Eyes on the Future

The wounded city pleads for her good citizens to return, rethink and rebuild. Many do. However, three-and-a-half-years after Hurricane Katrina flooded most of New Orleans, despair proves hardest to repair.

Traveling back to 2008, the year began trumpeted by criminal justice “stakeholders” crammed into a room at City Hall: the popular FBI Special Agent-in-Charge, the local police chief, business leaders, anti-crime nonprofits and city councilors. The stakeholders declare they’re unified to stop the violent crime, threatening the recovery.

The ineffectual district attorney has been replaced, they cheer. The flood of felony releases from jail has been stanched.

A New Year is here!

“We’ve got one shot at it,” the FBI leader warns.

Tens of millions of taxpayer dollars is allocated for record-high police salaries, benefits, bonuses and film noir commercials for recruits. Drug rehabilitation directors announce more beds, but not enough to offset still-closed Charity Hospital. The FBI leader promises a novel program with economic and educational incentives to rescue the good youths of crime-ridden Central City.

However, the mayor, the jailer and the coroner – all elected officials – are absent; Kumbaya without a bass section.

Like choir practices, more criminal justice press conferences will assemble in 2008. But the voices for drug “rehab” aren’t heard from again, drowned out by tired and frightened public refrains for more police and retention of National Guard troops.
Starved for leadership, the good citizens cannot bear spending two more years shouting into the wind – a vacuum of power – at City Hall.

Stakeholders with deep pockets press the FBI leader to run for mayor in 2010. However, “Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity” isn’t above flattery. Fatally he entertains the growing political chatter in his FBI office with a television reporter.

Recalled to Washington, he resigns. He returns to New Orleans. He rethinks. He renews. He revives.

He starts his youth rescue program as a nonprofit, crossing from the action-hero land of law enforcement to the gritty obscurity of community service.

The third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina arrives and New Orleans leads the nation in vacant and blighted property. “Detroit-South” proceeds to destroy the homes of rebuilding citizens and historic Creole cottages, erroneously. Blighted properties somehow endure; some are owned by the city.

The recovery drags. Millions of dollars in federal aid somehow remain untapped.
The mayor’s broken crime cameras, like the vision of his Recovery Czar, become bitter mantras of government failure: “Blind eyes in the sky” and “cranes on the skyline. Frustrated, the good citizens lash out at their government officials, who turn on city department heads.

The dispute du jour turns racial, political – or both. The city becomes one loud, angry blog – except for the mayor. A blameless breeze, “Sugar Ray” is above the fray. The Breeze and city council members meet behind closed doors in enviable restaurants. They emerge smiling, boasting a brokered peace. The seminal issue, the public fisc, is suborned to the maintenance of appearance and the appearance of civility.

The first casualty of wars, and governments, is truth.

The new Inspector General is from Massachusetts. He tells the city council that he’s returning $1 million to the public purse because the money cannot be used now. This is as it should be, but is almost never done. The cynical citizenry assumes the “real reason” is that the general must be jockeying for mayor in 2010.

Meanwhile, the nation elects its first black president, a contagion of hope. “Yes, we can!” he shouts. The city’s crime retorts – “No, we can’t!”

A one-quarter drop in homicides is little comfort. Fraudulent contractors fleece pioneering homeowners. Thieves steal critical copper wire. Thugs rob immigrant workers on construction sites. The NOPD speaks little Spanish and makes no serious effort to learn, if only to prevent the emergence of violent ethnic gangs selling “protection.” Meanwhile, the police chief and his “community policing” plan are lost in the translation of a new and different language, post-Katrina: transparency.

Citizens and news media demand answers for police shortcomings and failures. But information is power. And power at the NOPD is not easily shared – and never surrendered.

An up-through-the ranks infighter, the chief has survived a generation of intrigues at NOPD, whose treachery both rivals and survives Stalin’s Kremlin. He questions the motives of the inquisitive or those who may be behind the queries: those who want money, power or both. The chief alternately blames Katrina, ousted subordinates and the city’s chronic social ills, among others.

Two issues are not easily explained away.

Two years have passed: When is the chief going to rise above his petty differences with the jailer-sheriff and loudly urge violent crime victims to apply to his former political adversary for felon-funded reparations, as state law requires? How long must foolish pride deny reimbursements funeral home expenses for families of the murdered, counseling for the sexually violated and dental bills for disfiguring gunshot wounds? The chief promises action – again. Again, NOPD’s impressive public relations machine remains silent and mono-linguistic.

The chief also rejects a national study ranking the city as the nation’s overall crime capital, calling the survey “unscientific.” He also blames social ills. Unlike the Inspector General, the chief doesn’t suggest that the largesse lavished on the NOPD might be better spent on mental health care or other social ills.

A sycophantic business community fails to demand outside, local audits of NOPD’s crime statistics and reports – a 10-year-old recommendation of the city Office of Municipal Investigation.

The year draws to an end. The city struggles to lift herself up and to protect her children. They are Katrina’s Children. Traumatized and dislocated, the mostly black and poor innocents have returned to become remixed in unfamiliar neighborhoods and schools.

Many become strangers in their own hometown. Under a leaden sky, a gaggle of the innocents march through a flood-damaged neighborhood, lugging school backpacks – blue for boys, pink for girls. They pass a vacant lot with weeds up to 6-feet high, then mounds of trash, blocks of storm-blighted homes, the vacant stares of defeated adults, the high-fence sanctuary of a pristine but empty playground, a stripped and abandoned car, leftover crime scene tape, a wild-looking man shouting at unseen demons, artless graffiti and closed churches.
Role models are scarce. The largest pictures of black men are smiling politicians, sports heroes or sullen wanted men on Crime Stoppers billboards. On a good day, they wave back to the friendly college student or the faith-based volunteer helping the city to rebuild.

For many of Katrina’s Children, this is the daily way to, and from, the under-performing school or the experimental charter.

The city’s elders, their foibles and controversies, seem far away. Youth is about possibilities, both real and imagined. Aging is about limitations, both real and imagined.

In November, graying militants convened here for the State of the Black World Conference – the first major meeting of black leaders since the presidential election. “Yes, we can!” someone shouts in a hotel foyer.

Like the retired FBI leader, the activists know there are plenty of Obamas among us, eager and deserving of a chance to grow and to serve.

In 2009, watch for the ones who shout – “¡Si, se puede!”

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