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Documentary on murder’s effects on local children to air on PBS

6th January 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Fritz Esker
Contributing Writer

“Shell Shocked,” a film depicting the devastating effects of violence against New Orleans children, will screen this month on local PBS affiliate WYES starting on Martin Luther King Day (January 20 at 9 p.m and on January 25 at 10 p.m.)

Director John Richie was inspired to tackle the subject after working with youth at an anti-violence event in 2008. He quickly discovered that every child he worked with had been directly affected by gun violence, either losing a friend or a family member.

“I felt like this issue was being ignored and not enough attention was being paid to it,” Richie said.

Richie shot most of the film in 2010, interviewing teens from a variety of neighborhoods, ranging from New Orleans East to Uptown. Interview subjects talk about the sense of loss and the feelings of hopelessness that emerge amongst youth exposed to violence on a regular basis. The stories and interviews might challenge many viewers’ preconceptions regarding gun violence in New Orleans.

“Most shootings, especially with teenagers, are not drug-related,” Richie said. “Most shootings are over conflicts that are fairly typical amongst teens in any place in the U.S. The difference is that guns factor in more when it comes to conflict resolution. Drugs is just another way of ignoring the problem and placing blame on the victims.”

The Data and The Causes

According to FBI data, 193 murders were investigated in the city of New Orleans in 2012. The total comes out to approximately 53.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. It’s about 10 times the national average. The FBI began collecting data on murders in 1960. In the time period from 1960 until the present, New Orleans had both its highest population and its lowest murder rate in 1960. Since Katrina’s landfall, the number of murder victims has surpassed the number of people who died during the storm and the subsequent levee breaches.

Dr. Marcus Kondkar, a professor in the department of sociology at Loyola University of New Orleans, has studied murder in the city extensively post-Katrina in an effort to understand the causes. He has found that a few neighborhoods are inundated with violent crime.

“When you start to dig deeper, you see it’s heavily concentrated in specific neighborhoods (Central City, St. Roch, the 7th Ward),” Kondkar said.

In these neighborhoods, Kondkar said the motives for murders are often centered on “beefs,” a.k.a. personal disputes. When considering why people in certain neighborhoods are more likely to commit murders over reasons most people would find trivial, he points to the concept of “social disorganization.”

In socially organized neighborhoods, residents help police each other, not in a vigilante way, but by genuinely caring and looking out for each other. Social organization can break down for a number of reasons – fear for personal safety, indifference, neighbors not knowing each other, etc. It can be a difficult variable to measure, but one indicator of social disorganization is the rate of turnover in a neighborhood. If residents keep moving in and out of an area, they’re less likely to be invested in each other and the neighborhood, increasing the likelihood of social disorganization.

Kondkar said an important statistic that serves as an indicator for a neighborhood’s murder rate is the rate at which citizens are incarcerated and released from prison (Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the United States and New Orleans has the highest incarceration rate in Louisiana).

While some might think that incarcerating people is a good thing and would lead to less crime by removing criminals from the streets, such arrests often create a power vacuum in the arrested criminal’s neighborhood. Different people begin fighting for the vacated turf, which leads to violence. If the arrested criminal is released back into that neighborhood, he will often try to reclaim his turf, which leads to more violence. For even well-intentioned parolees, it can be difficult to stay on the straight and narrow with limited job prospects and environmental forces pressuring them to return to their previous lifestyle.

Kondkar emphasized that violence in New Orleans is not tied to gangs as it is in other major cities. New Orleans has loose neighborhood groups, but they do not follow the logic of most national gangs.

Even though a popular scapegoat for a higher murder rate is the pervasiveness of violent video games, movies, and rap music in children’s lives, Kondkar says it’s problematic to assume these media would cause violence in children if they grew up in otherwise loving, nurturing homes.

“I’d be very skeptical of anyone saying that’s driving the homicide rate,” Kondkar said.

What Can One Person Do?

“Shell Shocked” posits that positive intervention for youths is a good starting point for addressing the homicide problem. Creating job opportunities can help, as 83 percent of first time murderers were unemployed when they were arrested. Giving children constructive uses of their time (via sports or other community activities) can encourage them to build relationships with their peers and resolve conflicts peacefully.

Helplessness is a feeling common to many New Orleanians when reading about reports of gun violence. If people see the film and want to do something about it, Richie recommends volunteering time at a local youth development program or making a charitable donation to one. All of these programs, which help keep youths on the right path, are understaffed and poorly funded.

“Youth development programs need to be treated as a valuable community asset that provides structure for young people, prevents crime and adds to an overall quality of life,” Richie said.

During the film, Omar Buckner of Liberty’s Kitchen (a training program that teaches youths to succeed in the workforce), quotes Frederick Douglass, who said, “It’s easier to build strong children than repair broken men.”

This article originally published in the January 6, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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