The New Orleans Murder Wall Won’t Stop Growing
Historically, New Orleans is the city of jazz, Mardi Gras, and semi-functional alcoholics. But while its residents are famous the world over for drinking hurricanes and showing their tits in exchange for plastic doubloons, their city also has a reputation for being a murderous, poverty-stricken town run by some of the most corrupt public servants in the country. In 2011 alone, there were 199 murders on the streets of New Orleans (around three a week). Defined by the amount of killings per capita, New Orleans is officially the murder capital of America, and with a homicide rate around 20 percent higher than the next city on the list (here’s looking at you, Detroit), the problems are snowballing out of control.
In addition to ongoing problems from Katrina, communities in the poorest parts of New Orleans are also being ravaged by an 8 – 10 percent unemployment rate, which isn’t helping to curb a growing culture of violence between youngsters in opposing areas. This, combined with an underground gun trading circuit, is turning Louisiana’s largest city into a powder keg.
Last year New Orleans police seized almost 350 illegal, unlicensed firearms in just two months. Although relatively clandestine for the moment, there are apparently licensed gun owners willing to buy and sell firearms for the sole purpose of distributing them on the streets of New Orleans to murderers and gang members with criminal records.
Despite the influx of illegal guns and the fact that murder rates have been on the rise for the past three years, there’s a strong feeling among residents that the government is turning a blind eye to the escalating violence in New Orleans.
A local priest from a church about two blocks from the French Quarter is trying to bring greater awareness to the problem. Father Bill Terry of St. Anna’s keeps a record of every murder in New Orleans on the outside of his church wall as an ever-growing tribute. He records the deceased’s name, date of homicide, their age, and how they were killed. I spoke to Father Terry about his project.
VICE: Hello, Father. How did the violence in New Orleans get so bad that you felt the need to start recording the deceased on your church wall?
Father Terry: First of all, I want to make it very clear that this problem cannot be blamed solely on Katrina. It’s been bad for years. It’s growing like a virus. The killings in New Orleans are a phenomenon—over 74 percent of the murders are between people who know each other. It’s different because they’re not always motivated by drugs, either. A lot of it is relational. Here people fight for turf, but not in the classic sense. It may be one neighbourhood fighting another, but it often has nothing to do with drugs or the economy—it’s bizarre.
A lot of it has to do with retaliation, too. The city has political subdivisions called “wards.” If somebody gets shot in the 7th Ward, for instance, people living there who are of this murderous nature usually decide to go to the 6th Ward where the shooter was from and just shoot somebody there—anybody at random. A lot of very innocent people get killed because of this.
How do you keep up with recording fresh murders on the wall when people are killed so regularly?
A person in the Dioceses of Louisiana gathers all the records, so we get a weekly list of the murder victims. Then, every two weeks I go outside and put them on the board.
And most of the deaths are from shootings?
Yes. Ninety-seven percent of the murders—believe me—are by gun.