The Forgotten Children of New Orleans

Friends from around the country ask us: “How are things in New Orleans? Are things getting better?” I always have to pause, surprised that people haven’t heard. I forget that the national media has abandoned us, that George Bush flew into town for five minutes to make promises of federal support which gave the rest of the country and the world permission to look away. I am stunned that people don’t know how much worse it is in New Orleans today for our organization, for our members, for our community than it was even six months ago.

When people ask, I have to tell them: It’s worse than you think. It’s not what people want to hear, but it’s the truth that isn’t being reported in the mainstream media, so I have to keep telling them. And every time, I draw on a renewed commitment on the part of FFLIC and many others in New Orleans and around the country to hold onto faith and to the knowledge that the spiritual and material power of people who believe in and work for justice will one day prevail – and so we keep moving forward. Because it is always darkest before dawn and New Orleans, a year after Katrina, is due for the brightest of dawns.

How are things in New Orleans? For the young people and families who are FFLIC’s heart and soul, things are not well. Besides the chaos of still-unrepaired infrastructure (traffic lights are still broken, garbage pick up remains illusive, levees are insufficiently repaired, and entire neighborhoods remain exactly as they did in October of last year) the clear plan of developers and the business community to deny the right of return to New Orleans’ Black community is being implemented in the ugliest of ways. HUD recently unveiled its plan to demolish 5000 units of public housing. The Recovery School District will simply not open its schools that serve poor Black neighborhoods. Officials refuse to re-open Charity Hospital, the source of health care for New Orleans’ poor and working class. All are part of a plan that has been in the works since the day after the storm. We are witnessing the normally gradual process of gentrification sped up to its logical conclusion, with developers interested in eliminating (and quickly!) all public infrastructure that supports the lives of poor and working class Black communities, and politicians eager to accommodate them. Politicians publicly make their commitment to welcome everyone back while quietly making the policy decisions that guarantee its impossibility.

And yet, people keep coming home! Black New Orleanians, whose land and city this is, are finding their way back every day despite all the predictions and efforts to the contrary. Our families and communities made it back to vote and made their numbers and power felt. Folks are back looking for jobs which don’t exist and housing which is boarded up and vacant.

What does this mean? It means there are hundreds of children in the city with no public schools to attend in their neighborhood. It means there are thousands of people suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (only psychologists tell us there is no “Post” to our PTSD as the stress of daily life in New Orleans is newly traumatizing each day) with no mental health care. It means people still have no consistent place to live, no sense of protection from a future storm, no jobs to make a living, no health care to treat even basic medical needs. It means folks come back, are forced to leave again, come back and forth and back and forth …

It means that the institutions that stabilize a community–like churches, schools, and grandmas–are absent, while instability and stress factors are through the roof.

It means that there has been a 25% jump in the mortality rate, including a threefold increase in the suicide rate. It means that Arsenio and Markee Hunter, Warren Simeon, Iraum Taylor and Reggie Dantzler,–all New Orleans youth and several of whom were friends and children of FFLIC’s–were slaughtered on a street corners not 5 blocks from our offices, gunned down with a submachine gun that somehow make it back into the city and onto the streets. It means we have lost Kerry Washington, a son and a father, who died mysteriously inside the overcrowded, overheated Orleans Parish Prison ñwhere he paid with his life for an old warrant of simple drug possession. It means Ronald Smith who was gunned down by police will never get to see how beautifully his brother testified at a city council hearing two months ago. It means our members and families live in fear of both the violence on the streets and the violence of the police who are supposed to protect them.

It means, in short, that the clash between the gentrifying forces and the Black community – who were not meant to survive, endure, and return–has turned deadly. Where the lack of schools, housing and healthcare fails to keep people away, those in power will turn to the police and prisons.

If there was ever any doubt that the criminal justice system would be used to keep Black New Orleanians from returning, the last few months have eliminated the last of it. With 300 National Guardsman called in to patrol (with M-16s which are “locked and loaded”) the empty streets of the neighborhoods where the lack of infrastructure has slowed efforts to rebuild, the NOPD has been able to turn its attention to “protecting” the neighborhoods that have been rebuilt. By consistently profiling, harassing and arresting poor people of color, NOPD are now making over 140 arrests per week. The vast majority of these arrests are for minor violations, including spitting on a sidewalk. The kinds of charges being put on people–resisting arrest, obstruction of justice, battery on a police officer – speak more to the tension between NOPD and community than to public safety.

The rise in NOPD arrests occurs at a moment when the Orleans Parish Prison is becoming made increasingly dangerous by its overcrowding and lack of adequate health care. Harsh criticism from national media and lawyers of Sheriff Gusman’s operation of OPP has not stopped him from opening new “temporary” beds at breakneck speed and sending hundreds of prisoners up to the state penitentiary in Angola to try and keep up with the new arrests.

So how are things in New Orleans?

But, there is a beacon of light. Undeniably, organizing has taken root in the city. From neighborhood associations to workers rights, environmental justice, and public safety reform groups, people are beginning to come together and use their people power, their power to disrupt, to shame, to confront elected officials and demand that they do what they were elected to do: serve the people of this city.

An inspiring example of how organizing and reform work are together making a difference is in the juvenile justice system itself. Even as news coverage concentrates all the blame for crime on young Black men, and the demonized threat of these young Black men is used to justify everything from shutting down public housing to bringing in the National Guard, the juvenile justice system itself is continuing on the path of reform that had just begun when the storm hit.

The changes in New Orleans’ juvenile justice system are real. During the six months before Katrina, there were over 4000 juvenile arrests in New Orleans. In these last six months, there have been 169. After the storm, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Chief Judge David Bell took leadership in implementing many reforms that had previously been discussed, but never implemented. For starters, he brought in Attorney (and FFLIC friend) Ilona Picou to work as the court’s recovery coordinator. Ilona, well versed in juvenile justice reform, coordinated 38 volunteer attorneys from outside Louisiana to winnow down the number of active cases from 26,500 to 2,500.

A new set of procedures on how to deal with kids has dropped the number of kids being arrested by police from over 100 a day to an average of 17 per day. Police are no longer arresting kids for trespass, for example, for sitting on a basketball court after school. The Court has been able to use savings from such basic changes to upgrade its computer and phone systems. It has also purchased vehicles for use by families in need of supervision, drug court, weekend detention and alternatives to detention programs. Money that had been used to put kids in jail before the storm is now being used to bring support families need to keep their kids at home.

So, why is juvenile justice improving at the very same moment criminal justice for adults is spinning out of control, and despite the recent blame-the-victim policy responses of curfews and increased law enforcement? In part, it is because juvenile justice reform efforts–led by FFLIC and the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana–were already underway when Katrina hit. Before the storm, FFLIC, a voting member of the Children and Youth Planning Board was actively engaged in getting the many stakeholders to agree that detention reform in Orleans Parish was necessary. After touring the decrepit Youth Study Center and witnessing first hand the horrific conditions in which over 100 of our children were detained on any given day, FFLIC made a commitment to ensure that any reforms of the juvenile justice system would include the closure of that facility and the reduction of the number of children held at any given time. FFLIC worked hard with other stake holders, including the juvenile court judges, to recruit the Annie E. Casey Foundations Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) to come to Orleans to implement their proven program to reform local juvenile justice systems and help jurisdictions spend less on incarceration and more quality community based programs for kids and families.

So when the storm hit, the adult system and the juvenile system responded in precisely opposite ways. The juvenile system which had been forced to see children as the precious human being they are, and detention beds as the costly, ineffective burden they are, chose to speed up its reform process. The adult system which had made no such culture shift and no such commitment to change, has continued down its path of death and destruction.

What does this mean? To FFLIC, it is a reminder that our work has impact, value and indeed can make a very real difference in people’s lives and in the systems which affect our lives. To all of us, it shows that issue based organizing has the potential to result in system shifts that can withstand a racist onslaught even of the magnitude we are witnessing in New Orleans today. It also tells us that FFLIC must not be content to just see the changes in the juvenile system, knowing more children each day are being bumped into the adult system and that no matter what the courts say, our 17 and 18 year old children are no less human, no less ours, no less worthy of our commitment to keep them safe from the harm of the streets, safe from the harm of law enforcement, safe from the harm of racism and displacement. As FFLIC looks forward, we must re-commit ourselves to organizing, to building our membership base and to our mission of improving the lives of Louisiana’s youth, especially those at risk of getting involved in the juvenile justice system in the context of today’s it’s-worse-than-you-think New Orleans. If we and the many others in New Orleans who have begun, keep on organizing, we have hope that we may soon be able to answer the question differently, “So how are things in New Orleans?”

XOCHITL BERVERA is director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children.