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What’s killing New Orleans? A rising tide of violence is plaguing the Louisiana city

Residents of New Orleans don't trust the police. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Residents of New Orleans don't trust the police. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images


July 5, 2021   8 mins

Portia Pollock was 60 years old when she was murdered outside her home. She was a physical therapist who loved working with elderly folk in care homes. She also loved drumming. So I learned about her life and brutal death when I walked into New Orleans’s Louis Armstrong Park five days later and heard the sound of music.

More than two dozen people were pounding djembes in rhythmic unison in the scorching heat, while one woman in a straw hat played a flute, another tapped a tambourine and a third danced in the drumming circle.

One participant explained that I had stumbled upon a Sunday afternoon tradition in “the most African city of America”. This was Congo Square, where slaves could meet on Sundays to eat their own food, sing their own songs, speak their own tongue and sell their own goods, some earning enough to buy freedom. Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis says “every strand of American music comes directly from Congo Square” and I was witnessing a group that pays homage to this heritage. 

Portia, though, was missing. Her portrait was there, on a white sheet: a woman with a big smile in a blue T-shirt, greying dreadlocks pushed behind one ear. This image sat beside her drums, her harmonica, her hat and some flowers as incense burned. Another picture of was at the foot of a huge oak tree, surrounded by more flowers, fruit and vegetables left by her friends and fellow drummers. “Today, we pour libations. We remember her. We remember Portia Pollock,” said her friend Denise Graves.

A memorial to Portia Pollock in Congo Square, New Orleans. Credit: Ian Birrell

Her killing made waves: a respectable older woman stabbed in the street in a car-jacking on her way to work, not a teenager gunned down in an area riddled with crime and poverty. “That could’ve been my mother,” commented New Orleans police chief Shaun Ferguson.

But she was just another fatality in a rising tide of violence plaguing not just this Louisiana city, but the entire United States; I arrived in New Orleans from Austin, Texas, where a late-night shooting just down the road from my hotel had left one dead and 13 injured. National statistics are not yet released but preliminary data shows homicides rose almost one third in major cities last year — the largest recorded rise in the nation’s history — and carried on surging this year, up another 18.5%, according to latest figures.

This rise in killings — seen in cities big and small, red and blue, north and south — threatens to unravel one of the most remarkable success stories of this century: the decline in violent crime. Several cities, including Chicago, suffered their highest homicide rates for nearly three decades. New York recorded a 45% murder increase last year and near-doubling of shooting incidents. As a result, crime is also rising up the political agenda. In the New York mayoral battle, Eric Adams, a former cop who campaigned on public safety, looks set to be the surprise winner of the Democratic primary.

New Orleans, a city about the size of Coventry, has long suffered some of the highest murder rates in the US. After a dip in 2019, it experienced a 60% leap last year with 195 killings and have so far risen this year at higher rates than the national level. Carjackings, where victims tend to be random, more than doubled in 2020.

The city is still recovering from the traumas of the biggest residential disaster in US history. When the city’s levees failed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, hundreds drowned and most households had to relocate, often for months. Today, the city has 100,000 fewer residents. The disaster also led to imposition of an educational experiment: its low-performing public schools were replaced by a charter system — similar to our free schools — based on choice. Test results have improved. But I was also told this policy lay at the heart of many problems, since kids from poor, black and troubled backgrounds were kicked out of classrooms rather than helped by local teachers from their own backgrounds.

“After Katrina large sums of money were spent on improving security in schools, since there was the thought young people would come back traumatised and unruly,” said Gina Womack, 59. “The schools were still in a horrible condition but there were police, more security, more suspensions. We prioritise policing and patrolling over support for struggling families. It shows how as a society we are quick to blame but we ignore the problems of our youth.”

Womack founded a group to keep kids out of prison in Louisiana: “I am a black single mum of three children and I did not want them to end up in an unjust system,” she tells me. And describes how, when the pandemic struck it exposed, with ruthless efficiency, inequalities in education, housing and income, especially in a city that relied for so many jobs on events and hospitality. “Life has been tougher and it’s been really hard for many families with everyone at home,” she says. “There have been many conversations around the loss of life, first through Covid and now homicide — which happens in impoverished communities under stress.”

Flozell Daniels agrees. He’s head of the Foundation for Louisiana, which spent millions rebuilding communities after Katrina. He believes that many people, often still traumatised by the catastrophe, were subject to extreme pressure by the pandemic in a place which already had a profound lack of faith in government and deep distrust for the police. “Black people do not trust them to keep us safe,” he said. “George Floyd’s death may have been surprising for white people but we knew there was this culture of violence in a system failing black people.”

Others had different reactions. Denise Graves, Portia’s close friend, told me about one black boy from a prosperous family: “He said ‘I’d never understood police brutality, I’d always thought someone shot must have been doing something wrong so I tried to do everything right — but now I realise my skin colour makes me a target.” Graves, a community pastor in her mid-sixties, has raised five boys; she grew up in a tough part of Los Angeles, but said “every night one of them was out of my sight I was terrified”.

Denise Graves is on the right, in front of a homage to Portia Pollock. Credit: Ian Birrell

Such attitudes cannot be healthy for any society, let alone one as fissured and flooded with firearms as America. A Gallup survey last summer found confidence in police had plunged to its lowest level since the firm started tracking such data almost three decades ago. Yet it also exposed the nation’s divisions: trust actually rose among Republicans to 82% while falling to 28% among Democrats.

Chabre Johnson, 36, works on the frontline. She’s a project manager with Youth Empowerment Project, a scheme that has helped many young people in New Orleans but has also seen some of its kids murdered or jailed. In the last month alone, a 12-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy have been slain in separate city shootings. So many of the children and teens she works with have seen bodies, heard gunshots and have relatives in prison. “They get tired of trying to do the right thing when everything is stacked against them.”

Johnson believes the dehumanising effect of technology — accelerated in the pandemic — has had a devastating impact. “I think the value of life and self-worth has declined.” The kids she works with are taking less interest in their appearance, and are more interested in the destruction of property and using drink or drugs to blot out problems. She worries too that schoolyard beefs are inflamed on social media and families have lost their ability to control children: “Kids tells parents that if they are not allowed out they will call the police and say they are being kidnapped. Young people do not fear anything.”

These children are growing up in a city with a history of violence, remarked upon even by the Times war reporter William Howard Russell when he visited  in 1861, and the causes are complex. But Flozell Daniels argues that his country does not care about young black men killing each other, becoming alarmed only when violence spills out to affect middle-class people such Pollock. As we drink coffee in a bookshop in a poorer part of town, he explains that these issues are deeply personal: his son was shot dead five years ago at the age of 20 in a murder that has never been solved.

His family thinks they know the killer, now in prison for another attempted murder. This exposes another corrosive issue in black and impoverished communities: low clear-up rates, currently at 36% in New Orleans for murder, despite evidence many proven killers are linked to other violent crimes. “We spent the first couple of years offering the police information, doing our own investigations, offering a reward. We kept calling the police but they never reacted. They were disrespectful — they said he must have been doing something bad to have been killed,” said Daniels. “I am sure that if it had been a 20-year-old white girl from upstate they would have found her killer quickly.”

Jill Leovy wrote that this issue of impunity for killers of black men was her nation’s “great, though mostly invisible, race problem” in Ghettoside, her brilliant book on homicide. She pointed out that black men comprised about 6% of the population but 40% of homicide victims, arguing that efforts to combat this mostly black-on-black murder epidemic had a dark history of dismissal by authorities that remained “inept, fragmented, underfunded, contorted by a variety of ideological, political and racial sensitivities.” The Californian journalist concluded that when the criminal justice system failed to respond strongly to violent injury and death, such issues become endemic.

The New Orleans police, their union and the district attorney declined to discuss these issues —although as one youth worker said, who would want to be a cop in the current climate? Many commentators and police leaders, however, have jumped on the homicide figures to argue this is the inevitable consequence of demonising the police as “genocidal oppressors of minorities”, thereby reducing their confidence to tackle violent criminals. Such claims are undercut by data showing little difference in murder rates in cities regardless of which party is in charge, despite widely differing policies. The rise also started soaring in June last year, three months after the first lockdowns, so cannot simply be blamed on bored teenagers hanging around streets when schools closed.

Jeff Asher, a crime analyst based in New Orleans and former adviser to the city authorities, was among the first to highlight the alarming murder surge. He points out that police have been making fewer arrests for years as part of the trend to reduce incarceration and soften drug policies — down from about 60,000 a year in 2010 in his home city to some 17,000 the year before the pandemic. So the rise in killings is unlikely to be due to sudden police retrenchment. “De-policing could be a contributing factor but it has been going on for a decade,” he said.

The former CIA officer thinks “anyone giving a single answer to this complicated question is wrong”. He believes it may be part of a cycle of violence and mistrust that has seen cops pulling back, perhaps to more peaceful streets, which fed into existing mistrust of police in more troubled areas. This ends up with more people taking disputes into their own hands, a situation made worse amid the stresses and tensions of a pandemic. “People are not willing to depend on the criminal justice system when they do not see it as something neutral that treats them fairly.”

Asher backs his argument with another alarming set of figures showing more guns being carried. We know sales boomed last year, with many first-time buyers. But he shows me that more firearms were found by police in early months of the pandemic last year, despite arrests and stops falling sharply, and then the figures rose again after Floyd’s murder and the protests at the end of May. In Chicago, for example, police stops fell two thirds between January and May 2020 — yet they found almost twice as many guns at the end of that period as at the beginning. Similar patterns can be detected in other cities, suggesting this was another legacy of deteriorating trust that coincided — or could have been fuelled — by the pandemic.

Asher points out that there was no rise in killings in Baltimore since trust of the authorities in this city wrecked by gang warfare was already shot to pieces. “George Floyd was the spark, not the cause. The poorest communities have been over-incarcerated, subjected to gun violence for generations and then hit hardest by pandemic. We have too many firearms and policing needs reform — but it’s hard to rebuild trust.”

Yet he also says it is simplistic for the Left to blame Donald Trump’s presidency for such deep societal problems. “One administration does not cause children shooting at police, everyone carrying guns, police becoming less willing to engage and communities historically underserved seeing enormous eruption in violence.” So is this, ultimately, a racial issue, I asked? “Everything in America goes back to our original sin,” he replied.


Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.

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Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
3 years ago

Ian Birrell tries to make the excuse that this is happening everywhere. News flash, it is not! Vast portions of the country are not having this problem. Seriously, what the hell is up with this article? It jumps from a small group of black men commit most of the murders to saying it would be racist to crack down on them. So what are the police and citizens supposed to do? Did you know that after Katrina, many of the gang members found themselves evacuated to Texas? While there many of them committed violent crimes and all the sudden found themselves facing twenty years in prison. Not long after most of the gang members went back to New Orleans. The city even used to have some weird local laws that made murder investigations unusually difficult. On a final note, what the hell does Donald Trump have to do with anything? Can someone please point me to a piece of legislation he signed or something the Justice Department actually did to cause crime to rise in the city?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I know New Orleans and it is dangerous to leave the areas where you are protected. By the way those 100,000 people who never came back from Katrina, are not really missed, but Houston got some crime boost by hosting many of them.

But here is the REASON – – – Paying unemployable to have children. Paying the woman to have children of criminals is not helping. Crime is almost as much passed on as a genetic thing, it is a cultural trait which is passed from parent, relative, and community. Very few people caught up in the ‘Justice System’ do not have family members, and close peers who are not also in the justice system.

But as a conspiracy loon I also have a reason the Democrats are doing everything possible to get crime to spread out from the Ghettos and into working and middle, and upper, class areas. (Biden insists the ‘Infrastructure money devotes huge amounts to putting ‘Low Income housing’ (which means crime prone) into law abiding neighborhoods)

The reason the Dems WANT CRIME, and for you all to be a victim of it, is because it means you sheep will be OK with a super Surveillance State! They want you sheep who make money and vote for the best interest of the country to be broken economically and to small groups so they can take absolute power. They also want a 100%, China Like survelance state, and so push crime on you to get you to vote for total survelience. It is 1984, and your phone does not switch off, neither does your TV, or the millions of street cameras, or the facial and bio-metric cameras, or all the tracking… Now comes CBDC (Central Bank Digital Currency) and the world is to be hell.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
3 years ago

“She pointed out that black men comprised about 6% of the population but 40% of homicide victims”
And there you have the root of this problem – that someone can throw out this stat and shamelessly claim “victimhood” for blacks, and claim there is “impunity for killers of black men”……with no acknowledgement that it’s other black people murdering those people.

Leave alone any contrition or self responsibility on behalf of the community, any chances black men can try being good fathers or is that racist too?

Incidentally look at the ratio of violent crimes or rapes commuted by blacks against whites compared to the number of white against black

If the ratio was reversed can you imagine the shrill, unceasing outrage that would rain down daily?

Last edited 3 years ago by Samir Iker
Leon Wivlow
Leon Wivlow
3 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

For every black man killed by a white man in the US, 11 more black men are killed by black men. Source: The Times.

Last edited 3 years ago by Leon Wivlow
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

White on black rape is almost unherd of, the opposite is exceedingly, statistically, common. Try to find the numbers, they are not easy to get.

Callum Innes
Callum Innes
3 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Exactly. Same with the UK. I think it’s time right-wingers spoke tough about crime statistics. ‘1000 hate crimes? That’s cute. You’re community raped 10.000 last year so stop being racist against white people’

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
3 years ago

Steve Sailer is very interesting on this. He looks at the wider statistics of who is murdering whom, and where and when the frequencies change. This seems like a better basis for trying to understand things than an anecdote-driven story located in a rather exceptional city.
He suggests that police ease up on policing Black minority precincts in response to BLM (in both 2014 & 2020), and people are then freed up to carry weapons and to use them.
He is also well aware that African-Americans are about an order of magnitude more likely to commit murder than members of other populations. As Charles Murray points out in his 2021 book, understanding this point is cardinal to thinking constructively about solutions.

Callum Innes
Callum Innes
3 years ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

They really need to understand that blaming systems as a proxy for white people for all of that communities’ shortcomings when the evidence suggests it’s not the case (Murray et al.) is actually anti-white racism. It’s called scapegoating

Christopher Peter
Christopher Peter
3 years ago

This is indeed a tragic situation with a very real human cost. But this strikes me as a deeply confused and unhelpful article, highly selective and anecdotal in the viewpoints and evidence it presents. So the criminal justice system is blamed for not more effectively tackling soaring violent crime and for low conviction rates in disadvantaged areas, but then a little later talks of the “over-incarcerated” poor. Black people most likely to be the victims of violent crime, yes – but no mention of who are most likely also to the perpetrators. Why? What good purpose is served by failing to face hard truths? And earlier, with no apparent irony, quotes a single mother talking about an “unjust system”. This determination to ignore the impact of family breakdown and lack of strong moral role models is in equal parts bizarre and self-defeating.
The article ends with the depressing, inevitable invocation of the “original sin” of slavery. Quite how this constantly repeated mantra of historical victimhood is meant to help to heal and unite or produce practical, forward-thinking solutions is not at all clear.
Just about the only thing this article gets right is that this is a deeply complex situation with no quick or easy answers. Which is exactly why it deserves a more balanced and honest picture than is presented here.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
3 years ago

This piece is an absolute master-class in avoidance, projection, and rationalization. In fact, I’m not sure it isn’t a parody of the sad infantilization of blacks in America by white liberals. I sat, mouth agape, reading this paragraph:
Jill Leovy wrote that this issue of impunity for killers of black men was her nation’s “great, though mostly invisible, race problem” in Ghettoside, her brilliant book on homicide. She pointed out that black men comprised about 6% of the population but 40% of homicide victims, arguing that efforts to combat this mostly black-on-black murder epidemic had a dark history of dismissal by authorities that remained “inept, fragmented, underfunded, contorted by a variety of ideological, political and racial sensitivities.” The Californian journalist concluded that when the criminal justice system failed to respond strongly to violent injury and death, such issues become endemic.
That single greatest obstacle to solving black-on-black homicides in American cities is the refusal of witnesses to “snitch” to the police. The fact that black leadership would rather blame police indifference (a red herring) than the actual culprit – the refusal to testify against murderers – for the impunity killers in black neighborhoods enjoy tells you everything you need to know.

Callum Innes
Callum Innes
3 years ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

Blaming white people in such a way while delicately obfuscating Black accountability is anti-white racism and we need to call it what it is

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
3 years ago
Reply to  Callum Innes

…it’s also a blatant insult to blacks.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 years ago

Let me guess. Is New Orleans Democratic?! Putting that aside, I have read that the New Orleans police budget was defunded because of Covid and not a ‘defund the police’ movement, but that a ‘defund the police’ movement does exist in New Orleans.
As far as the ‘defund the police’ movement goes elsewhere – an anecdotal experience
. My friend who is heavily Dem, lives in Seattle and returned from a business trip last week to find her house completely ransacked. The police would not come out to her crime scene because of lack of funding.
I have visited New Orleans many years ago and even then, it had high crime rates and the hotel advised us of all the many no-go zones. A great pity that this is worsening as it was a great city to visit.

Mark Cole
Mark Cole
3 years ago

very interesting but mixed up article; it would suggest that most of these murders are being committed by young black men and, in referring to single black mums with 2 or 3 children, even acknowledges the “father absenteeism” problem also seen in many black neighbourhoods in this country. To use this to switch to the problem of white cop racism towards blacks (which clearly exists) ignores the real problem and even suggests that such embedded racism is the only problem. What poor neighbourhoods need in the USA and the UK, are good role models (it starts at home), good support for those who want to try to be good role models, tough education, available sport and jobs at the end of it. An unbiased policeforce focusing on the drug problem and tighter gun laws would help America hugely.

Last edited 3 years ago by Mark Cole
David McDowell
David McDowell
3 years ago

A very mixed up article which demonstrates yet again that journalists are really players in conflicts rather than objective fact finders and story tellers. For one thing, it’s simply not credible to racinate the proportion of murder victims without also racinating the proportion of assailants.

Last edited 3 years ago by David McDowell
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  David McDowell

It is not really an ‘Article’ as much as an opinion piece. Black on black crime = White people’s fault seems to be the gist of it.

Leon Wivlow
Leon Wivlow
3 years ago
Reply to  David McDowell

Exactly. Why do they treat us as if we are stupid? A basic google search can usually reveal the truth. Over the weekend another white man was stabbed to death in Oxford Circus. The BBC reported he came from Swansea, yet most of the newspapers revealed he needed an interpreter. The Sun pixellated his face (why?) Guess his ethnicity, which can easily be seen despite pixellation.

Last edited 3 years ago by Leon Wivlow
William Hickey
William Hickey
3 years ago

The fact which has driven all US domestic politics since 1964 is black failure.

This article refuses to accept that painful, inconvenient truth. It opts instead for the fashionable leftist blood libel of “Original Sin,” a so-called sin for which the so-called sinner — white people, America, etc. — cannot redeem himself.

Salvation in the case of Original Sin requires a Redeemer, so we have MLK, George Floyd and Stephen Lawrence.

I reject it totally.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
3 years ago
Reply to  William Hickey

Failure is inevitable when you haven’t got the means to succeed – stable family background, good role models, a domestic environment that encourages learning, good state schools, and so on.

The whole issue is a vicious circle.

William Hickey
William Hickey
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

Nonsense, and trite, tired nonsense that perfectly exemplifies the problem I stated. Black failure.

What other group gets 50+ years of government preferences, has role models— Oprah, Obama, sports and entertainment icons — too numerous to mention, decades of state programs pouring billions into their communities, millions of good whites dedicated to helping them and a culture that praises them to skies so much that people fake being black just to get advantaged?

And yet they keep on failing and failing, while blaming anyone and anything — from history to mysterious forces that haunt institutions and systems — anything but themselves.

What other group in history seems to have ever been so poorly suited to succeed in a modern society? And given their collective cognitive level and penchant for inordinate, disproportionate criminality, what other group has less hope of achieving in an increasingly technical world that rewards intelligence?

That’s the problem we face. You’d best admit it.

Callum Innes
Callum Innes
3 years ago
Reply to  William Hickey

I’m so glad someone finally said it. I’m fed up of Blacks being cast as victims. In the US, Affirmative Action is so strongly used that there are now 100x as many poor unsuccessful white applicants to Ivy League universities with higher grades than the average Black student who gets let in. And the average black student is upper class!

Last edited 3 years ago by Callum Innes
William Hickey
William Hickey
3 years ago
Reply to  Callum Innes

And the “average black” being accepted into US universities under Affirmative Action’s racial quotas, to the continuing detriment of whites, is more and more foreign born!

The anti-whites will scour the globe to displace white Americans from their own country and then accuse whites of being evil for not accepting their second-class status.

Callum Innes
Callum Innes
3 years ago

More Black and Hispanic people. Less white people. It really is that simple when it comes to these destroyed America cities.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
3 years ago

Holy moly. What a crappy article for UnHerd. Confused and self-contradictory. Blacks commit crimes because “everything is stacked against them”. Police are killing blacks. Or is it the poor conviction rate for black homicides that are the problem?
40% of murder victims are black. What percentage of these people were killed by blacks? Is it roaming bands of KKK members going into black communities to murder black people? If so, tell us about it, as it would actually be a horrible thing that I would personally travel to Nawlin’s to protest against in person. If (as is already clear to anyone who cares to look at the data) it is largely black-on-black crime, then I would say the solutions have to be found in those communities. Others can help, but they cant solve these issues.
I prescribe a large dose of Theodore Dalrymple to clear the author’s head of his silly, confused ideas. Start with “Life at the Bottom” and work out from there.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
3 years ago

I don’t remember what William Russell said about New Orleans, but I do remember two other things he said.
The first was that he noted that in the what one might call the ‘Wild West’, the man who was caught after theft of a horse would quickly be hanged, one way or another, whereas if he shot someone dead, it would not be considered such a serious matter.
He also arrived in the USA believing that the continuation of slavery was justified, but on witnessing it, became utterly opposed to it. I think this interesting, in that in the absence of swift, comprehensive, and graphic evidence of something, a normal situation around 1861, it is possible to accept something which we, with a wealth of evidence (usually), now know to be inherently wrong without going through that period of acceptance. This is surely a lesson not to overreact to opinions expressed early in someone’s life, if later amended.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago

What a difference a few thousand miles of ocean makes! This is clickbait like “muslim enclave no go areas” in GB that was credited to Trump. N.O. has its bad areas and bad actors as does everywhere else. N.O. county has 390,000 souls and from Vacherie to Eden Isle maybe the same number in the N.O urban area. Most of these nearly 1m inhabitants live in suburbs or fishing villages. The vast majority do OK for work, do not commit crimes of acquisition (though they party and DUI a lot) and most importantly live with a racial mix broader than most parts of US. My advise to the writer is go fishing in Port Fouchon or Jean Lafitte and then write about folk there.