When Rhonda Duplessis talks about her son, her whole face lights up at just the memory of his smile.
“He smiled a lot,” she said Saturday, wiping away tears as she sat surrounded by other New Orleans mothers who have lost children to violence. “He was very humble and very quiet. And he loved his brothers.”
Joseph Arthur Duplessis IV was 18 when he was killed in July. His mother remembers how much her son loved to play video games and draw. He had just graduated from the Youth Challenge Program and was planning to join the Marines.
Those plans changed in an instant, however, when he was shot in the Hollygrove neighborhood. Like many other mothers in New Orleans, Duplessis blames her son’s death on a culture of violence prevalent among youth on the city’s streets.
“The day before the funeral, I saw him, and I made a promise,” Duplessis said. “I said, ‘It don’t matter who I got to go through, what I got to go through. Justice is going to be served. Because you weren’t supposed to be taken like this.’ ”
Duplessis was one of several mothers who spoke during the first “Helping Mothers Heal Initiative” conference at the Family Center of Hope. Aimed at grieving family members who have lost loved ones to violence, the conference addressed how to identify post-traumatic stress disorder and other symptoms of trauma, as well as how to recognize the impact of a culture of violence in the community.
According to the New Orleans Police Department, 123 homicides were committed in the city between Jan. 9 and Sept. 29 of this year. More than 20 of the victims were 21 or younger.
Panelists who spoke at Saturday’s conference blamed many factors for the city’s perpetual culture of violence. Personal family situations play a role, as does the glorification of violence in popular culture, according to clinical social worker Victor Sims.
“What are young people paying attention to?” Sims asked, pointing out that youth are surrounded by video games, movies and television shows that glorify violence.
“Some individuals who use violence actually feel a boost in self-esteem from it,” he said.
Jackie Harris-Smith, another social worker, also pointed to a culture in which people often are unwilling to testify for fear of retribution.
“This is a systemic issue,” she said.
Part of the problem stems, too, from deep-rooted racial issues that still infiltrate every part of city life, speakers said.
Saturday’s conference was held as part of the 20th annual Citywide Summit on the Plight of the African-American Male, designed to encourage dialogue about the realities of black men living in the city. The event gave victims an opportunity to talk to law enforcement about the city’s violence and what it means to grow up black in New Orleans.
Charline Sluss was one mother who said she had felt slighted by the way the city’s law enforcement system treated her son’s death. Addressing U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, Sluss shared a story about her son, Samuel Cole, who was killed by gun violence 16 years ago.
“I don’t know what happened to him. I never got a police report,” she said, adding that all she ever learned was that he was killed one night at age 34 after going to meet someone at the House of Blues.
“A policeman did not come and tell me that my son was shot. He was in the hospital; he stayed there two days. He went to the morgue; he stayed there two days. And no one ever told me what happened,” she said.
Sluss wondered if the officers in charge of the investigation even tried to find her son’s killer. The last time she looked into his case, she said, she was told that the records had been washed away by Hurricane Katrina.
“I have yet to hear from a police officer,” she said. “And that was 16 years ago.”
Sluss isn’t the only victim with stories like that, according to the summit’s organizer. pastor Tom Watson. Although he recognizes progress in the city’s post-Katrina landscape, Watson said there “still exists ‘a tale of two cities’ when (the progress is) juxtaposed with harsh realities of African-American males living in New Orleans.”
For example, 52 percent of the city’s black men are unemployed, and a disproportionate number of black men and boys are still being incarcerated, Watson said.
He added that the NOPD continues to overuse racial profiling and that there’s a “recurring trend” of unarmed black men being murdered by police.
Experts agreed that the justice system could work better to help victims and prevent further crime. In addition to Polite, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro spoke about efforts being made in the legal system, as did Chief Judge Ernestine Gray, of Orleans Parish Juvenile Court.
Polite, a New Orleans native who himself lost a brother to gun violence, said he’s seen how the criminal justice system has further hurt victims of crime rather than helping them.
“All too often what I’ve seen is that the criminal justice system adds on to that burden, adds on to the suffering,” Polite said.
To that end, he said, his office has actively tried to address reform, dedicating a unit to respond to loved ones whose families have been victims of crimes and working to curb violence with the Student Pledge Against Gun Violence.
Some mothers said they’ve seen some progress in the past decade.
“The system is getting a little better,” said Lisa Julian, whose son Darland Victor was killed in 1996 at age 19. “They’re better at finding the ones involved in the violence.”
Others, like Duplessis, said that no matter how much better things get, the damage already done is irreparable.
“I’m sorry for everybody who lost a child,” Duplessis said. “Because it’s not going to be all right. It doesn’t matter if it’s been 20 years, four years — a part of you is gone forever.”