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New Orleans’ savior suggests calling the National Guard to help curb Chicago violence, but it won’t be enough
Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honor walks at the foot of Canal Street near downtown New Orleans on Friday, Sept. 16, 2005. Honor was in Chicago this week suggesting calling in the National Guard could help curb Chicago’s gun violence. AP Photo/Paul Sancya
There is no doubt in my mind that retired Army lieutenant general Russel L. Honor saved New Orleans in September 2005. As the city lumbered forward in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, confusion and fear reigned in a city that was lacking in the appropriate support and response from all levels of government and horrible mismanagement from FEMA, the city threatening to eat itself. That’s when Honor stepped and took control of the National Guard and restored a semblance of order to the post-disaster landscape of a major American city. Now, he’s got an idea on how to save Chicago from it’s own threat of self-implosion from the city’s rampant gun violence. But while he is a new voice calling for this particular solution, evidence from the city he saved suggests his way likely is only a short-term solution.
Honor spoke last night at Chicago Military Academy in Bronzeville as part of The HistoryMakers project which, according to the their website, specializes in:
…recording, preserving and sharing the life stories of thousands of African Americans, from President Barack Obama to the oldest living black cowboy, The HistoryMakers is a leader in helping to educate and enlighten millions worldwide through refashioning a more inclusive record of American history.
During his speech, as reported by the Tribune, Honor addressed Chicago’s gun violence issue and called for a solution that’s been heard before but this time with his brand of frankness: bring in the National Guard. Comparing the city’s rash of gun violence to natural disasters like tornadoes and floods, Honor said:
“Just like we do with any disaster. When the tornado comes, or the floods come, the federal government comes in to help… Let’s not let this be about pride. ‘We are big ol’ Chicago, we are too proud, we can handle this.’ Maybe you can’t handle it. If you need help, get the federal government here. But let’s control the streets so children and elderly people can be in a safe community.”
Honor went on to suggest bringing in the National Guard and State Police to handle more routine duties, freeing up local police to do more work in tackling violence and giving them time to focus on a hyperlocal level. This call, of course, has been made before by local politicians and community leaders to no avail. What makes Honor’s suggestions different is his experience, his military authority, and that he’s an African-American leader from outside the city, one of the first time such a figure has made this suggestion (at least in such a reasonable manner).
Setting aside for a moment the purely political hurdles in play for such an action, however, a look at a similar approach in New Orleans itself shows such a solution is relevant only in the short term and that even more action is necessary for the long term.
In June 2006, five young men, between the ages of 16 and 19, were shot and killed in a single incident in New Orleans’ crime-riddled Central City neighborhood, a violent outburst that rattled a city still recovering from one of the nation’s worst natural disasters ever. In the wake of that incident, and as the city’s murder rate grew to one of the worst in the nation once again, the National Guard was called in. So were State Police, just as Honor suggested Chicago should do. But in both the short term and long term, the move did very little.
Including those five deaths, New Orleans’ homicide count in late June 2006 was 52; it would finish the year with 162 homicides, tops in the nation in murder per capita.
What, then, can we expect to be different when the same is done here? I ask that rhetorical question acknowledging several things:
1. There is an inherent, comparing-apples-and-oranges issue in comparing New Orleans to Chicago in that, well, you’re talking about two different cities with different environments.
2. As a resident of New Orleans at the time of both Hurricane Katrina and the June 2006 quintuple murder, I have the utmost respect for Honor and his advice.
But while NOLA and Chicago are different, the issues of gun violence share similar roots: poverty, drugs, and gangs. This is particularly true of the South and West Sides of Chicago where an overwhelming number of the city’s homicides have occurred. The Chicago Reader’s Steve Bogira has been all over the issues of race and poverty as it relates to the city’s violence, particularly in a terrific column earlier this month in which he lays out how the issues that will fix the problem of violence are more closely tied to the city’s segregation and, more importantly, the related issue of poverty. While the National Guard would be a band-aid, it would be a temporary one that doesn’t salve the deeper damage.
One more example of proof of how the National Guard didn’t work in New Orleans: after the violent 2006, it’s murder per capita jumped even higher in 2007. And despite drops from 2008 through 2010, the rate still remained near or at the top of the nation, ten times the national average, and then saw a 14 percent jump in 2011 and only a very modest drop in 2012. Calling in the National Guard only worked on an extremely short-term basis in 2006 for New Orleans (see: it’s final tally for 2006 in which murders increased over the second half of the year).
Of course, there are those political hurdles I mentioned before: the hit Chicago’s image would take, the hubris of many local politicians in play, and the more complex layers of a President locked in battle with a Congress only too happy to continue to connect him to the failings of his adopted hometown. Beyond even that, the roots of this issue go back 60, 70 years to when The Machine railroaded Elizabeth Wood and the CHA, creating the hyper-segregated environment that only allowed racism and poverty to fester on the city’s South and West Side. With roots that deep, unaddressed on the community level for so long, the idea that the National Guard would help seems not only short-sighted but reflects a misunderstanding of the city’s problem.
Honor did speak of a cultural shift that’s needed and he’s certainly correct on that count, but these issues are, as I keep repeating, so deep that the shift is going to be a long and painful one. Any federal government intervention as he outlines it would have to be long term – years, decades – to repair the harm that’s been done. If officials would balk at even a short-term visit by the Guard, a years-long assignment would be rejected outright.
In the end, despite his good intentions, Honor’s suggestion isn’t the right one, an idea that can’t completely cover and fix the problem just like every other locally-backed venture that’s attempted to curb violence in the city, all of them ignoring or not doing enough to dig out the origins of the problem and, instead, trying to paint a fresh coat over a festering wound.