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Marching to City Hall

Perspectives from a decade later

Joseph Fiedler illustration

More than 10 years have passed since 5,000 angry residents took to the streets for an “anti-violence” march on City Hall.

To commemorate the anniversary (Jan. 11, 2007), activists return to the front steps for a public reading of the lives lost to violence since then. Activist “Al” Mims holds up a list of 2,097 homicide victims here since Jan. 1, 2007. A woman with a soothing voice reads the names of the dead, their ages and how they died. Baty Landis, a musicologist, co-founder of the anti-crime group Silence Is Violence and organizer of the march, looks on.

“We want to remember the lives our city has lost to violence in the past decade, and to recommit our campaign to peace,” says Landis.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro attended earlier. “They’re regular readers,” Landis says. “We don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but it does take courage and leadership to really acknowledge the tragedy (of violent crime).”

Ten years ago, New Orleans was desperate for leadership. The city was still struggling to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina. Crime was strangling the recovery. Ray Nagin was mayor. No more than half the city’s population of 485,000 had returned. Tens of thousands of evacuated families and businesses waited elsewhere for the city to restore basic services. Only 17 percent of the buses were running. Entergy was struggling financially and the city was “vulnerable to outages.”

By January 2007, only 30 percent of the child care centers had reopened. Roughly half the public schools and 60 percent of the food establishments remained closed, according to reports by the New York-based Brookings Institute.

Crime had returned – with a vengeance. Murders were surging.

“A sense of lawlessness abounds, helped along by the knowledge that police are still working out of trailers and the fact that jail space is scarce, court dockets are overflowing and only a handful of public defenders remain in the city,” the Brookings Institute noted.

Mayor Nagin (2002-’10), who began dismantling police reforms by his predecessor in his first-term, had no answers for the “little uptick in murders.”

In 2006, six months before the march, Gov. Kathleen Blanco rushed 300 National Guard troops and 60 State Police troopers to aid the depleted NOPD (at Nagin’s request) after a mass shooting in Central City.

By January 2007, crime was out of control, again.

The unrelated murders of two local artists shocked and brought together a racially divided city. Helen Hill, a white filmmaker, was shot to death in her home. Dinerral Shavers, a popular black musician, was shot in the head while driving a car.

Baty Landis, a cafe owner, was a friend to both artists.

She and others organized Silence Is Violence and the march to City Hall. One leaflet pleaded: “MARCH FOR OUR LOVED ONES …  FOR OUR NEIGHBORHOODS … MARCH FOR OUR CITY.”

On Thursday morning, Jan. 11, 2007, the Brookings Institute estimated one out of every 50 residents marched on City Hall. They were black and white, affluent and poor. They came from Uptown, downtown and Central City.

They marched to drumbeats with signs that captured the times. One woman wore a placard: “Afraid to walk the streets.” One man’s sign stated: “I was shot in the chest.” Another man waved a huge banner with    red letters “S.O.S.”

At City Hall they told chilling stories of murder, rape and assault. They refused to let Nagin and other officials speak, demanding that they listen – then take action.

Afterward, Gambit presciently predicted Jan. 11th would be a “watershed date” in the city’s post-Katrina history.

Nagin promised to focus on ensuring that “murders become a thing of the past in our city.”

He lied.

The day of the march, Nagin was engineering an illegal scheme to “personally benefit him and his family-owned granite business,” according to a subsequent federal indictment (and conviction) on multiple corruption charges.

Nagin is serving 10 years in prison.

Today it’s time to think about electing new leadership this fall. Sadly, the best efforts of outgoing “reform” Mayor Landrieu haven’t stopped the violence.

After more than two hours of reading, the memorial service is ending.

Angela Thompson, mother of three, carries two framed high school graduation pictures of her youngest son, Arron Thompson, 19.

“He was my third child,” she says proudly. “My youngest, my baby.”

Ten years ago, Mrs. Thompson and her family were living with her sister’s family at College Station, Texas. Arron was still a boy – eager to overcome asthma and join his elementary school’s track team. “I said, ‘Sweetie, you can’t do that. You have asthma. Your lungs won’t allow it.’” Arron kept running and made the team, she recalls.

The family returned to New Orleans in June 2007. The boy became a man – and a father. He went to work as a beverage delivery man for Crescent Crown Distributors.

On the afternoon of March 8, 2016, Thompson was shot during a delivery to a Chevron gas station at 2601 Gen. DeGaulle Drive in Algiers. His co-worker went inside. Thompson waited outside. A gunman came up behind him. They struggled. Thompson was shot in the head. He died three days later.

His daughter Cailey Thompson, now 3, still asks for her father. “She’ll say, ‘When is Daddy coming home from work?’ or ‘Is he still asleep?’” Mrs. Thompson says.

“I say, ‘Remember, I told you. Daddy is with Jesus.’ She’ll say OK – and then come back another time.”

Smartphone pictures show her son holding Cailey. “He was a good man. He was a great father. He had dreams.”

The Chevron station where Thompson was shot is well-known to police. NOPD Officer Kevin Thomas survived a .45 caliber gunshot wound to the head at the same Chevron station – the day after Katrina. It happened during a police shootout with suspected looters on Aug. 30, 2005. Four suspects were quickly arrested, with a cache of weapons and ammo.

Thompson’s murder remains unsolved – 10 years after The March on City Hall.

 

 

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