By: Kristy McCaskill (USA)
On my very first day in New Orleans, I was lucky enough to encounter a second line while exploring the streets in the Sixth Ward. New Orleans has a long history of second lines, a tradition which many scholars believe originated with West African circle dances. I arrived in New Orleans on March 19- better known in the city as Saint Joseph’s Day. I had only seen second lines in movies and on television; at this point in my NOLA education I didn’t even know that the long line of people marching behind the talented brass band was called a second line. All I knew was that encountering this vibrant, happy scene was a wonderful welcome to the Crescent City. I even remember remarking to my new roommate as we followed along behind the Mardi Gras Indians and the brass band that this was the best welcome I’ve ever had to a new city and I would expect this every day!
Just over two months later I am still discovering all the eccentricities and incongruity of what has quickly become one of my favorite cities in the world. When I tell my family and friends I live in New Orleans, they are immediately concerned for my safety. It’s difficult to explain that I don’t feel unsafe in a city where the violent crime rate is double that of the national average. Even though there was a murder a few blocks from my apartment last month (my roommate heard the shots) I still feel safe here. Maybe it’s because people are so friendly; I’ve gotten to know many of my neighbors by name and everyone here says hello, whether you know them or not. Some of those friendly neighbors are drug dealers and users. Yes, New Orleans is definitely a city of inconsistencies.
Let’s consider the differences between my first-day second line experience and the Mother’s Day second line that traveled two blocks from the ATD Fourth World Movement office in the 7th ward last weekend. On Sunday afternoon at the corner of Frenchman and Villerie, approximately a half block from the home of long-time ATD supporter Sparkle and her children, someone opened fire into the crowd of second line revelers. 19 people were shot, including two 10 year old children. Sister Ann, another ATD Fourth World supporter, suffered a broken arm in the chaos that ensued. The fact that no one was killed is truly amazing. Fortunately, all our ATD Fourth World members and supporters are safe, though the children who witnessed the shooting are understandably traumatized.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s tragedy (because let’s be clear; even though no one was killed, the events were certainly a tragedy), many people have been quick to place blame. Not necessarily on the person or people who opened fire on a crowd of innocent bystanders, but on the circumstances that would drive someone to commit such an act. Unstable home life, the inadequate education system, seemingly easy access to firearms, and a lack of resources for young people are arguments I have heard in the last two days to explain why a young man (or men) would commit such an act. And all of these reasons have merit.
The poverty level in New Orleans is almost double that of the rest of the nation. It is not surprising, therefore, that there were 192 murders in New Orleans in 2012, making it the third deadliest city in the United States. There have been many scientific studies linking violence and poverty. There is also a link between resource deprivation, especially in schools, and community violence. The adult illiteracy rate in our city is more than twice the national average. All of these factors, most of which are directly linked to poverty, help create an atmosphere ripe for the brutality we witnessed on Sunday.
Last week I was talking to one of our long-time ATD Fourth World members and one of the co-authors of “Not Meant to Live like This”. She told me that the kids here don’t have anything to do; they have no resources and nothing to keep them busy and out of trouble. She mentioned that school is out for the summer soon, and that means that crime rates will go up. I’ve never made that connection, but obviously what she said makes sense. A different Fourth World member has been searching all week for a summer camp to send her children to once school lets out at the end of the month. People are struggling to provide opportunities for their children to become engaged in their community and hopefully stay out of trouble. Many parents here work full time, sometimes more than one job, to provide for their families. This does not leave much time to interact with their children, to supervise them and help them make the right choices about their lives. When there are no resources there to supplement that guidance, with little opportunity to better their lives, many young people turn to drugs, gangs, and the culture of violence that seems to permeate this city. It makes me wonder; who should take the blame when young people get involved with drugs, violence, gangs, etc? To what extent are parents responsible? If these parents are struggling just to keep a roof over their heads and there are no resources there for young people should society share any of the blame?
In a city all too familiar with the struggles of persistent and extreme poverty, second lines have been a source of pride for many of our neighbors and supporters. People I have spoken to feel abandoned by their leaders; they are angry and resigned about the lack of opportunities available for them and their children. The few members I have spoken to since Sunday’s violence seem to firmly believe that the shooting, along with the other instances of violent crime that occur in the city, are a direct result of the refusal of policy makers to provide opportunities to people living in poverty to better their lives. The violence encouraged by poverty has now encroached on one of the greatest expressions of New Orleans culture and heritage that exist in the city today.