Shell-Shocked, Black Youth, Guns, Death, Police, and Juries in New Orleans

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans  Follow me on where I’m going with this.  In the smaller-footprint, post-Katrina New Orleans, I do my citizen’s duty and am part of the jury pool every two years, and this May is my month to report for service.  Yesterday in the pool as part of voir dire, I was asked, along with the rest of the pool, a series of questions about our attitudes on drugs, crime, the police, and much, much else.  Surprisingly in a majority African-American city, the pool was still more than 50% Caucasian.

Among the first 30 queried, almost no one claimed to have seen or witnessed a drug transaction, which I found almost unbelievable.  More disturbingly for the prosecutors were the attitudes about police, since his case rested solely on testimony that they could provide.  In rating the New Orleans police, I was the low range at a “3,” and one person was a “9,” but most were 4, 5, and 6 placing the police firmly in the failing grade category with a good 20% of us very skeptical of convicting anyone with nothing but police testimony.  In the wake of devastating reports by the Justice Department on our police department and recent jury trials that found police responsible for murder (manslaughter?) and massive, high-level cover-ups, I was surprised the scores were as high as they were.

All of which led me to see a rough-cut of a documentary called Shell-Shocked being done in New Orleans by John Richie that included segments filmed by a half-dozen African-American teenagers he had given cameras, too.  Their stories and the film were literally the other side of the moon in experience from the “jury of peers” in the Criminal Court building.  The documentary began with the teens trying to count the number of friends they knew well who had been killed by gunfire, which ranged from a handful to more than a dozen, putting a foundation to the film’s claim that New Orleans was the nation’s murder capital.

I think my fellow jurors would have been shocked at the segments that showed how easy it was to obtain a “chopper,” which is an AK-47, machine gun as a “hunting” rifle legally available to anyone 18-years of age in New Orleans and arguably accessible financially at $118 per gun, making a handful of such armaments a lot easier to acquire than say a computer.  Another segment on an “RIP” t-shirt maker was moving as they counted the twenty or so such shops within a 3-mile range that served the booming business in commemorative t-shirts for friends shot dead on the streets.

One of the questions asked me and others by the ADA had been one rationalizing the police witnesses because of the lack of community response around crime.    Several of the stories in Shell-Shocked put a lie to this lame excuse.  One mother talked about the police telling her and her neighbors to “only call us if someone has died,” when they reported crime.  A sofa full of teens and others in the film told of being stopped for nothing by the police as they walked on the streets or from school.  A white couple running a youth center at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church near Mayor Landrieu’s Broadmoor neighborhood, told a story of giving an old used bike to a teen at their center so he could more easily get to his job in the French Quarter, and how the youngster was stopped within hours of getting the bike by the cops who braced him about ownership papers for the bike and why and how did he steal it.

I’m pretty jaded and cynical about these things, but the juxtaposition of my fellow jurors deciding the guilt and innocence of disproportionately African-American fellow-citizens in the docket without much of a clue about what “life in the city” is really about for a good deal of their fellow citizens is leaving me more “shell shocked” even than this movie, though the movie, if completed, might be an interesting part of jury preparation in the future, if justice were part of what one wanted to emerge from these proceedings.