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On September 27, 2008, Kirsten Brydum of San Francisco became the 144th of 179 people murdered in New Orleans that year. Like countless others, her murder remains unsolved. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, The Big Easy seems to mean killing and getting away with it. The sheer number of murders there leaves numerous stories, and the clues they might afford, untold.
Kirsten, 25, was radiant, altruistic, and wise. She helped found the Really Really Free Market, a monthly bazaar of free goods and services, and Access Café, a periodic, volunteer-run restaurant which serves free sit-down meals to all comers. In July 2008, she set out on a “collective autonomy” tour to exchange ideas with others around the country about alternative economic and social models. She stopped first at the RNC protest in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where her travel companion recalled them “baking vegan cupcakes amidst riot police, dancing in the streets, shouting ‘destroy money, build community,’ picking vegetables from an abandoned garden for a potluck, playing washboard with wingnuts, and planting seeds of hope for the future.”
A month and a half later, Kirsten wrote her last dispatch from aboard a train: “I’m rolling into New Orleans. An old friend of a new friend offered to pick me up from the station and get me to the house of another friend of a friend. The sun is setting on the bayou-licked lands and I am truly fortunate.”
On her second night in town, she borrowed a bike from the house where she was staying in the Katrina-battered Ninth Ward and rode with a feather in her hair to see the Rebirth Brass Band perform in the warehouse district. The club’s doorman remembers her leaving alone on her bike at 1:30 am. Later that morning, at 8:30, a church group returning to gut a house in the 3000 block of Laussat found her dead on the sidewalk, shot in the head. She was eleven blocks beyond where she was staying, across train tracks in a desolate area she could not easily have reached even if she had gotten lost. More likely, she was abducted and taken there. What befell her that night remains a mystery, but the dots connect through some unspeakably horrific places.
Kirsten’s murder recalls the unsolved murder in January 2007 of Helen Hill, a community activist who moved to New Orleans with her husband Paul, a physician, to serve those dislocated by the Hurricane. When police arrived, Paul was kneeling in the doorway, bloody, shot three times himself, cradling their infant son. The Times Picayune headline exclaimed, “Killings bring the city to its bloody knees.” Five other people had been murdered in New Orleans that day.
For a time, Kirsten’s murder, like Helen’s, generated news. At first I fretted that Kirsten was receiving preferential treatment because she is white. A black man, Bruce William Graves, 55, had been killed in his own home the same day, but his name hasn’t appeared in the news since. White privilege, it occurred to me, includes not only getting front page coverage, but expecting the general public to grieve with me over the death of a friend. A year later, I have also come to learn that most murders in New Orleans, black and white, have the same, eventual fate: the investigation peters out and they go unsolved.
“Please tell me why I should care about a little ragamuffin that got snuffed and is wasting my reading space?” a commenter vented online under an article about Kirsten’s death. Because the little ragamuffin, by her example, might have awakened in you a deeper compassion than you knew you had.
Trying to cope, Kirsten’s boyfriend John beseeched her to help him turn away from hateful thoughts: “That is what took you from us and it will not bring you back,” he wrote on the family’s memorial website. “Now more than ever I know that we need to put more love into the world and that you cannot fight hatred with hatred.”
“We’re all in this together,” Kirsten was fond of saying. President Obama spoke the same words in his pitch to Congress for healthcare reform. Kirsten is smiling about that.
Please call CrimeStoppers (504-822-1111) with any tips; the reward is $10,000.
BEN ROSENFELD, a civil rights lawyer in San Francisco, was a friend of Kirsten Brydum’s.