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Line of Fire

New Orleans police officers maintain a crime scene where five people were along the St. Charles Ave. parade route.

ALEX BRANDON/AP PHOTOGRAPH

For Mardi Gras, Mayor C. Ray Nagin greeted the city’s signature holiday as a gladiator. It was just a costume, of course.

 No one – including the mayor – could’ve known this day would be the most violent Fat Tuesday in public memory. Nagin arrived by horseback at Gallier Hall, proceeding to narrate the day’s parades from the city’s reviewing stand.

Last year Nagin came as an Indian chief, his face streaked with war paint. For 2006, the city’s first Carnival after Hurricane Katrina, the mayor became a cigar-chomping Army general. He looked a lot (some say too much) like retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, one of the few “heroes” of the storm’s chaotic aftermath.

Some worried the mayor had finally gone around the bend. Others speculated on what it “meant.”

Unfortunately, Nagin’s choice of Carnival attire means nothing. After the real shooting started on Mardi Gras 2009, the mayor all but disappeared from public view. There were six separate shootings in less than 12 hours, leaving one person dead, 11 wounded and a city badly shaken.

The gladiator was gone. The mayor, who promised to work to end the city’s chronic violence once and for all at an anti-crime march and rally on Jan. 11, 2007, melted away.

He didn’t step to the forefront to denounce this unconscionable assault on the peace of the city. He didn’t offer the calming hand or the reassuring words that humanity craves in times of crisis, that New Orleans needs to subdue the inevitable race-based suspicions and stereotypes that return with public cry. Editorial writers and columnists would lament the violence; bloggers and talk show hosts rant – but when do they not?

The cry for leadership from Mayor Nagin was once again answered by its quiet vacuum. None of the many, mentioned candidates for mayor in 2010 came forth to fill the void – not that day or in the immediate aftermath.

The traditional Ash Wednesday press conference at City Hall, where city leaders and police officials typically declare Carnival a success, was canceled without explanation.

It was as if a giant switch had been flicked. The “spin” machine still worked, manned by the police chief and a tourism spokesperson. Standing on Bourbon Street for the traditional police walk ending Mardi Gras, Police Superintendent Warren J. Riley responded to the violence for television reporters.

 “I think anywhere in this country when you bring a million people to have fun, to celebrate, that things happen,” Riley said.

Referring to the afternoon shootings and wounding of seven people near the family-rich parade corner of St. Charles Avenue and Second Street, the chief said: “This is an unfortunate incident. It certainly marred what would have been a highly successful Mardi Gras. So we’re disappointed that it happened. We’re happy that no one had a life-threatening injury and we’re happy that those perpetrators were apprehended.”

Or were they?

Mysteriously, the chief made no mention of a special violent crime victims’ reparations program, despite repeated public promises to follow the state law requiring law enforcement to do so.

On the city’s most tragic Mardi Gras in memory, no top law enforcement official stepped forward to say the shooting victims and their families could receive help from the criminal sheriff’s office applying for offender-funded reparations for counseling, funeral services or even dental care.

On the day that crime triumphed over Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Police Department, its chief reduced a shocking tragedy to an “unfortunate,” but manageable, incident.

As former WWL-TV reporter Jonathan Betz once observed after a previous Carnival shooting downtown, New Orleans police can catch the criminals, “they just don’t seem to be able to stop them.”

“We were definitely in the Mardi Gras spirit,” Nicole Henson says. “It was a beautiful day. Our kids were playing together. Then [the shooting] happened and it ruined everything.” Henson and Maya Miller, both of the New Orleans area, were enjoying the Carnival parades with their families and friends Tuesday afternoon when the gunfire erupted on St. Charles Avenue near Second Street.

Miller, who has two daughters, 12 and 2, says she saw at least four gunmen open fire behind hundreds of parade spectators facing the riverside of St. Charles Avenue. “I know the police arrested two men,” Miller says. “But I saw more than that. There were about five to six guys and at least four had guns,” Miller says. “And they were walking Uptown, but looking toward downtown and shooting toward downtown. I have no idea who they were shooting at. I pulled my older daughter to the ground with me but I couldn’t get my toddler out of the stroller.”

Moments before the gunfire started, Miller says, her older daughter wanted to buy a toy sword from a vendor. The mother says she scanned the vendors strolling behind them for one hawking toy swords. “I didn’t see one [toy vendor] or I would have let her go buy one. And I’m glad I didn’t because she would have been in the line of fire.”

Miller says she and her daughter were among the many spectators who hit the ground – while many others fled. Miller says she hasn’t spoken to police and wouldn’t recognize any of the youths if she saw them again.

 “I really wasn’t looking at their faces; I was looking at their guns,” she says, adding later: “From the way things have been going in this city, I don’t think more of police presence would have made any difference. The National Guard wouldn’t have made any difference.” Miller says she and her family will be back for Carnival next year.

Not Nicole Henson. 

“I am boycotting the city of New Orleans because I don’t want to endanger my life and the life of my 2-year-old son,” says Henson, 34, a native of Chicago and former resident of the sometimes-tough Irish Channel neighborhood in New Orleans.

When the shots rang out, Henson says she dropped to the ground with her son but her husband remained standing. People “started stampeding” she says. “I was holding my 2-year-old son against my chest, trying to get across St. Charles Avenue between the [halted] truck floats.” She fell, suffering a split lip, scrapes and bruises.

Her son was unhurt.

She says she spent Wednesday calling police, city officials and the Metropolitan Crime Commission.

She has a word for a tourism industry spokesperson’s public expressions of anxiety over “negative” headlines from the shooting.

“Disgusting,” Henson says. “People should actually know how dangerous the city is before they decide to risk their lives and come down here.”

New Orleans was forced to give up its Louisiana National Guard troops for Lent. The last 100 troops pulled out March 1. They will be sorely missed.

That’s how Mardi Gras ended – as we knew it.

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