From the outside, it’s not entirely clear what New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu was getting at when he made what was billed as a major address on violence in New Orleans last week.
Was the main goal of the emotional hourlong speech at Tulane University to explain how intractable the problem is? How it’s intricately tied to all sorts of societal ills from poverty to racism, easy access to guns to the proliferation of drugs and alcohol, mass incarceration to “broken families” to “disintegrated social structures?”
Was the speech meant as a defense of NOLA for Life, his community-based anti-murder initiative that aims to cut the cycle of violence, even as sad headlines continue to accumulate? Or was the speech expository in nature, a sad description, complete with names, pictures and back stories, of the conditions that cause young children to tell him that “out here, it is kill or be killed”?
“That reverberates in my mind all the time,” Landrieu said.
Was it a call to arms to citizens to get involved, for employers to take a chance and hire ex-offenders who want to turn their lives around, for everyone to look for a way to get personally involved? Or for state and national leaders to take on the fight and provide more resources rather than leaving the city to fend for itself and simply issue what often is called unfunded mandates? Or for the public to rally behind a new anti-gun legislation he and the City Council are crafting?
Was it about establishing Landrieu’s credentials as a leader on these issues and showing him to be a passionate and skilled advocate at a time when he’s approaching the end of his time in office, and when a potential national role beckons?
Or was it just immense frustration speaking?
Can we just say all of the above?
Landrieu’s exasperation is nothing new, although it was surely inflamed by a one-two punch from April 9, the day on which voters rejected his attempt to raise property taxes to hire new police officers and on which former New Orleans Saints star Will Smith was shot to death on a Lower Garden District street following a fender-bender. Indeed, the mayor had some harsh words for those who voted down the 5-mill increase yet want police to do more.
“You cannot get more with less,” he said. “We are going to get less with less.”
The money would surely have helped, but it wouldn’t have done much to break the underlying dynamic Landrieu described or changed the fact that “we are a city, we are a country that is drunk on violence.”
I heard some complaints after the speech that Landrieu beautifully captured the scope of the problem but offered no new initiative, just a laundry list of things he’s said in the past and a general call not to succumb to the feeling that the problem can’t be solved, something Landrieu said he refuses to accept.
The trappings of the speech probably set up unrealistic expectations on that front.
If there were a cure-all to propose, surely someone would have come up with it by now. Landrieu sometimes seems to be throwing everything he can think of at the problem, hoping something will stick, but really, what else can people expect?
Still, there was power in the details Landrieu took his time recounting.
In the numbers he cited — 1,003 killings since he took office, 4,600 since the mid-1990s, when James Darby, a young boy who’d written to President Bill Clinton about his fears, was killed. Landrieu told well-known stories like Darby’s and also the stories of victims whose names most people have never heard.
Throughout, photos of murder victims remained frozen on the screen behind him.
As mayor, this is what he sees every day, he told the crowd. And he’s right; it’s impossible to look away.