Baghdad on the Mississippi?

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Charlie Varley / Sipa

New Orleans residents demonstrate against the city's spiraling murder rate, January 11, 2007.

Living in New Orleans — an aberration in the Red State South, a place more in touch with the Caribbean than the Heartland — can often feel like living in a parallel universe.

It certainly seemed that way this week, when the night before our President went before the nation to unveil his new Iraq plan, our second-term mayor, Ray Nagin — a charismatic, often glib leader whom many see as disengaged — unveiled a plan to battle a wave of violence that threatens to spin out of control. Like the reception Bush got, Nagin's move was instantly criticized as too little, too late.

I won't push the Iraq analogy too far: the string of murders that has gripped New Orleans is not on par with the current horrors of Baghdad. So far, Nagin has resisted calls to cut loose his Rumsfeld, New Orleans police superintendent Warren Riley. And it's hard to imagine President Bush standing in silence before thousands of angry constituents, many calling for his head, the way Nagin did Thursday.

The occasion was a march on City Hall to protest a murderous streak that has left eight people dead since the beginning of 2007. It capped a year in which police tallied 161 murders, despite the fact that more than half the city's residents are still living in Hurricane Katrina-imposed exile. Many fear that the violence will discourage people from returning — and, as the city gears up for Mardi Gras Feb. 20, that it will further cripple tourism, the city's economic lifeblood.

Nagin, Riley and members of the City Council gravely watched Thursday as a succession of speakers, representing the city's various neighborhoods, railed against the violence and called on not only city leaders but citizens to do more to stop it. "We have come to lodge our complaint," growled Reverend John Raphael, Jr., pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Central City, one of the city's most crime-plagued neighborhoods. "We have come to declare that a city that could not be drowned in the floods of a storm will not be drowned in the blood of its citizens."

Two murders in particular have galvanized the community. In late December, musician Dinerral Shavers of the Hot 8 Brass Band was shot and killed while riding in a car; police later arrested a 17-year-old who was said to have been involved in a feud with Shavers' stepson. And in the early morning hours of Jan. 4, an intruder shot and killed filmmaker and social activist Helen Hill at her home not far from the French Quarter; Hill's husband Paul Gailiunas, a physician who helped establish a clinic for indigent patients, was injured in the attack and was found clutching the couple's two-year-old son, who escaped unharmed.

Shavers and Hill were from very different backgrounds: he a native New Orleanian, she a North Carolina transplant who had lived in Nova Scotia. But their murders broke with the depressingly familiar trend of drug-related violence. And both victims were the type of involved, idealistic people that many feel are key to the city's recovery: Hill and Gailiunas, who has indicated that he will return to Canada, were part of the Food Not Bombs collective that provides meals to the poor, and Shavers successfully fought to establish a music program in one of New Orleans' notoriously underfunded public high schools.

Shavers' college-age sister Nakita choked back tears Thursday as she addressed the crowd of several thousand marchers."What hurts me the most is the fact that all the positive roles my brother played in this city, in the recovery after Katrina, and the musical culture that he loved so much, he still wasn't exempt from the foolishness and the violence that's going on today."

Nagin, speaking later to reporters, pledged to focus all of his attention on stemming the violence. "I'm affected personally by every murder that happens in this city. It's something that wears on me on a day-to-day basis," he said. The city has rolled out a handful of measures to help get a grip on the situation, including stepped-up police foot patrols and increased traffic checkpoints between the hours of 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. But much more will be needed to beef up a cash-strapped judicial system and shorthanded police force, and to overcome deep-set systemic problems such as poverty, an abysmal public education system and widespread citizen mistrust of the police.

New Orleanians are accustomed to grand promises and frequent disappointments, and we have developed a coping mechanism: an irreverence that often masks a profound cynicism.

We've been down this road before; violence is not new to the city. But the stakes are higher this time. The city's recovery is far from assured, and crime threatens to derail an already perilous rebuilding process. Thursday's march, with its broad mix of black and white, rich and poor, rising up to reclaim this beaten-down city, gave us catharsis; time will tell if it gives us anything more than that.