National Guard troops in armored vehicles patrol New Orleans streets as the June drawdown date nears. Children as young as 14 rob pedestrians at gunpoint. Murders climb, despite millions of dollars in increased funding for cops and prisons.
“People are scared,” City Council President Arnie Fielkow tells WWL-TV, after earlier vowing to hold the New Orleans Police Department accountable for promised crime reductions.
Local developer Pres Kabacoff predicted this crisis – almost 20 years ago.
On July 17, 1989, Kabacoff, who is white, told a Congressional hearing at historically black Dillard University that the nation faced a grim choice – unless the feds invested heavily in education and child care for minority children.
“If we don’t put more money into our minority communities, we’ll be asking whether democracy or martial law makes more sense,” Kabacoff, then-chairman of a public school task force, told the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families.
More businesses will hire immigrants to offset future labor shortages rather than employ unskilled minority juveniles who may turn to crime if they can’t find work, he added.
Kabacoff’s “future” may be here. Since 1989, New Orleans has recorded more than 5,000 murders. Many of the victims – and tens of thousands of jailed defendants – have been black males, aged 16 to 24.
“These kids that were being born 20 years ago are now in our jail,” Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman says of Kabacoff’s prediction. “And perhaps, had they had some alternative to negative behavior and influences, they could have avoided incarceration.”
Peter Scharf, a criminal justice expert at Tulane University, says Kabacoff was on the right track. A recent “evidence-based” study reported by the University of Pennsylvania shows that pregnant teen mothers, aided by a nurse, proper nutrition and intensive child rearing practices can reduce a baby’s risk for homicide many years later, Scharf says.
However, local child care is scarce, post-Katrina.
There were 111 child care centers in New Orleans as of Feb. 28 – down from 275 centers before the storm, according to Agenda for Children, a local advocacy group.
“The [crime] problem is a social problem,” NOPD Maj. Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, said after reviewing Kabacoff’s “martial law” remarks. “There is nothing society offers these kids as they are growing up.”
As younger cops crated up displays of seized assault rifles and pistols following an NOPD press briefing, Glasser – a former math teacher in Jefferson Parish – estimates that during his 31-year police career he has asked thousands of arrested youths where each saw themselves in five years. “The overwhelming answer is ‘dead or in prison.’”
New Orleans’ best hope is to focus now on kids in elementary schools and younger, he says. Youths need a clear career path and a “valuable education” that’s going to make them competitive in the job market and not just for minimum-wage jobs, Maj. Glasser says. The advantages of education and career over the “the fast dollar” from “crack” and crime also must be emphasized. “If [youths] don’t get [the message] at home and they don’t get it at school, we as a society are done.”
On an April morning, about 20 sign-waving demonstrators marched upstairs to Mayor Ray Nagin’s second-floor office at City Hall. They handed a receptionist 500 postcards demanding the closing of the Youth Study Center, the city’s troubled juvenile jail. The activists politely asked to see the mayor and waited.
During the lull, I showed Kabacoff’s “martial law” prediction to police and activists alike.
Officer Roland Doucette, a 27-year NOPD veteran, likened policing disaffected youths to fighting suicide bombers overseas. “It’s kind of like Iraq; how do you defeat an ‘enemy’ who doesn’t mind dying? Not the way we’re doing it.”
Charles Easterling, 28, an activist-lawyer with long, flowing dreadlocks, says he was only 10 years old at the time of Kabacoff’s testimony.
“It’s just amazing that such a prediction could be made and now we see it come to pass,” says Easterling, spokesperson for the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a nonprofit advocacy group in Central City. “We are somewhat under martial law now, with 300 National Guardsmen in the city. In my neighborhood alone, I see a considerable amount of armed [troops] in uniform, reminiscent of war zones.”
Dana Kaplan, executive director of JJPL, says law enforcement is over-represented in the lives of the city’s black youth. As Kaplan spoke, restless demonstrators began chanting: “Mayor Ray Nagin! Mayor Ray Nagin!”
“Louder!” someone shouted.
Officer Doucette eased next to the receptionist’s desk and faced the crowd.
Other plainclothes cops quietly gathered in the back; most looked tired.
The mayor did not come out.
After an hour of waiting, the protesters – men, women, teens and a few children – packed up to leave the waiting room. A small boy quickly knelt in front of a table centerpiece and sniffed a white plastic flower.
About an hour later, developer Pres Kabacoff sits down with a turkey-and-cheese poor boy and a soft drink in the conference room of HRI, the residential development firm he co-founded in 1982, 31 floors above the Central Business District.
His graying hair is long and combed back. He sports a goatee.
The developer hits many of the same optimistic notes heard among the city’s business elite. “We have an opportunity to rewrite failed institutions that wouldn’t have been available without a sea change like Katrina, including: hospitals, levees, public housing, public schools and to some extent criminal justice and [governmental] ethics,” he says. “And that’s a good thing.”
He supports the “de-concentration of poverty” as sound policy for economic growth, improved housing, education and anticrime efforts. He applauds the demolition of public housing developments, which he says “seeded” social ills.
As for the 180,000 mostly poor residents who haven’t returned (including displaced public housing occupants), their absence is viewed as an opportunity to relieve demands on New Orleans’ institutions and to de-concentrate poverty.
“Let’s take those people that did return and make sure that they have adequate” child care, public health care and education, he says. “If you want people to go from welfare to work, you better provide them [with] some day care, some transportation and some medication so they can function in that environment and take care of their babies.”
Mental health is a key crime concern, post-Katrina.
“We certainly let the community down in terms of mental health,” says the business leader. “That’s a lot of our crime – people are just incapable of functioning and trying to make it on the streets without any intervention. And it doesn’t work.” He hopes Gov. Bobby Jindal’s efforts will have an effect.
Kabacoff was unfamiliar with enhanced tax credits for employers who hire ex-offenders – but not unsympathetic. “If they’ve served their time, there ought to be programs to help them get back into the mainstream, rather than just get sent off their way each time,” he says. “[Ex-offender] must be a terrible stigma.”
Kabacoff offers no new prophecies or “silver bullets.” However, developers – like historic preservationists – often see potential in areas where the rest of us see only blight. To a frightened city craving vision, imagination and leadership, perspective is more valuable than predictions.