When my feeble life is o’er, Time for me will be no more; Guide me gently, safely o’er To Thy kingdom shore, to Thy shore. –“Just a Closer Walk with Thee”
We gathered at Cleveland and Clark streets, in New Orleans’ flood-torn Mid City neighborhood, to say goodbye to Helen Hill. Helen was a woman with scores of friends all of whom were still heartbroken in late February, a month and a half after she was murdered in her home after returning to the city she loved with her physician husband, Paul Gailiunas, and their baby, Francis. Many of us had been to the staid family funeral in Columbia, South Carolina, but this was an altogether different affair. As is always true of jazz funerals, it began with a dirge.
No one missed the significance that these opening chords were struck by an ensemble that included members of the Hot Eight, a band that had lost its snare drummer to a bullet about a week before Helen’s murder. And as the music began, tears streamed down the faces of a woman dressed as a chicken, a man dressed as a clown with a “Be more like Helen” patch on his jacket. My friend Kittee, who had called me one morning to tell me that “someone broke into Paul and Helen’s house–Helen was shot and is dead–Paul was shot three times but will live–Baby Francis is okay,” was now dressed as a sad banana with “Helen Hill Gone But Not Forgotten” written in glitter on the hem of her dress. A peaceful gathering of misfits in a city that embraces difference, brought together by a bullet from a small-caliber handgun that slashed the arteries in Helen’s neck as she demanded that her attacker not hurt her child.
At that point in early January, Helen was the city’s sixth murder victim of the year. The year before had seen 162 murders, achieving a per capita rate twice that of Detroit or Baltimore, America’s second and third most deadly cities, and thirteen times the rate in New York City. 2007 appears to offer little in the way of improvement with another thirty-one people felled by violence since Helen’s death, putting us on our way to hitting 200 murders this year, one for every thousand city residents. Though Helen’s murder became a point of national outcry over violence in the city, with multiple segments on network television covering her murder and “New Orleans’ Growing Crime Wave,” the sad reality is that but for Helen’s white skin, her Harvard education, her artistic and dreamy manner, and her vocation as an award-winning animator, the basic reality of a life cut short by violence in this city is far from exceptional. Perhaps the worst part of finding out that a friend had been murdered here was that though it was shocking, it wasn’t that surprising.
Long before Hurricane Katrina, I would sip my morning tea with a copy of the Times-Picayune and, after leafing through pages describing failing schools, decaying public housing, and anemic health care system, I would scan the faces of the obituaries in the middle of the Metro section for the faces of young black men whose photographs very often sat above descriptions of short lives and violent ends. To even the most casual reader of the paper, the causal relationship between the societal decay depicted on the paper’s front page and the tragedies thumbnailed in these obituaries was inescapable.
Helen and Paul’s purpose in returning to New Orleans was to help build the city back up. For Paul, that meant working as a doctor for poor people at the Daughters of Charity Clinic in the Ninth Ward. For Helen, it meant making films and teaching art. With these gifts and with their music, potbellied pig, tea parties, and vegan cupcakes, they did make the city a better, more just place. Then someone killed Helen and drove Paul to move away from us to Canada, where his mother lives, where he plans to raise his son. In the ferocious outcry that followed, people took to the streets demanding, among other things, harsher sentences for convicted criminals, more jail cells at the Orleans Parish Prison, and more aggressive prosecutions.
After the piece that I wrote about Helen’s murder was published in the New York Times, I received a number of notes from readers, including many who felt that Helen’s death had invalidated Paul and Helen’s commitment to liberal values and the common good and who expressed the belief that this was a case as one person wrote, of “the Prius of white liberal ideology vs. the Santa Fe locomotive of reality.” A number of others pointed out the “irony” that I am a lawyer for people on death row–someone who, like Paul and Helen, is committed the abolition of the death penalty–and that my friend was murdered. Again, the suggestion was that somehow Helen’s murder had disputed my opposition to the death penalty with comments like, “Maybe you should rethink your stance on the death penalty,” and “Personally I love the death penalty for many reasons and I hope you are frustrated for the rest of your life in trying to defeat it. People who commit heinous crimes should be subjected to heinous crimes…now that is justice.”
But these folks have it backwards. The fact is that Helen’s murder was a consequence of all of the injustices that she abhorred, the ones in which our city has wallowed for generations. The fact is that Louisiana is the most punitive state in America with more people incarcerated per capita than any other place in the world. But we are still not safe here and the death penalty not only fails to deter crime but also only further cheapens life. Far from proving Helen’s liberal values wrong, her death is a chilling indictment of the neoliberal city, a Hobbesian state in which the weakest are left to fend for themselves, which has been allowed to eat its young because those who are supposed to govern, at all levels, don’t believe that the government has a role in enriching the lives of its citizens.
After Helen’s jazz funeral, I drove around Helen and Paul’s Marigny neighborhood, past the home where she bled to death, past houses teetering on the edge of collapse from decades of neglect even in this “gentrified” neighborhood, and saw graffiti scrawled on the side of an abandoned warehouse. “Solve Crime: End Poverty.” Had it been in a lovely script, Helen’s beautiful hand, in pink or pale yellow, or animated in the vapor above a teacup in one of her films, I would have mistaken them for her words. And I take them to heart, knowing that the only way to dignify my friend’s death is by trying to create real justice here. Only then will we be safe. And more like Helen.