Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Violence We Live With

My friend’s boyfriend is flipping out about the Mardi Gras day shootings here in New Orleans. I want to scoff, really I do, but seven people were shot—including an 18-month-old baby—while they were watching parades, arms outstretched, catching beads, only a few blocks from where my family, friends, and I were standing a few hours before. The young men responsible were apprehended within moments, but no motive has been forthcoming; all of the victims appeared to be random bystanders.

And of course, the question everyone has is why. And the next question is, what is wrong with this city? I find myself waiting for the logical explanation for gunfire into a celebrating crowd. I wonder what I would have done had I heard gunshots near me, seen people fall next to me, felt a bullet graze my toddler son as I held him up to catch a bead or stuffed animal.

And then I wonder why I skip over the story, why I want to scoff at my friend’s boyfriend. I wonder, why am I not freaking out? Has it become such a normal part of living in New Orleans that I am willing to accept random acts of violence as part of the price we pay to live here? What if it had been me, my friends, my family who had been shot? Do I ignore it because it hasn’t happened to me? Is it only a matter of time?

Violence in this city has touched me personally. A year after we returned from our Hurricane Katrina-motivated exile, a friend of mine, Helen Hill, was shot and killed in her home; her husband and two-year-old son were chased down and fired at as they hid in their bathroom. Her story made national headlines, too, and her killer has never been found, her death never explained. She and I were not terribly close, but she and her husband were some of the first friends we made when we moved to this city, and their passion for this place was contagious, even as they put themselves to work to improve the many problems here. It still is difficult not to think of the horrible end to their stay here as a warning for those of us who come here to make a difference: get out, get out now before it happens to you.

But I am working hard at seeing it differently. I want to believe that the violence, the poverty, the crime, the pain can be overcome. That the overwhelming problems our city is plagued with can be addressed, that we won’t sink under the weight of it all. Am I an optimist or a fool? Will I feel differently when it happens to me? For now, since Helen’s death, I keep my doors locked even when I’m home and always use the peephole before I open my home. I tell myself that that’s just smart city living. I tell myself it’s a small price to pay to live in such an amazing place. I tell myself I want to raise my children here, I want to grow old here, I want to be part of the fabric of this city. But I don’t want to become one of its bloody statistics, a news story, a reason to leave for good.

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