In the face of criticism over continuing violence in New Orleans and national attention to the recent killing of former Saints star Will Smith, Mayor Mitch Landrieu mounted a defense of his administration’s murder reduction strategy in a public address Wednesday night.
Landrieu used the address at Tulane University’s Dixon Hall to call for greater public awareness and involvement in his administration’s anti-violence and community initiatives, castigating what he argued was a shallow attention to murder that focuses only on high-profile killings.
He described cycles of violence in the city as “decades of urban warfare.”
“I am an eyewitness to the agony that families go through when they lose their children to violence, and I’m compelled to testify to what I see and what I know,” Landrieu said. “We are a city, we are a country that is drunk on violence, and we need to wake up to this fact.”
Landrieu, who received a standing ovation following his speech, did not offer new policies or initiatives. Instead, he focused on existing programs, on complaints about the way state and federal officials have “gutted” funding for cities to support policing and mental health services, and on repeated remembrances — sometimes with sadness and sometimes with anger — of those killed in the city in recent years.
“This doesn’t just come out of nowhere,” Landrieu said. “Murder and violence in all forms is the poisonous fruit that grows from the soil of injustice, racism and inequality, fertilized by guns, drugs, alcohol, broken families and disintegrated social structures.”
But while he said he doesn’t “accept that this is a problem that can’t be solved,” he offered no new solutions beyond a call for residents to get more involved in existing programs aimed at addressing violence.
“You can’t tell me there’s not a way for you to help if you want,” Landrieu said. “There is no excuse. We have to stop waiting; we have to start doing. Let me be clear about this: We may not all be at fault, but we are all responsible.”
Coming in the wake of renewed national attention to murders in New Orleans prompted by Smith’s shooting, Landrieu didn’t argue against the notion that violence is pervasive in the city.
Gesturing to a tableful of black-and-red binders filled with the names of those killed since he took office, Landrieu said the more than 1,000 murders in the city in those years have left New Orleans numb to violence.
More than 4,600 people have been killed in New Orleans since the mid-1990s, a figure larger than the number killed during the war in Iraq or the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said.
“So it has been decades of urban warfare on our city’s streets. And how have we responded as a nation?” Landrieu asked. “Gunshots for anything, murder over nothing. Even little kids can tell you: ‘Out here, it is kill or be killed.’ That reverberates in my mind all the time.”
The speech was, in part, an extension of previous discussions by Landrieu about the city’s crime problem, offering himself as an unwilling expert on the victims of violence. He returned repeatedly to those whose killings didn’t get the same attention as Smith or the victims of other high-profile shootings such as Briana Allen, a 5-year-old killed in a drive-by shooting at her cousin’s birthday party in 2012.
Video screens behind Landrieu displayed pictures and names of the victims he described as he spoke.
“The question is, do we care? Because some people still think that black lives really do not matter,” Landrieu said. “But they are wrong; black lives do matter. All black lives, not just professional athletes, not just those shot by police officers, not just innocent kids, all black lives matter. Period.
“Especially those who we ignore — the thieves, the drug dealers, the so-called ‘thugs,’ these lives matter. We all have value.”
That approach helped underpin Landrieu’s community-based murder reduction strategy, including the NOLA For Life program, midnight basketball and other efforts aimed at providing support networks and other structures to prevent people — especially young people — from turning to violence.
While mentioning efforts to move more police from desk duty to the streets to help reduce the New Orleans Police Department’s long response times to 911 calls, as well as other measures before the state Legislature that would free New Orleans police from having to respond to calls such as minor auto accidents, Landrieu criticized voters for earlier this month rejecting a tax increase that would have paid for bolstering the force’s ranks. He also criticized cuts to state and federal crime prevention and social programs.
“You can’t get more with less; you get less with less,” he said.
He also used the opportunity to tout an ordinance he has proposed dealing with new gun restrictions, though some of its proposed provisions would duplicate state laws, and it is unclear whether other provisions would conflict with state limits on what cities can do about guns.
Those state limits play into Landrieu’s argument that factors beyond his control are limiting his administration’s ability to address violence in the city.
“The federal government and state Legislature must act to really make a dent in this big problem,” Landrieu said. “But we have a moral obligation to take this on.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.