Thursday, January 27th, 2011
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans is off to a fast start in this New Year to maintain its perennial title of being the murder capital of America. When the city celebrated Martin Luther King Day last week, five people were shot down. Just a few killings often seem to be a good day. The first violent death took place on day two of the New Year. In the few short weeks since then, 16 more murders have been chalked up. At this rate, could a new record high be in the making?
Any murder is tragic, but one can weave through the crime lore of the Crescent City to see some deaths that just can’t be explained. The locals often seem to shrug and accept the blood flowing as a price you pay for living in what always ranks as America’s “most interesting city.” Violence seems to be an integral part of the gumbo that blends a different genre of street smells, music, spices, poverty, and minions of eccentric characters. But then, the killings continue and grow in numbers.
The brutal execution that got to me the worst was the tragic death of a little boy a few years back. Ja’Shawn Powell was two years old, and lived in New Orleans with his mother. His father, a guy named Danny Platt, came to pick up Ja’Shawn for a weekend visit. The boy, according to his mother was really excited. “Oh, my daddy’s here,” he beamed as he ran to the door. “Daddy, daddy, daddy.” His mother said: “He was so happy.”
Then his daddy drove off….. took a knife….. slit this little boy’s throat….. and allowed the toddler to bleed to death.
It’s impossible to make any sense, or even find the words to define such a ghastly act. Horrifying, shocking, sickening, abhorrent, repugnant; no thoughts can describe such a dastardly deed of unspeakable horror. Platt claims he had “a whole bunch of reasons” for taking this little boy’s life. He said “I had a lot of pressure on me.” But he denied that one of the reasons was the $4000 in back child support he owed to the boy’s mother. Hogwash. He did it to keep from paying the money.
In a city that has the highest per capita murder rate in the nation, where multiple killings often happen on a daily basis, a town that is rated as one of the five most dangerous cities in the world, it is still incomprehensible to imagine that a father could take a knife and plunge it into the throat of his two-year-old child.
How could anyone kill their own son? That’s the question posed in the book of Genesis as to whether a father could kill his own son, even at the urging of God himself. According to the scripture in the first book of the Bible, the Jewish patriarch Abraham was told by God to kill his son Isaac to show obedience to God. It was a test, and when God was apparently satisfied that Abraham would undertake such an appalling act, he called out for Abraham to stop.
How does a believer, like Abraham, respond if he had been asked to sacrifice his one and only son? And then there is a separate question. How could a loving God even put one of his followers to such a test? Why would any being, God or man, force such a horrendous choice?
Bob Dylan poignantly and pointedly asked the same question on the title track of his “Highway 61 Revisited “album that came out in 1965. Now follow the symbolism here. Highway 61 runs from Duluth, Minnesota all the way down to New Orleans. It was a major transit route to get out of the Deep South, particularly for African Americans traveling north to Chicago, St. Louis and Memphis, as the highway followed the Mississippi River Valley for most of its 1400 miles. The song puts to the test the moral dilemma of killing one’s own son at the request of the Almighty.
Dylan raises the same concerns about God’s actions that I have felt for years. The lyrics say:
Oh God said to Abraham, Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “you can do what you want Abe but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killing done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”
So when America’s poet troubadour picks a location to symbolize one of the most heart wrenching choices posed by God to man, a choice by the way that I personally think was dead wrong for God to pose in the first place , the heart and soul of the dilemma runs right through the Crescent City, on Highway 61.
Since the killing of little Ja’Shawn, there have been a series of other family murders in New Orleans. Just a few days after Ja’Shawn was knifed to death, a son killed his 73 old mother, who was a member of her church choir. He stabbed her repeatedly with a butcher knife and robbed her. Why? He needed money to buy drugs.
New Orleans is a city where I was educated, where I have worked and lived off and on for some fifty years. It’s a real tragedy to see the will and the hopes of so many locals seem to slowly drift away. And let’s face it. No outside help is going to sweep in to solve the city’s massive list of problems.
New Orleans needs political leadership, increased community activism, more public dollars into law enforcement, and a renewed focus on juvenile delinquency. But there also needs to be a will. All this can make a difference and all this needs to be done. But it all begins right here at home, on Highway 61.
“There are many things worth living for, a few things worth dying for, and nothing worth killing for.” ~ Tom Robbins
Peace and Justice.
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.