On the way to see “Dreamgirls,” I heard a segment on NPR about the drummer for the Hot 8 Brass Band, who was shot and killed last week. The bullet was intended for his 15-year-old stepson. The Hot 8 are now considering leaving New Orleans.
After the movie (which was nothing remarkable, ‘though the music felt good), I turned on WWOZ and heard DJ Brice Nice (who DJ’d our wedding reception) playing a tribute show to both Dinerral and Helen Hill, the young mother who was murdered two days ago. The songs ranged from brass band music to protest songs, to funny ditties her husband played, including “Opposite Machine,” and “Accidental Attraction.” I felt as if I’d heard the band before, and I was so, so, sad all of a sudden.
I’d not driven by Helen and Paul’s home, though they live just four blocks from us. When I was without a car, I would ride my bike by their house on my way home from bartending. I would never do that now. Is it that I am older, and do we really get more conservative? Or is it just that I am wiser and not so naïve?
I am scared by the aftermath of these murders. On nola.com, people are posting that these killings are the last straw, and that they plan to move away now. Others hang on defiantly. I watch and worry. One poster repeatedly writes, “Tear down the projects!” and I feel sick and scared.
One has to imagine that the people who killed Dinerral and Helen were desperate, and I think the environment here is fueling that desperation. The landscape is horrible, and the message we hear from our “leaders”—through stagnation and no evidence of progress—is that they don’t care about us. It is difficult, when no one cares for you, to care about or for yourself. And as someone on NPR said this evening, “Poverty is a form of violence, itself.” New Orleans has, and continues to breed poverty.
So how willing are we—am I—to stay put? To fight both for those who have less—as Dinerral, as Helen, and as her husband (who was cradling their 2-year-old, Francis Pop, in his arms, kneeling over his dying wife)—fought? Is it worth the risk?
In line for popcorn at the movies, I told Brandi that I’d been crying over this in the car, and a woman in front of me in line asked if there were any leads. No. No leads. Evidently the shooter may be the same person who broke into Sweet Olive (the B&B where my parents always stay). The police were responding to a call there when they hear four or five shots and ran just two houses down to find Helen dead. It could have been the same person. No description has been given. I don’t know why.
But here, it is almost a foregone conclusion. The man is black. A drug addict. He has no regard for anyone’s life, much less his own. And this assumption is fueling the kind of anger that scares me so much. I imagine Helen Hill would have felt the same concern.
How do we deal with our fear? How do we address it, and at the same time, address our need for security and safety in this volatile and right now frightening place? I am almost as afraid of the polarization I see coming out of the response to Helen’s murder as I am of the killer, himself.
And there is something at the heart of my mourning that is even more complicated. I feel so resolutely sure that I am meant to stay here precisely because of people like Dinerral and Helen. The fact is, they (educators, creative forces, givers) are not exceptions in New Orleans. In fact, there are many, many, many more like them. It’s one of the things that drew me here, in the first place.
When I drove past Helen and Paul's house, I realized just how close it is to our own. A carpet of candles and flowers covered the stoop. I cried. Hard.
But, as I mourn the loss of these two amazing souls, I am sure, somehow, that they would want us—that they would want me—to stay and lay claim to this city. It might seem naïve, but now, here, I prefer to see it as wise.