By Frank/Michael McCormack
Sometime in late 2004, not long after moving to New Orleans, my wife, Jennifer, and a group of her friends were held at gunpoint by a young man looking for money.
The group, made up of three ladies and a baby, parked just off St. Charles Avenue, under a street light, across from a busy restaurant. As they exited the car, the young man walked up, gun drawn, and said, “Okay ladies, this is how it’s gonna be…”
The encounter lasted just a few moments, with Jennifer shielding the baby from the gunman, one girl dumping her purse out on the ground, assuring the man that she hadn’t looked at his face, and the third girl letting him know that they didn’t have any cash. She was holding a diaper bag, not a purse.
“This is a diaper bag,” she said, holding out the bag. “It doesn’t have cash in it. It has diapers. Do you want diapers?”
For whatever reason, he believed them, turned and ran into the shadows.
The encounter was part of a string of holdups in that part of the city. At least one person was killed during the spike in crime.
In the seven years since then, more than 1,300 people have been killed in New Orleans. The number of murders each year has been basically unchanged, despite the city’s population losses since Hurricane Katrina. Last year there were about 51 murders per 100,000. In New York City, the ratio was 7:100,000.
In spite of the murder rate, everyday law abiding New Orleanians have found solace in the demography, geography and timing of crime in the Crescent City. The thinking is this:
Demography: Violence is carried out by young black men against young black men who know each other.
Geography: Violence is generally restricted to well-defined, high crime neighborhoods like Central City, the Lower Ninth Ward, Hollygrove, etc.
Timeframe: Violence occurs during late night/early morning hours when average people are safely in their homes.
With those criteria met, the general population has often, for lack of a better word, “overlooked” the problem. Now, I don’t think anyone in New Orleans would deny there is a crime problem or that the murder rate is, as Mayor Mitch Landrieu has called it, “unnatural.” Everyone wants the cycle of violence broken, but it’s awfully easy to trust others to fix the “system” – whether it’s the education, family or criminal justice systems – when the average citizen can go about his or her everyday life and feel reasonably safe from violence.
Over the past week or so, the criteria listed above have not held true.
On Jan. 20, Ferrel Sampier, 44, allegedly shot and killed Antonio Miller, 21, outside Mondo, a restaurant in the Lakeview neighborhood about 3 p.m. The murder stemmed from an argument over Miller’s care of his daughter, Sampier’s granddaughter. The shooting took place within a block or two of three elementary schools, which were in session.
Then, on Jan. 25, a man was killed around 7 a.m. after he sought to intervene in an attempted car jacking. As details of this murder came clear Wednesday, it only got sadder and sadder.
The victim, 44-year-old Mike Ainsworth, was dropping off his sons, 9 and 11, at the school bus stop in their Algiers Point neighborhood when Ainsworth saw a car jacking taking place nearby. As Ainsworth sought to intervene, the carjacker shot him several times and fled the scene. He’s been called a Good Samaritan for stepping in to help the victim.
After the shot, Ainsworth’s boys, who saw the event unfold, ran across the street to the yard where he had collapsed and sat with him until he bled to death.
Did you get that? His children sat with him until he died.
Two weeks ago a car chase ended across from a New Orleans university at about 9 a.m. when officers shot and killed a suspected home intruder/murderer. The week before that an elementary school was put on lockdown around 3 p.m. when a group of young men fired on police from a stretch of railroad tracks nearby.
These four events present a disturbing trend. In all four cases, two of the three crime criteria did not apply. They all happened in broad daylight. They all happened outside of the stereotypical problem neighborhoods. And none were restricted to young African American male versus young African American male.
For weeks, the public has been challenged to step up and challenge the criminals, whether that be with neighborhood policing or reporting suspicious behavior to the police or to CrimeStoppers. Well, that’s what Ainsworth did, but it cost him his life.
And as of Jan. 27, his killer is still at large.
As a Christian, I’d like to believe Jesus is the answer. As the husband of an educator, I’d like to say better educational systems are the answer. As a family man, I’d like to think stronger families are the answer. As a working person, I’d like to believe a strong economy and work force would stop the violence. As a person of faith and a member of this community, I want to be a part of the solution. As a peacemaker, I want to seek a resolution. As a husband and father, I want to shield my family from the violence.
But deep down I just feel paralyzed. Crime isn’t supposed to be like this. It’s supposed to be across town, after my bedtime and between people of a different race. Now it feels like my neighbors are the victims.
Perhaps they always were.