Fifteen thieves are recently dead nationwide in the United States, and I, for one, do not mourn them. These were humans whom you could rightly judge from afar as none-too-scrupled and even less intelligent, without ever meeting them or assessing them individually.
Please don't judge me too harshly on that seemingly cruel remark. Not just yet. You see, there is this huge surge in metal prices over the last months, especially the metal that constitutes the least valuable of American coins: the penny.
The pilferers were all killed attempting to steal copper.
From live electric lines.
Also by Jim Gabour in openDemocracy:
"A New Orleans diary" (February 2006)
"New Orleans ode to carnival"
"Out of order"
"The deliveryman's story" (March 2006)
"An electoral storm in New Orleans"
"The choice is not choice" (May 2006)
"Frozen assets: letter from New Orleans" (June 2006)
"The big heat"
"Hell hath no fury"
(29 August 2006)
"Life as a remainder" (14 September 2006)
"Long life lines"
(6 October 2006)
(19 December 2006)
Locally, here in New Orleans, the heavy-metal crime wave first appeared as gangs of construction predators who routinely stripped both demolished and newly-salvaged family homes of all their water pipes and electrical conduits.
Then came the week where several churches around the area had the brass railings leading up their front steps, and any other exterior metal decoration, ripped from the structure and sold as scrap. One church in the central business district, the very heart of town had both occur: its railings were stolen one evening, then the very next night all the plumbing and wiring were ripped out from under the sanctuary.
Things escalated. Century-old gravesites in historic cemeteries have been pillaged of hundreds and hundreds of urns. Public-utility trucks carrying heavy pole wiring, and plumbers with copper pipes, began to implement security measures. In some cases, carrying guns.
Things have escalated, or descended, even further.
John Scott is a sculptor who has inspired this community for over forty years, a brilliant and dedicated artist of world caliber and reputation. The last eighteen months were not kind to him. His home and studio took major floodwater and wind damage during Katrina. He is ageing, has had multiple major operations on his lungs, and is still in bad physical shape. Many critics and art historians were already talking about his artistic legacy, even as he lay alive in the hospital.
And then a week or so ago, the metal thieves broke into the already damaged studio to defile and steal most of his work from the last decade. They torched, hammered and cut up the large welded sculptures and cast bronze statues and carted them away.
They were not electrocuted in the process.
I often speak fondly of Faubourg Marigny, the section of New Orleans in which I have now happily lived into a second decade. In spite of, or maybe because of, its laid-back bohemian nature, the Marigny has been plagued by the ebbs and surges of crime for years. Thugs figure they can zoom into the neighbourhood of artists and blue-collar workers, do what they will, and then rush back into their own enclaves, with little or no risk of being apprehended. They figure we aging residents are too slow to react, too mellow to be armed, too much the 1960s "outlaws" to call police.
Two days ago a young neighbour, a fellow filmmaker and an animator, mother of a 2-year-old child, was murdered as she let the family pet out the back door of her apartment at sunup. Robbery was the supposed motive. Her husband, responding to the gunfire and screams, was also shot repeatedly and left for dead clutching the child in his arms, kneeling over his dead wife. The robber fled, taking nothing for his crime. Police, already investigating another similar but not fatal armed break-in at a B&B just a few doors away, arrived quickly but did not find the suspect, who is speculated to have been going house-to-house down the block, looking for prey.
The wounded husband was a doctor who founded a clinic for the poor, a consummate volunteer who was trying to bring basic medical services to a storm-stressed and impoverished neighborhood. Reportedly, he had not wanted to return to New Orleans, but his wife insisted it was their duty.
He and his surviving child have now fled the city, their lives forever changed.
No one home
The destructive pattern traces back to pre-Katrina days. It remains stubbornly present, and has been increasing dramatically this winter.
With the last months' constant bar and business robberies and daily armed muggings, the governor recently ordered more national-guard troops sent into our streets in armoured Humvees. She sent in more state troopers, and pledged they would stay longer. The mayor promised more NOPD officers would be detailed into our neighborhood to stop the escalating wave of drugs, robberies and murders.
And what were we residents to do? Be vigilant and report criminals, they said. But often we are left to wonder on which side of the law the crime occurs.
One of my neighbours spent two months trying to alert police to a neighbourhood crack house full of armed dealers and prostitutes. These were obviously people new to the city, in town for the lawless ride. She took license numbers and descriptions of the intruders, repeatedly called the fifth district police, our city councilman and the various drug hotlines, only to be constantly told that help "is on the way".
A month and then another passed and no help came. The hookers and dealers and their distributor, often armed, began to get bolder. They would wait until the neighbourhood was quiet during the day and then supplement their vice income by breaking into houses while honest residents were away at work.
You'd think they would have been satisfied with their major pursuit, as the drug business was rampant night and day. At 9am one weekday, I personally witnessed a car pull up to the drop-off house, three riders get out, open the automobile's hood, unscrew the air filter and remove a large bag of white powder. They carried what I assumed was crack directly into the house.
I called the police from my cell to report the drug deal in progress, and told the female officer who answered that a quantity of dope was on the premises with the same armed and dangerous criminals who had been intimidating our neighborhood for weeks. She said she'd "call it in". I stood in plain view of the house and waited twenty minutes. No cops. I called again. I was put on hold. Ten more minutes. No one ever came back on the line. The dealers left to carry on their own due diligence.
Luckily, the neighbor who had started the process was not about to give up. She ran into an eighth district policeman at her dentist's office not long after my encounter. When she told him our story, he said he'd call it in right then and there. But he could not get through either, and began to better understand our situation.
He vowed to follow up, and did. He and his cohorts called me and got the license numbers of the dealers, they interviewed the other neighbors on the street for confirmation and got it, they sent cars to hassle the street-corner crack zombies, and finally raided the house.
So, because of a random dental appointment, the eighth district cops found what for months we had been telling our own district was there - dope, dealers, hookers, money, weapons.
But still the violence and the disdain for humanity persists, like the loss of the young couple: idealists who became victims. Like an elderly artist's life work destroyed, his creative soul ripped into pieces for a few dollars.
And though I can only thank the eighth district officers who took it upon themselves to cross artificial boundaries and help us, I can only wonder at the overall police department's approach.
This is the same government agency which parked a gigantic recreational vehicle, a huge self-propelled mobile home emblazoned as an NOPD "mobile command center" or some such grand title, right in the grassy center of Elysian Fields Avenue at the entrance to the Faubourg Marigny.
It stayed parked there at least a month, leaving on new year's day.
That vehicle could serve as the perfect allegory for most of the department's efforts: it was huge and showy and expensive, and in the course of the four weeks it stood parked in our neighbourhood, there was never, ever, anyone inside.
Still, daily the Bad Guys test our mettle. And we continue to live here.