Notes from Today: A Blog

Liz Maxwell is a theatre director, producer of culture, and artistic innovator. I am passionate about the role of the artist in society, interdisciplinary collaboration, and making original work. I believe that the process and product are important, that new ideas are the life-force of society, and that the arts hold a vital role in shaping our collective future. This blog reflects musings on the evolution of theatre, reflections on the process of art-making, and committed observations on what it's like to be a human being these days.

There Is No Them (Part 1)

Part 1 of 2: Reflections on Violence

Last week, I attended a Deep Dialogue on Violence, hosted by WTUL & the Community Book Center

This is a particularly heated topic, especially in New Orleans - a city that has been riddled by massive gun violence and so many daily reports of violent crime in the newspaper that it's not even news anymore. Most people I know have become immune to it. There's not much vocabulary for such a complicated topic, and so it seems that most people don't have much to say. "It's a shame." "How horrible." "Who would do such a thing?" 

But this is my home. See, I grew up here, but I haven't lived here as an adult for more than a few months at a time. This is for two reasons: 1. I like to travel, to see new places, and have as many adventures as possible 2. I'm ashamed to call it home. They don't make a bumper sticker for that, and most other New Orleanians to whom I even hint at that sentiment are outraged. 

I have struggled for a long time with what it means to be of this particular heritage. I come back, like a good Southern girl, at least once a year, to see my family and check-in with "home." These spotted trips give me a very particular and complicated vantage point. Here is what I see: The people of New Orleans are alive. The people of New Orleans are deeply embedded in human being-ness and all of the dramatic struggles of push and pull that go along with that. There's an honesty to the people here - if it's hot and annoying to stand in line at the grocery, ain't no one gonna pretend it doesn't suck. And I love that. These people know food, these people know love, and girl, you better believe I know how to dance through those streets on Mardi Gras day. *snap*

But there is a shadow side to my New Orleans, to this deep human-ness that I think is real here. There is surface Southern friendliness, but it masks profound isolation and fear of an "other." It seems to me that this embedded sense of otherness applies to blacks and whites equally - a profound sense of "us and them" that is left over in the South from the days of slavery and still deeply embedded in the subconscious of the culture. "Those people would never come to my neighborhood" and "Those people better not come to my neighborhood or I'm calling the police." We're terrified of each other, or we hate each other, or we think we're different from another. Gentrification is a huge problem in New Orleans - locals have a keen eye on what are the safest neighborhoods, and blacks who can afford it move there almost as fast as the white people can find a new neighborhood with no blacks in it. And this deep, culturally engrained racism ripples out to cause massive institutional deficiencies across the board from education to politics to the prison-industrial complex that keeps a few people (mostly older white men) rich and a lot of people (mostly young black men) locked up. Yes, this happens other places in the world and yes, other places in the U.S. - but what Louisiana's got going on is extreme. White people don't want to hear this, but Malcolm X wasn't lying: "You can't have capitalism without racism." That seems to be true, unfortunately, and untangling America's complex and fucked up economic system is something I hope to do in future blogs this year.

Undoubtably, the most profound manifestation of New Orleans' shadow side is the epic amount violence and crime. Let's be honest - is this working, New Orleans? Is this the kind of community we want to live in? Between shootings at a Mother's Day second line parade and a six-year old being murdered and dumped in a trash can, this shit's no joke. And yet, I have found that a pervasive sense of hopelessness characterizes New Orleanians, deep down in the roots next to a genuine joy for life and love of music, food, laughter, and friendship. The sense that "this is just the way it is here - nothing *I* can do about it" is the scariest thing of all. We build the walls to keep us free, and New Orleans is truly a Hadestown. It's just what Dan Brown's been going on about recently: The people are numb, the people are tired, and, as Dante says, "the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality."

So how do we move on from here? Here's the secret: there is no them. I cannot believe that *anyone* wants to live in a community with this amount of gun violence. No one wants to live in fear of sending their children to school or walking home at night. Above all, we have to come to deeply understand that "There are no monsters shooting people in New Orleans". For New Orleans and for America, we have to talk about this and we have to talk about it now. Trayvon Martin put race on the hot topic list again, and I think it's about time. We have to deal with this, because it's not going away. We have been closing our shutters and turning our heads as other families on the margins struggle to recover from trauma. But this solution is no longer good enough. It has gotten us this far, but if we want different results we need to try different solutions. What if we tried caring for each other? What if we tried listening to someone who is different from us? What if we never said "people like that" or "their problem" or "it's never gonna change" again? How would it affect our minds, and what if it changed the world?

Many people were wondering about next steps after the Dialogue ended last night. I think that all violence begins in the mind. The group pretty much unanimously agreed that violence stems from isolation, fear, racism. But what good are these dialogues when actually, everyone in the room already agrees with each other? What we need to change the world is good, old-fashioned debate. Because let's face it - none of us has the answer. We all have something to learn from each other, and as I heard these great meditation teachers say: "The next bodhisattva is community." This is about horizontality, about genuine listening, about valuing all the voices in the room and making sure all the voices in the greater room of America are actually heard. No one is wrong here, no one is stupid, no one should be excluded from the debate. I'm looking at you, Metairie. What if the next Deep Dialogue took place in Lakeside Shopping Mall? And what if we listened to the people who come to that one? Yes, there are voices on Broad St. that have been oppressed for a long time, and it is important to include those voices in the debate as well. But if those people are only talking to each other or sympathetic whites who already agree with them, I don't see much progress being made. If we (community organizers, social justice practitioners, the oppressed and those that recognize they are oppressors) all agree that the whites have power - well then let's talk to them about it. What are they afraid of? Why do they live in gated communities? These are real fears that could be addressed just as sympathetically and compassionately as we listen to the the struggles of the poor single black mother. It's scary out there, and we all want a better world for our children - but no one knows how to get there. Maybe instead of hating each other for making it so damn difficult, we could embrace the shared struggle, and remember that we ARE working towards a common goal.

Whatever side of the debate you're on - I beg you, please have the debate. Please talk about this, with your family, your friends, your neighbors and most importantly: talk about it with someone who disagrees with you. And actually talk to them. Listen. Thoughtfully respond. Best case scenario is everyone learns something, and we make a little bit more progress on this thing together.  


Deep bows to these awesome organizations who participated in the Deep Dialogue discussion and are actively working every day to make a change in New Orleans:

 For Part 2 of this post and more personal reflections on the nature of violence, keep reading.