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That’s The Crime Problem Right There

October 8, 2012

After last week’s episode aired, I heard that two well respected local writers with whom I am acquainted had been a bit stunned and chagrined by the murder of the Salon owner character, Jay Cardella (played by Greg Zola). I was intrigued by that and gave it some thought this week. I had to admit that I was a bit weirded out by it as well. I couldn’t quite figure out why as the Treme writers have included the losses of Helen Hill, Dinerral Shavers, OPP prisoners, kids on the street in previous seasons. Many of us recognized personal losses in the losses shown on screen, starting with Creighton Burnette. So why does this one seem to be hitting some of us in a different way? I can only speak for myself, but before I can explain my own feelings about it, I have to back track a little.

The time period of this episode was a tremendously difficult time. We knew about the Danziger Bridge cops. Rumors about other police perpetrated atrocities traveled from block to block, bar to bar, person to person, some of which turned out to be simply rumors, while others proved to our horror to be true. Our Police Chief, Warren Riley, had become Chief of Police four weeks after Katrina had decimated not just the city, but the police department. Police had gone AWOL, some never came back, some were just basket cases like the rest of the population, many had lost their homes like the rest of the population, and now they had a new Chief of Police. An already deeply broken departmental culture was now utterly fragmented. At the same time, New Orleans had a District Attorney, Eddie Jordan, who seemed completely ineffectual and he and the new Chief of Police didn’t much care for each other.

Many, many records of arrests and evidence collected connected to crimes had been stored on the bottom floor when Katrina hit. They were completely trashed by and large. There was some attempt to dry some out, in fact I remember one press conference in which some mucky muck said that it would take months for the records to be dried and usable if they could be salvaged at all. So a lot of criminals whose records were in there did a happy dance and it appeared that those crimes would just be zeroed out. Those of us living here at the time were busy with our lives, so although we didn’t spend all our waking hours thinking about all those files, we did discuss the ramifications and wonder why on earth this stuff hadn’t been put in a safer place. Naturally, though, there were new crimes being committed.

Fast forward a few months.

As crime, murders in particular, climbed all the various players took defensive positions. The DA said the police weren’t collecting evidence, or weren’t collecting it properly. He blamed the cops for not giving him enough ammunition to take cases to court and win. The police, for their part, blamed the DA, accusing him of everything from laziness to cowardice. The Public Defender’s office was overwhelmed, understaffed and underfunded and they got blamed for asking for too many continuances which in effect allowed some criminals to skate because they weren’t brought to trial in a timely fashion. The term “misdemeanor murder” was born as they were released after being held for the maximum allowable time. The always good for a sound bite Mayor Nagin polished his head and blamed the knuckleheads and said he’d sit down with the Chief of Police and the DA and things would be better.

The population took to the streets as we saw portrayed last season. We were fed up, sick of the internecine bickering and finger pointing, and we really hoped that our statement of rage and unity would make a difference. Perhaps that was naïve. I know at the time a lot of people thought so, but those of us who went out there on that day knew we couldn’t just sit in our living rooms bitching anymore.

Then along came 2007. Eddie Jordan, the beleaguered DA left office and Leon Cannizzaro took over. Police Chief Riley stayed for three more years. Also during 2007, Robin Malta was murdered.

Robin Malta was a popular hairdresser and activist, who was murdered in a most barbaric way at the age of 43. I knew him to say hi to if I saw him outside his salon on Decatur or if I ran into him in a bar, but I didn’t know him well. His murder, however, hit me and everyone I knew hard. I think it had everything to do with the senselessness of it, the niceness of the man, and the fact that his murder came after the march, after people started lists of the dead on church walls and blog lists. His murder came when we were in a holding pattern of hope, albeit cautious hope.

We watched to see how the investigation would shape up. We hoped that they would catch whoever did it, prosecute that person and lock that person up. We followed the case and were devastated as some details about his murder, the condition of his house when the body was found, and the possible motives were discussed, effectively dragging a lovely man’s dignity through gutters. The police claimed that he was killed over a drug debt (that’s why Colson’s statement in this episode was so resonant), and when they arrested the alleged perpetrator, stories became all the more lurid. In 2009 the killer was convicted and sentenced to life without parole, and yes we were happy about that even though virtually all the evidence convicting him was circumstantial. Cannizzaro himself prosecuted the case, making an effective political statement that he wasn’t Eddie Jordan in the doing, but some people were deeply upset by his using this particular case to make that statement.

So why did Robin Malta’s death shake us so? Because it signalled a continued lack of efficiency and sensitivity in NOPD’s investigations of crimes. Because we never got an adequate answer to the question, “Why?” Because it yanked a little more hope for change out of us at a time when we were clinging to that hope lest we despair completely.

In 2009 we moved into the house we live in now. It is two doors down from Robin’s house. When we moved here some folks whispered and pointed at his door to make sure we knew, as though brutal murder was contagious. I can see his backyard from where I’m sitting right now. I think of him often, although we weren’t close friends during his lifetime. I pass his stoop every time I go to the store or go meet friends for drinks. Those steps that were covered in candles and flowers and hand written signs after his death jump out at me some nights and I picture him reaching for his keys knowing I’ll never actually get to see that. I think I would have enjoyed having him as a neighbor. Recently the couple who lived there for the last three or so years moved out of that house and a new neighbor is living there now. I sometimes wonder if he knows about Robin. I wonder if he knows that what happened to a very nice man inside that house was beyond a sane person’s imagination, and I wonder if he knows that Robin’s murder stripped away the edifice of our finely crafted hope that our choice not to be silent about violence would have an impact on the institutions of our legal system. I wonder if he knows that along with a huge personal loss for the many people who loved him, his loss brought those of us who love New Orleans to our already bleeding knees as we confronted the possibility of hopelessness as the future status quo.

Maybe he doesn’t, but at least now I think I understand why the depiction of that murder was so surreal, at least for me.

  1. October 8, 2012 5:41 pm

    nice piece, sam. thanks.

  2. dexterjohnson permalink
    October 8, 2012 11:58 pm

    This is powerful stuff, Sam; it’s why I read this blog. Thanks for so much insight to the show and the real New Orleans.

  3. October 9, 2012 7:49 am

    This is what greeted us when we moved to New Orleans: neighbors and google filling us in on the vicious, unprovoked, widely publicized murder of a very good person in the very place we were sleeping, committed with a knife from a drawer in the kitchen.

  4. herbert kearney permalink
    October 9, 2012 8:22 am

    brings it all home we didn’t even know how volatile it all was immediatley after the storm ,with beaurocratic chaos and inhumanity gone amuck …surviving several attacks myself now just recovering with a modicum of understanding thank you …this sadly

  5. October 10, 2012 3:31 pm

    Thanks for the personal post, Sam. (Thanks also to Mark for the lengthy comments/responses last week, all was read and absorbed.) BackOfTown is the perfect compliment to Dave Walker’s “`Treme` Explained”.

    The beginning scene before the opening credits was like a ton of bricks to the chest (and made me feel bad for my cop-friends who are honest and good). What do you do when those who are supposed to protect and serve are bad?

    David Simon mentioned in his recent Salon interview that “Treme” was just about ordinary people. It is interesting that you should have known Robin Malta, and that it probably is him upon whom the Jay Cardella story thread is be based. If Mr. Simon is trying to tell us that many/most ordinary people in Nola have met, or at least known, someone who was murdered (via Toni and Jay, and most of the cast last season with the falling of Harley), then your story supports his message.

    Again, this week another character made a jab at a neighboring city (which is really a jab at all other cities). New Orleans is definitely a place where the candle is burning twice as bright.

  6. October 10, 2012 3:45 pm

    3suns, we burn too many candles and too few of thanksgiving.

  7. samjasper permalink
    October 11, 2012 1:42 pm

    Thank you all for your kind words. This falls under the “do folks here in NOLA watch the show differently” column. It showed up in the thread about product placement, local musicians playing themselves, etc. We DO watch it differently I think.

    For instance, one commenter on the Schaeffer post said he was tired of someone bringing in a po boy and then being asked where it came from. He felt that that was a kind of gratuitous advert for the sandwich shop. It really isn’t. If someone came into a group of us with a bag full of sandwiches, and we liked those sandwiches, I can pretty much guarantee ya one of us would ask where they got them. (In my case they’d say the name of a place and if it was Uptown, they’d make fun of me for rarely crossing Canal. I can hear it now.)

    Mark asked in that thread what’s the difference between verite and product placement. I think the answer is, “Where do you live?” For us seeing Abita on the bar, or Heineken, makes sense provides verite. For anyone else, maybe not.

    The same is true of losses. For just about every one of the deaths mentioned or portrayed, those of us here can tell you who we think that was based on, if even just in part. The writers of Treme have managed to handle those losses within the context of the story arc in a way that rings true, at least for me. That’s why we watch so closely. That’s why some episodes will make us cry in a personal way. That’s why some of us are so glad to have that time period in this city, which is really a blink of an eye in the grand scope of time in a area the size of a pinprick on the giant ball we float through space on, depicted with integrity.

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