On May 8, Room 220 hosted a discussion between philosopher Tamler Sommers and anti-death-penalty attorney Billy Sothern at the Community Book Center. They were to discuss the philosophy of punishment. I figured it would be heady, and criminal justice issues have a particular flavor and bite in this city, so since neither Tamler nor Billy are from here, I asked New Orleans native Kristina Robinson, an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of New Orleans, to compose and read a short piece on the theme. What follows is a transcript of what she read, which set a grounded, human tone for the lofty conversation to follow.
Many thanks to Vera, Mama Jennifer, and everyone at the Community Book Center for hosting us, and to Tamler, Billy, and the forty or so people who came out to the event.
Love and Trouble in New Orleans
By Kristina Robinson
I decided to try this thing on my blog this summer where I would make my writing about home upbeat. You know, chronicle the joys of festival season, the whole nine. But looking out my window, New Orleans just isn’t a pretty place lately.
Last summer there was an easy story to tell. The “city’s most dangerous man,” Telly Hankton was headed to trial and the retaliatory killings that preceded and followed the trial made for excellent camera fodder. It was a time for those in city government and law enforcement to seem hungry, active, and aggressive. Flash forward to now—as we sit on the cusp of summer, it seems strangely quiet on their front in the midst of crisis.
Last summer, I couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing the mayor or the D.A. or the Sherriff—they were speaking, at least. They are decidedly more silent this go-around, now that the conditions of our jail, where we cage everyone from mental patients to murderers, have made the national news. What do you say when a thirteen year old gets shot getting off the bus and a seventeen year old turns himself in saying he was only shooting because someone else opened fire? Poverty, prohibition, and the War on Drugs make New Orleans a dangerous place to grow up. Added to the residual effects of Katrina, think of what age of many of our victims and suspects were in 2005, and we have the lethal results of neglect.
Addiction and enforcement has a role to play in all of this. No one wants to admit or take responsibility for the divided loyalties that keep the drug trade alive and well. We are a city and a nation of users, wherever we live or whatever we do for a living. We need to come clean and stop outsourcing the violence of our habits onto the vulnerable. And even in the midst of this war on drugs, enforcement could act with humanity. Wendell Allen shouldn’t have been murdered in his pajamas by a cop looking for marijuana. He just shouldn’t have.
There is a certain kind of despair that can take root in your heart growing up here. A numbing that can take place. Growing up here, violence is an inextricable part of the coming-of-age process. By the time—and, most times, before we reach adulthood—violent crime and its net effects have marked the lives of most of our friends and family. Victims and perpetrators are often cut from the same cloth. A lot of times you know them both, so justice is a funny concept here.
Who pays? The guilty, or—as a friend said, laughing sadly—the last man standing? Are those two things one and the same? Can they sometimes be mutually exclusive?
Many people live outside of justice here—the legal system’s version of it, at least. Sometimes, I think my city, New Orleans, is as close to the Wild West as it gets. We come from a city, a country, that has treated the epidemic of violence in its urban communities as “our problem.” Therefore, our perspective on right and wrong, crime and punishment, has been unquestionably shaped by this reality. I don’t know what the solution is for filling up a lot of our generation and younger who have been so hollowed out by this life. We have all shed tears for those lost to it and the mistakes we made because of it.
I know I don’t like superficial displays of care and ego. I know I don’t like men on camera, but then it doesn’t it piss you off when they don’t say anything at all? I know that I hurt for my generation and the ones below me. I worry about my son. He is growing up in a wild time. How will I protect him?
Kenny Rogers has a song, “The Gambler,” which due to its unexpected yet profound applicability to life in the N.O., was set to a bounce beat some years back. You got to know when to hold ‘em/ know when to fold ‘em/ know when to walk-away/ know when to run.
That last part is tough for some. We all have known those who died behind their pride. I’ve run a few times in my day, I’m damn sure not ashamed to say. Once, I stood my ground and survived, but I’m certainly not trying to press my luck. With all the ferocity of spirit it takes to be a mother, I pray, quite honestly, to make it, so that my son never has to experience this. Never has to feel the crushing weight of unreached potential. I am working hard every day to make that happen. It’s a certified war-zone out here—some scores can’t be settled or retribution found in a courthouse. In New Orleans, it’s a bust-back thing, and justice is not for all.