Oh, the Line Forms on the Right, Dears
This might run a little long. It will also contain some spoilers, at least if you are watching this as a TV show and not as a dramatization of actual historic events that have already taken place, events that anybody who lived in New Orleans in the winter of 2006-2007 has already burned way too starkly into their memories.
Season One of Treme dealt with the first year after the storm. It was a time where people were deciding whether to come back or stay away. Finding the things about New Orleans that mattered. Finding that the culture can sustain us, that the culture is worth fighting for, that the city is worth fighting for. It was hardcore survival mode, all propelled by adrenaline and rage and a serious dose of “FUCK y’all.” The questions were “Can we save this city? Should we save this city? How can we save this city” The answers being, respectively, “yes”, “HELL yes”, and “I don’t know but we’re gonna figure this shit out.”
Season Two deals with the year after that. The adrenaline is gone, the endorphins don’t work any more, the city is coming back, both good and the bad, and holy-shit-I-chose-to-come-back-here-what-the-fuck-was-I-thinking? The question people asked, and I mean everybody asked this question at some point, was “Have I made a terrible mistake? What price am I willing to pay to keep doing this?”
In June of 2006, five teenagers were gunned down in an SUV on Josephine Street in Central City. Executed is more like it. It was a huge wake-up call to the city that crime was back, as bad as before. We got more National Guard in response. And people told themselves, well, it must have been a drug killing, right? And it’s because the police are spread so thin, right? Between the officers fired for desertion or misconduct during the storm, and the officers who moved away and didn’t come back, the NOPD was a skeleton crew of a police department. And even though the population was also way down, all crammed into The Sliver by The River, NOPD had to patrol the entire geography of the old city. Even in neighborhoods where nobody lived, there were squatters and crackheads, and organized crime was coming in stripping whole blocks of new copper and new appliances and sending it all out by the truckload.
So we got National Guard, and that was gonna help. That was the story we all told ourselves, anyway. To convince ourselves that this was not the old New Orleans returning, that we were putting up with all this insanity because this city really was worth saving and not something that was gonna kill us.
And this is where the spoilers come in. The snare drummer for the Hot 8, Dinerral Shavers, has been featured in the last two episodes. He’s a real guy, not a character. He was also a band director at Rabouin High School. The spoiler is this, since it will probably happen on next week’s show: on December 28, 2006, with his family in the car, Dinerral went to pick up his stepson on Dumaine Street just outside the Treme. Some neighborhood kids who had a beef with his stepson gave chase and opened fire. They missed his stepson, but Dinerral himself was shot in the head and killed.
It was hugely upsetting, reverberating all over the city. Some early nola.com reports noted (erroneously, I think) that Shavers had been arrested on drug charges years back. This is the pattern, see? Because if you can put some distance between a crime victim and yourself, you can convince yourself that it can’t happen to you. If you can convince yourself that this musical icon and revered educator was actually maybe possibly killed in some drug dispute, you can rationalize that you’re not in danger simply by living here.
And then, only a week later, on January 7, 2007, local artist and filmmaker Helen Hill, a friend of many of the contributors to this blog, was shot and killed in a random home invasion on North Rampart Street, an invasion in which her husband was also wounded trying to protect their baby (who was unharmed). The perpetrator has never been found although it was believed to be a kid with a gun fleeing a botched robbery of a bed and breakfast down the street.
And this was serious gut-check time for many people. I wrote about it here at the time. I remember even stalwarts like Loki and Bart Everson were talking about moving away.
Everybody who was in New Orleans at the time had made a choice to be there. You chose to stay, or you chose to come back and rebuild, or you chose to come back to the hometown you had left years ago, or you came to help and decided to stay for good. And now there was no denying it: this city that you loved, the only city that ever loved you back, had a temper. This lovable beautiful creative city was also an abusive psycho, and regardless of whether you walked alone at night, regardless of whether you locked your doors, regardless of whether you sold drugs or avoided drug corners, at any moment somebody could put a gun to your head and take your stuff, or take your life, or take something unnameable.
And you had to convince yourself that it was worth the risk, that it wasn’t just a misguided culture fetish, that staying was really worth life-or-death because it really was life-or-death.
Treme captured the zeitgeist of the first year in Season One. But to accurately portray the winter of 2006-2007, they have to capture the zeitgeist of those months. They have to somehow dramatize the fact that the entire city lived under a shadow, that every single one of us was struggling with fear and despair and questioning whether we should be here.
Introducing Dinerral as a minor character helps. But in terms of the television drama, his and Helen’s deaths will not be felt by the television audience the way they were felt by New Orleanians at the time, because the audience is not invested enough in these two real human beings because they are minor characters in the show.
To really show what it meant, to really dramatize how horrific the crime felt and how much it impacted the very survival of the city, Treme had to show something horrendous and awful and life-changing happening to somebody we care about. Something bad enough that it would make them afraid to stay in the city, that it would make their family want them to move, that would make it hard for them to justify to themselves why they should stay. Because that’s where we all were at the time, whether we were direct victims of crime or not.
I need to talk about the rape, and this makes me nervous. I get squirmy when I see men writing about rape. I have never been raped, but it has affected me personally in ways that I’m not at liberty to describe here, and so it’s very important to me that I get this right. And it is hard to get this right. I don’t know that I can do it. But I know when I am reading something that does not get it right, and that’s what I was reading in Salon last night.
Salon called the rape scene a “cheap, ugly showstopper.” Said that a topic like this should have “put the other plots on hold.” The writer “wanted to to see more of her valiant struggle against her attackers,” and lamented that Ladonna had been reduced to a mere “punching bag.”
It’s hard to know where to start with this, but the crux of it for me is that it seems like the Salon writer wants this to be an epic battle of good and evil. Sir Gawain versus the dragon. David versus Goliath. Masada, or 300, or some shit.
Our strong and wonderful LaDonna, it seems, is too good for a mere violent rape. Too excellent of a character to be a mere victim. She needs to fight back. She needs to give as good as she gets. She needs to go down fighting, like a warrior, like Joan of Arc.
She needs a noble and heroic rape.
And the problem is this: there is no such thing.
We might want her to fight back, sure. But that’s us. That’s “redemption” and “character arc” and “justice” and all that other dramatic shit that those of us in the audience want to cling to, to feel better about the fact that LaDonna was raped on the same floor where she used to play as a child growing up in that bar.
And all of the physical and emotional destruction that she has suffered, and will suffer, will be compounded because it becomes part of that larger Katrina dynamic, that “why the hell am I here?” conundrum. This crime can take her home away from her in a way that the storm could not.
There is so much in the Salon article I disagree with. He goes on: “I can’t recall another act of violence on this show or The Wire that turned perpetrators of violent crime into wraithlike abstractions.” Seriously? Two anonymous hooded thugs emerge out of the darkness to brutally attack the strongest and most beloved female character in the ensemble, in a brief moment of defenselessness, leaving her bloodied and traumatized in the hospital? That does not sound familiar?
The whole scene was practically a homage to the shooting of Kima in Season One of The Wire.
Making the show all about LaDonna, making this “The Rape Episode” would have been the cheap thing, the sweeps-week thing to do. Showing how life goes on, for good or ill, during or in the aftermath of the rape: that’s proper storytelling. That Antoine was rehearsing when he could have been there will haunt Antoine for the rest of his life. That a dozen NOPD were available to serve a minor drug warrant on Sonny’s house at the same time that a Good Samaritan was carrying her into ER is a strong statement about how fucked up police priorities are, both in New Orleans and elsewhere.
Talking to a close friend tonight, who herself was raped years ago, she says, “Rape victims don’t get a moment of reverent fucking silence. We live in a world, and the world goes on and drags us with it. We watch while people have band rehearsals and look for jobs and fight with taxi drivers and all that mundane shit. The world doesn’t grind to a halt because we got raped.”
Everybody I know has seen Dinerral Shavers the past two episodes and have been on the edges of their seats. We know what’s coming. We know he’s going to die, just like some of us knew Creighton Bernette was going to die, and it hurts to watch. We watch the people at Road Home and think “man, that sucks.” We see the house break-ins and think, “man, that sucks.” And then out of left field, for no reason, no reason at all and no use thinking anybody could have done anything to stop it, LaDonna is raped.
This is how violent crime works. And this is why it was so traumatizing, and continues to be so traumatizing, for people in New Orleans.
Alex Rawls at OffBeat this morning wrote: “If it seems like piling on, having her go through this experience after losing her brother, it seemed like piling on then, too, and a lot of people felt that way.”
Where this whole episode hits me hard, other than all the obvious reasons, is one that only my friends know: crime is the reason that I had to move away from New Orleans. But not in the way that you think.
I got divorced in New Orleans in 2008, and my children’s mother was able to successfully argue to an officer of the court, in Orleans Parish, that New Orleans was not a fit place to raise children, because of the violence. That blog post of mine that I linked to up there was used against me in family court. I lost. If I chose to stay in New Orleans I would have had to give up custody of my children. I chose my kids.
This is one way that crime puts people into impossible positions. That you can be made to move away even if you don’t want to leave, because of the violence there, is a crime itself.
On top of everything else that LaDonna has had to bear, this being forced to choose, possibly forced to give up her home, is what is likely looming in her future.