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Opinion: No Justice, No Peace: Violence and New Orleans' Criminal Justice System

By Kezia Kamenetz

Just this summer, New Orleans has suffered from numerous heinous acts of violence – including a shower of bullets released on innocent Bourbon Street revelers and the drive-by shooting of children as young as two in the Lower Ninth Ward. Every time someone is killed in the streets of this city I find myself questioning how I can live here. How can I love a place where such violence takes place regularly? How can I invest in a city where a majority of citizens justifiably live in fear for their children? What kind of future does a place where babies are shot have?


As a white woman, it would be easy for me to do as many white folks do and dismiss the violence as solely a problem of the black community. It would be easy to believe, as many called for after the Bourbon Street shootings, that increased police presence would help quell the violence. But these simplistic answers do not satisfy me and I humbly suggest that they should not satisfy you. I know that it is not my place to admonish the character of a community I am not a part of. And the nation has seen watching Ferguson that increased police presence does not necessarily mean decreased crime. Most of all, I know that these acts do not take place in a vacuum, and I feel called to ask—how do I contribute to the environment where this kind of violence spreads?


Increasingly, the answer I have found is my tax dollars that fuel the criminal justice system in New Orleans. Our system has been cited by the Federal Department of Justice for violating of the civil rights of its citizens through systematically racist policies and operations. From the New Orleans Police Department to the court systems to the Orleans Parish Prison, individuals who become involved with the system can expect to encounter dysfunction, discrimination, and inhumane treatment. As the DOJ concluded when issuing the consent decree over the police department and the prison, there is effectively no such thing as justice for the predominately black, poor, and/or mentally ill individuals who get caught in a system that essentially functions to oppress them.  


What does this have to do with violence in our streets? Put most simply and now heard as a rallying cry: No Justice, No Peace. When economic and housing opportunities are taken away and a community is criminalized, when under-funded public defenders cannot provide adequate representation, when the police murder black men like Wendell Allen with little consequence, when generations of black men and women are disproportionately put behind bars, ripping apart families, leaving children with no one to tuck them in at night, is it truly a surprise that these individuals become angry and even violent? Are we really so quick to condemn these individuals as monsters when their communities have been systematically and generationally subjected to such unjust treatment? 


Right now, there is a national movement calling for a deep and fundamental overhaul of the criminal justice system in our country and it is long overdue. From Michelle Alexander’s brilliant analysis in The New Jim Crow to the protests in Ferguson to the calls for drug legalization and an overhaul of immigration law, hundreds of thousands of folks around our nation of all backgrounds are ready to birth a nation with a justice system that actually functions to uplift its citizens rather than perpetuate white supremacy and oppress so many of its people, white, black, and brown. It is my belief that this movement that offers the best hope for an end to the violence that causes such a deep and consistent shudder in our hearts.


So I pray that this national call for justice takes root here in New Orleans, which is now famous not only for our second lines but for being the incarceration capital of the world. And I am convinced that as long as this contradiction stands nothing less than the city itself hangs in the balance. I can no longer pretend that the mass incarceration and blatant disregard for black bodies in this city has nothing to do with the violence we see playing out in our streets. It is not my place to try and fix the so-called “ills” of the black community but rather my obligation as a human to call for justice. A justice based in equality, not discrimination; in rehabilitation, not punishment; and in compassion, not vindictive retribution. That’s why I’ll be in Jackson Square this Friday at 6p.m. and will continue let my voice be heard until true change occurs. I hope you’ll join me.


Kezia Kamenetz is a healer and dreamwork practitioner at Libre Wellness Collective in New Orleans. She also hosts WTUL News and Views, a community radio show focused on criminal justice.

The views presented here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of NOLA Defender or its editorial board.

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