here today, cradling photographs of slain relatives and waving signs demanding better policing and leadership, in a show of anger and anguish over the wave of violent crime that has beset their neighborhoods.

Even in a city long accustomed to violence, the rise that began with the repopulation after Hurricane Katrina and came to a crescendo last week when six people were killed in a 24-hour period has stunned many.

"The march started as an expression of neighborhood grief and determination," Stella Baty Landis, one of the event's organizers and owner of the Sound Cafe, a coffee shop in the Lower Marigny neighborhood. "We imagined it as a couple dozen people marching -- and between 5,000 and 8,000 showed up. We realized that the whole city was thinking the same thing: It just can't go on like this."

Three marches from different parts of the city converged on City Hall about noon, where a crowd of both blacks and whites gathered. As a list of victims was read, some burst into tears. Speakers addressed the crowd, which police estimated at 5,000, veering between anger, determination and mourning.

The size of the crowd surprised many. Roughly 1 in 50 of the city's inhabitants turned up for the protest.

"We have come today from downtown, uptown, back of town, across town and out of town to the seat of our city government to lodge our complaints," said Rev. John Raphael Jr. of the New Hope Baptist Church in Central City, where many of the killings have occurred. "The city that could not be drowned in the waters of the storm will not be drowned in the blood of its citizens."

Striking as the half-empty city is struggling to attract and retain residents, the spike in killings has been particularly demoralizing.

There were 161 homicides last year, even though the population is only about 220,000. Then, in the first 10 days of this year, there were nine more. The recent deaths of the drummer of the Hot 8 Brass Band, Dinerral Shavers, a fixture in the city's street-music culture, and of filmmaker Helen Hill, crystallized for many the sense of a city tilting toward chaos.

"Our murder rate is four or five times the national average," said Anthony Radosti, vice president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.

Getting a grip on the murder problem is considered vital to the city's faltering recovery because the economy here rises and falls with tourism, and news of the homicides is expected to damper the convention business.

Moreover, for many residents who have already endured financial and domestic hardships to return have found that the sense of menace -- and the city leadership's apparent inability to confront it -- has challenged their resolve to remain.

At the center of much of their anger is Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D), who many said seemed helpless in the face of the crime wave.

"What I heard and felt was pain and anger and frustration," an unusually subdued Nagin told reporters about half an hour after the protest. "I will do everything in my power. The police department will get better. We will push the criminal justice system to get better. It's not the easiest thing to be a leader at this time."

The march was not the first call for action. Since June, about 300 National Guard troops and 60 state troopers have been patrolling areas of the city. In September, Nagin and the City Council sponsored a "crime summit." Earlier this week, he rolled out another plan calling for crime surveillance cameras, creating more drug and alcohol checkpoints and moving more law enforcement officers from desk work to patrol.

"Enough is enough, but we've said that before," he said earlier this week.

Exactly why the crime has increased is a matter of dispute, with some pointing to issues of poverty and education. Many blame the criminal justice system, which was troubled even before the storm. Before Katrina, only about half of the city's homicide cases were solved, Radosti said. Of people arrested in murder cases, only about 12 percent were convicted. The last murder conviction was in August.

But Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the University of New Orleans, said that research shows that the spike in killings is probably caused by a small hard-core group of 300 to 500 people in the city who are "undereducated, drug-involved and armed." The drug gangs, he said, are feuding over a city in which the amount of turf has been shrunken by the storm.

"Basically," he said, "the destabilization of drug groups equals death."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company