N.O. Mayor calls for action on black youth violence

WASHINGTON – New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter teamed up Thursday to give a joint speech calling for national action – from Congress down to every parent – to address the “virus” of young African-American men killing and being killed every day.

Since 1980, about 626,000 Americans – disproportionately African Americans – were murdered on U.S. soil, Landrieu said at the National Press Club event. That number is more than the combined number of Americans killed in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and two wars in Iraq.

Comparing the issue to the Iraq surge, Landrieu said, “We are telling Congress, we need a surge on the streets of America.”

New Orleans had 193 murders last year and, while 2013 is on track to reduce that number, Landrieu said the problem is still far too rooted in his city and the rest of the nation.

Landrieu said too many people choose to “look away” from the problems of urban youth violence.

“Perhaps we have bought into the evil notion that the lives of young African-American men are somehow less valuable than the rest of us. We’ve all heard it before – ‘just thugs killing thugs. There’s nothing that you can do about it,’” he said.

“But this is a lie,” Landrieu continued. “Every life is precious and these young men were not predestined to this fate. We will never know, in many instances, what might have been.”

Philadelphia had 331 murders last year, and 236 of the victims were black men.

“If 236 well-off white kids from the Philadelphia suburbs were killed, there would be hell to pay,” Nutter said. “And if international terrorists killed 236 Philadelphians of any race, we would hunt them down for decades and bring them to justice no matter the cost, no matter the time. We would just do it.

“And, yet, 236 African-American men murdered in one city – not one word,” Nutter continued. “No hearings on the Hill, no investigations … nothing but silence.”

While Nutter said poverty is no excuse for violence, he called it a key factor.

“Murder doesn’t just happen,” Nutter said. “The poisonous fruit grows out of contaminated soil fed by poverty and hopelessness. For many, the deck is stacked against them from day one – poor schools, inadequate health care, no jobs.”

Landrieu called for Congress to authorize a stronger COPS program – Community Oriented Policing Services – such as under President Bill Clinton nearly 20 years ago. Congress can always find the money when it prioritizes something, he said. He and Nutter mentioned all the money spent on infrastructure in Iraq and Afghanistan while thousands are being killed or going hungry in the U.S.

Landrieu also said more must be done to target “criminals with illegal guns.” That issue is something everyone can agree on, he said, without getting bogged down by the “seemingly mind-numbing debate about gun control.”

Landrieu and Nutter are working in tandem with the national “Cities United” effort to combat youth violence. They also challenged the media to focus on the “uncomfortable” reality of urban youth violence.

But Landrieu also called for more personal responsibility and the need for parents, pastors, coaches and neighbors to be proactive. “Babies having babies just doesn’t work,” he said.

Landrieu’s guests include new U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite Jr., who is serving New Orleans in the Eastern District of Louisiana, and Ryan Dalton, who is now coordinating the city’s Midnight Basketball program.

Landrieu said the basketball program has hosted more than 2,000 young people thus far and is helping them get off the streets and connected with jobs.

The mayor also touted the “NOLA for Life” program and a “holistic” approach to improving schools, expanded youth recreation programs and reaching out to churches. He cited the Ceasefire New Orleans program to help mediate conflicts and he praised the Multi-Agency Gang Unit where the city partners with Polite’s office and local and state law enforcement.

Landrieu said law enforcement has identified the problem-gangs and their members and has gone to them and explained that they know who they are and will hold them responsible when crimes occur.

So progress is being made, he said, but kids are still “being born into that same culture of violence.”

“It is very much like a virus,” he said.