Crime and Punishment

I went along to a police meeting on November 11th – Armistice Day at the WWII Museum. Overwhelmed by the symbolism, I sidled into the bar of the Stage Canteen, to get prepared. Symbolism or not, it’s a fine bar.

Why was I here again? Oh yes, police. Police are starting to interest me. NOPD will be a headline topic at the next NOLAscape editorial board meeting.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. PR for District 8? Despite challenges, we shall do the job, on time, always get our man, etc.

My concern about NOPD usually tends toward wondering where we are on the scale of national awfulness. Let’s say 10 for Ferguson and 1 for, say, Oxford, U.K. Where do we slot the new, post-Consent Decree NOPD?

I was wrong. The main topic was homelessness, with presentations from District 8 Commander Jeff Walls, Melanie Talia of the Police and Justice Foundation, Leroy Perry of the New Orleans Mission and B.B. St Roman, director of NOPD’s Homeless Assistance Cooperative project and rock star of the movement. Maybe everybody else knows it, but I was surprised and enormously impressed to find that police are not in enforcement mode with respect to the homeless. They want to help, not imprison, fine, punish, or confiscate their property.

B.B. St. Roman Is trying to build and support better shelters with fewer barriers and easier access to services to help homeless people take a step forward, including counseling, sobering centers, 24 hour access, free bicycles to get to an interview or a job. There are shelters now, of course, but most have restricted hours, or a religious affiliation, or something that makes some people feel either unwelcome or uncomfortable. That’s not a criticism. I am sure they do great work. B.B.’s just looks like it will have fewer limitations.

Last summer calls for crackdowns and sweeps by neighborhood associations, the war rooms of the committee ladies, the incubators of indignation; the more respectable the folk, the more strident the cruelty.

When Commander Walls said rousts and sweeps don’t really accomplish anything, just move the problem around the neighborhoods, I sensed some NIMBY souls grinding their spiritual teeth, but unfortunately for this column, none spoke up, so I have to read their minds. Police officers reminded us that homelessness is not a crime.

So the guys with the badges and guns are operating within a paradigm of compassion, and the ladies and gents of the respectable persuasion want to confiscate their stuff and lock ’em up.

I’m getting a revelation from this. I’m feeling like a Mark Twain character in a rocking chair on a porch. Revelation can be tiring. Poor ol’ New Orleans is suffering from an overdose of indignation. ¬†Little clumps of gentry luxuriating in righteous outrage call for enforcement against evil enemies. Hang around City Council a little, and you will see the three minute speeches of neighborhood association vigilante club spokesmen. Some say, There oughta be a law. Others say, We have the laws. We just need to enforce. Crackdown, arrest, sweep, fine and imprison.

When the respectable ladies and gents of the Hoodie clubs called on police to get the homeless out of the Calliope Street encampment in August, few cared where they went, or how. Just get ’em out of my zip code, which is zoned for People Like Me, not Them.

The message I am getting, here in my revelation rocking chair, is there are two ways to approach a situation perceived to require change: crime and punishment, or problem/solution.

The Crime and Punishment reflex is strong in us. Probably inevitable. Most of us grew up in the eye-for-an-eye ethics of the Abrahamic religions. The government’s instinctive response to international events it doesn’t like is to rush from saber-rattling to bombs to invasion, and the image of local law enforcement is moving from a guy in blue with a .38 revolver he never takes out, to a black-clad armored commando with a shouldered Kalashnikov backed up by a tank.

Crime-and-punishment and a two-culture society with deeply embedded race fear are how we end up with two million people incarcerated, and the criminal idiocy of privatized prisons functioning partly as slave camps.

That is how we end up with the great noun wars, the Global War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, and the international embarrassment of the Republican Party. Enforce, imprison, punish, defeat, kill. Teach them a lesson.

Even after footage of Ferguson disgusted most of the world, the debate is not whether city and state police should have battlefield equipment to use against the citizens of their towns, but how much and what kind of bullets they should use. The Ferguson Stasi stocked up on riot weapons for the Grand Jury verdict, Cohorts were deployed, with better coordinated shields and helmets. In contrast to the Visigothic pickup platoon of summer, they clicked into formation like Caligula’s Praetorians, with industrial polycarbonate replacing craftsman bronze. Enforce, suppress, control. Ready, fire, aim.

Want to take a look at our usual black hats, VCPORA, and if you are generous and give them space on the stage, their me-too section, French Quarter Citizens?

I know, they are getting boring. A friend recently said, “They have to learn . . . ” And I was thinking, How is that going to happen? Individually most of them are regular limited folks, trying to figure it all out, maybe trapped in that generalized anxiety thing. They find spiritual meaning within their crusader clubs, defining themselves by reference to The Enemy. Puffed with the inner light of righteousness, their Joans of Arc come to the lectern at Council sessions, sharing with us their special discovery: the world is a plot against the French Quarter of New Orleans. “They” are going to tear down its buildings, bury it in mule poo, cover it in T-shirts, corrupt its poor innocent citizens with Demon Drink, sinful music and sometimes, Heaven forfend!, violate its sacred Zoning Commandments.

When Executive Meg stood up in council to praise NOLA Patrol, she mentioned three pillars of potential salvation: mule poo, T-shirt excess and restaurant bars. The answer: invest $1.7 million in a special enforcement battalion to defeat these evils.

Mule droppings, a warm, steamy example, exercise them greatly. Yet I have never heard them frame the issue as a problem to be solved, only as a crime to be punished. Ready, fire, aim.

I can imagine the War on Equine Digestion has been a challenge. How do you catch a mule at being a mule? How do you identify the particular mule miscreant, unless you catch the offense in progress? Can SafeCam8 turn the tide? Will Chief Harrison or the FQ fund spring for DNA tests to link the steamy heap to the right mule and its owner? Can they define a crime more intentional than equine biology?

The VC warlords and ladies want the city to rise to the challenge. Fine somebody. If we could identify the guilty mule, we could link it to its employer, and hit him with a stretch on the chain gang.

NOLA Patrol to the rescue.

Since mule poop is one of three reasons for NOLA Patrol Meg gave that Council day, can we assign it a third of the projected first year Patrol budget, about $566,000? Maybe she left out a few crimes. Let’s call it 20%, $340,000. Still enough to shovel a lot of muck, don’t you think?

How does a detail of sanitation enter the realm of crime and punishment? From the generalized fear that frames everything as a threat, perhaps. We have been sold fear as the appropriate context for events. The second Red Scare, the Cold War, nuclear bomb shelters, the Evil Empire, Y2K, Terrorists and now the tourist mule scourge: public anxiety serves the process of manufacturing consent and raising campaign money.

Now the poor working mules are in the crosshairs. Don’t be deceived by their innocent long-faced equine expressions. NOLA Patrol will soon be striding the streets catching creatures whose digestive processes do not synch with the historical character of the tout ensemble.

Actually, of course, horse apples in the street is as historical as you can get. But that would be history. Historical preservationism is a different steamy heap.

Let’s try to imagine an easier way to frame The Mule Problem than a power face-off.

Bruges is a preservationist’s dream, a Flemish canal city that used to be the most active and probably richest port in Europe in the Middle Ages, before the river silted up. Its built environment is incredibly well maintjained. The Dutch and Flemish were masters of deltaic water management centuries before the first Canadian hustlers showed up here, and they have been spared the attentions of the Army Corps of Engineers and Halliburton. Its medieval buildings were commissioned by wealthy knights, aristocrats, guilds and the incorporated city, with access to all the trades of Christendom, not by what was available to a sparsely populated colony in a swamp far from home. The Basilica of the Holy Blood was built in 1134 by Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders, who then went crusading and came back with the relic. The Stadhuis started construction in 1376, so had about 400 years as a working town hall under its ornate belt when the current Cabildo was built. The big bistro restaurants on the squares serve great bowls of mussels that go down indescribably well with a cold liter of Belgian beer. The Flemish equivalent of a shrimp Po’boy at Liuzza’s, but outside in a great cobbled square, with scenery from Camelot.

Horse carriage tours are very popular. Bruges is smaller than New Orleans, but my impression was, there were more tour carriages lined up in Market Square than we have at Jackson Square.

And no horse poo in the road! Why? Well, one reason you can see, without learning Flemish and attending its city council meetings, is that the device they use to keep it off the ground seems to work better than what the mule wranglers use here. So why not just try some of them, and find out how their drivers handle dumping, and what their rules are, and see if it could improve things? Why have a punch-up when you can just look for a solution?

Bruges 1








If there is still a problem to solve, why choose an expensive, complicated, indirect, combative response like a patrol to track down dump accidents, write tickets and instigate legal action? The problem is accidental dungheaps, not bank robbery. Why frame it as a crime instead of a problem? What I can come up with, here in my rocking chair, in my white suit, is our Joanies of Arc need Evil to overcome, and knights to overcome it. The police can’t see the danger. Too busy being compassionate to panhandlers.

Here is one idea. Buy an old pedicab, equip it with a bin, a scoop and a broom, and give somebody a job to whiz around the streets once or twice a day and collect the relics of a lively afternoon’s tourism. Estimated capital investment, about $300. No Wyatt Earp activity needed. The city should save about $300,000. Tell you what: on the example of Legends Park, and because I am feeling generous, I’ll take the contract for half, just $150,000. Then, just as the Patrol is supposed to relieve the police of responsibility for things they do not do, I will enable the Patrol to spend more time on the other two windmills.

Bottom line: the mule problem has nothing do with the protectionist clubs’ historical fables. If you wanted to be historical, you would probably have to import more of the stuff. But if you want to keep the streets a bit cleaner, we just need a bit more prevention by better devices, and a bit of picking up. And then maybe I could hang here in my white suit without worrying that a NOLA Patroller might give me a ticket for rocking without a license. Because NOLA Patrol might be free floating enforcement lite in search of crimes.

Problem : solution.

Okay, horse apples ain’t the most inspiring subject. But those working mules plodding along doing their job might tell us something about the enthusiasm for enforcement.¬†how about saving enforcement for real crime instead of inventing new ones?

Soon: Joanie’s other demons.

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