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Bullets on Bourbon

Looking for solutions

Joseph Daniel Fiedler Illustration

The popular post-Katrina slogan “NOLA Till Ya Die” doesn’t have the same inspirational ring after the third deadly mass shooting on Bourbon Street in the last five years.

The proud defiance of such hometown rallying cries helped rebuild our shattered city after Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters punched through the Federal levees in 2005.

In Katrina’s long wake the mere sight of the French fleur-de-lis on a flag, T-shirt or jewelry could boost one’s morale above the collective exhaustion of gutting homes, haggling with contractors or government bureaucrats and pushing putrid piles of debris to the curb for overdue pickup.

Fear of violent crime isn’t so easily assuaged. Slogans such as “NOLA Til Ya Die” and “NOLA for Life” sound more foreboding when violent crime is a prolific threat. The more fortunate among us may be forgiven for voicing fears that it’s only a matter of time before they, too are shot, robbed or assaulted.

“Fear changes our thinking,” local criminologist Heidi Unter said in this space last year.

The latest tragic example is the mass shooting of 10 people on Bourbon Street over the Thanksgiving Day weekend. At about 1 a.m. on Sun., Nov. 27, two unidentified men argued and exchanged gunfire, which killed one passerby and wounded nine others near the corner of Bourbon and Iberville streets, one block off Canal Street. The gunmen fled leaving bloodied passersby behind.

Dead is 25-year-old Baton Rouge artist Demontris Toliver. The wounded included visitors to New Orleans for the annual Bayou Classic football game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome between Southern University at Baton Rouge and Grambling State in North Louisiana.

The incident is eerily similar to an earlier mass shooting on Bourbon Street.

In June 2014, a wee-hour gunfight between two men in the 700 block of Bourbon Street killed bystander Brittany Thomas, a 21-year-old nursing student from Hammond, and wounded nine others.

On Oct. 31, 2011, an armed man shot and killed Albert Glover and wounded seven other people enjoying Halloween Night in the French Quarter near the Chris Owens club at 500 Bourbon St., according to the New Orleans Advocate.

In the days that followed the latest mass shooting, city officials, law enforcement and French Quarter business leaders met to come up with a better plan to protect the millions of people who pass through the historic district each year. We heard calls for more police – though cops were already on hand and arrived at the scene of the shooting in moments.

“When you look at the presence of police, I think they were everywhere,” said State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson. Since 2014, a contingent of 30 to 50 state troopers have provided security to the French Quarter. The cost is shouldered by French Quarter businesses and residents, who recently voted to tax themselves to ensure State Police protection.

Businessman Sidney Torres IV, who has been mentioned as a possible future candidate for mayor, proposed setting up metal detectors in cordoned off entertainment sections of the French Quarter, at least for special events. It was further suggested that admission be charged to help defray the cost of enhanced security, using as a model the Beale Street music district in Memphis, Tennessee. Conspicuously absent from much of the brainstorming were experts from the city’s colleges and universities, urban planners, criminologists, historians and geographers. In Bourbon Street: A History (Louisiana State University Press, 2014), Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella writes: “Is Bourbon Street dangerous? Those who answer affirmatively fail to account for the fact that while scams, pickpockets, drug sales, prostitution, muggings and gunplay occur here with seeming regularity, their frequency is dwarfed by the tens of thousands of people who pack themselves nightly into this space.”

Campanella boldly explores the racial history of crime and “bigotry” on Bourbon Street, including the “late night shootouts” of the post-Katrina years involving young blacks and the suffocation death of a black college student at the hands of white bouncers over “a dress-code dispute.”

The anti-violence proposals that flow from the research of at least one scholar may seem draconian to some New Orleanians – and an appropriately “desperate measure” for a desperate time.

Richard Scribner, M.D., a professor at the University of Alabama Birmingham and former professor of preventive medicine at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, examined links between alcohol abuse and violence.

Not surprisingly, Scribner’s 1995 study published in the Journal of American Health found the density of bars and alcohol beverage liquor outlets is directly linked to high rates of violence. Scribner’s proposals for reducing New Orleans’ murder rate included closing bars and ABOs early. In a party city like ours, where liquor is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Scribner’s proposal floated as high as a lead balloon.

Alcohol abuse may not be the cause of every shooting and stabbing in New Orleans in general and Bourbon Street in particular, but access to beer and booze is often a contributing factor to violence.

If we’re serious about stopping the violence in the French Quarter – the heart of the city – it’s time to put early closings of all ABOs on the table, with no exceptions. It is done in other cities; how much would it hurt to try it here?

First consider this: NOLA Til You Die. How does it sound to you after another mass shooting on Bourbon Street?

 

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