Mother’s Day shooting in New Orleans tests violent ‘street code’

The suspect in the New Orleans Mother's Day shooting appears to fit the profile of those being targeted by the police anti-gang task force in the city's latest crackdown on violence.

Lauren McGaughy/The Times-Picayune/AP
Bystanders comfort a shooting victim while awaiting EMS at the intersection of Frenchmen and N. Villere Streets after authorities say gunfire injured at least a dozen people, including a child, at a Mother's Day second-line parade in New Orleans on Sunday, May 12.

New Orleans cops are chasing a man they believe responsible for a mass shooting at a Mother’s Day street party on Sunday. The bloody, panic-stricken scene created by the attack has shocked and mobilized a city long intimidated by violent street codes.

Surveillance cameras captured images of a gunman firing rapidly into a packed street as some 200 festival-goers screamed and ran in terror. Police, who have identified the shooter as 19-year-old Akein Scott, say he and possibly two other shooters ran away from the area before police, some of whom were dispersed in the crowd, could pursue.

Analysts say preliminary information about Mr. Scott fits the profile of violent members of the community that New Orleans Police are targeting in a new crackdown on violence.

Shooting victims sustained wounds ranging from bullet grazes to more serious internal injuries.

Coming after two festival-related shootings earlier this year in New Orleans, Sunday’s brazen attack drew immediate attention to a struggle in New Orleans and other dense, poor, urban cores against sudden and senseless gun violence. The apparently gang-related attacks broaden the public debate over gun violence that has been focused on the mass shootings in Tucson, Ariz., Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn.

The investigation “is going to be a watershed event” in the city’s struggle against its towering murder rate, says Dee Wood Harper, a Loyola University emeritus professor and co-author, with Kelly Frailing, of the upcoming book, “Fundamentals of Criminology.”

“The brazenness of the Mother’s Day shooting is a trademark of the kinds of things we’ve been having here,” including homicides, daylight killings, and children being hurt or killed in crossfire, Professor Harper says. “It’s a lot about retaliatory killing.”

Over the years, New Orleans has lurched, not always successfully, toward easing pervasive violence in its roughest areas, with people coming together for marches and the city working with local clergy to ameliorate a murder rate climb exacerbated by hurricane Katrina. While the number of people murdered regularly climbs to near 200 per year, other crimes, including burglary and assault, are way down in the Crescent City.

The US Department of Justice has since last summer cooperated  with the New Orleans Police Department to end a pattern of discriminatory policing and excessive force that has driven a wedge between the communities enduring the violence and the police ordered to patrol the streets.

But perhaps more critically, Mayor Mitch Landrieu late last year launched the city’s newest and arguably most dramatic anti-violence effort, in part by opening a slew of new youth centers, but also by reorganizing the city’s anti-gang taskforce under a new philosophy: single out the most violence-prone members of various neighborhoods and use historical arrest data to help build conspiracy charges around them and their crews.

Last week, the new unit announced its largest bust so far, the indictment of 15 members of a violent street gang involved in several street murders, including the killing of a 5-year-old girl last year.

The murder rate was down slightly in 2012, to 193, and the rate has slowed in the first quarter of 2013 compared with the year before, police say.

“It’s not that I don’t think the new strategies are working, but it’s just that there’s still people out there, like the people involved in this, who don’t read the paper, they’re not getting the message,” says Harper.

Sunday’s mass shooting suspects fit perfectly the kind of criminals the city authorities have begun to target under the new policy, says a consultant to the project, David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College in New York.

“As information is coming out about the suspect and the shooting, he is also straight down the middle of what we now know drives this stuff: known to the police, extensive criminal record, and it’s nearly certainly going to turn out that he’s involved with others just like himself in some form of drug crew or gang,” says Mr. Kennedy, who is also director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College.

While the push in New Orleans is to convince criminal gangs “that the game has changed profoundly,” it’s also to assure residents that complaints and testimony will result in convictions.

In that vein, the shootings may test what Kennedy has called a “toxic schism” between police and community, underscored by a “no snitch” rule inspired less by the potential for drug money proceeds and more by a distrust in the ability of police and prosecutors to protect those who speak up.

"We think the violence is about money, and hardly any of it is," Kennedy said at a recent symposium in New Orleans. "It's overwhelmingly about the street code," which he adds is "unquestionably" pervasive in New Orleans.

Despite a history of audacious shootings in the city, some criminologists predict that New Orleans will see a dramatic dip in its murder rate in 2015, but not necessarily just because of the new anti-violence gambit.

The city in 2015 will see its smallest cohort of 14-24-year-olds in recent memory, which will come at a time when New Orleans high schools are also graduating a higher proportion of their students than they have in many years. Those two trends affecting the age and demographic groups most responsible for street violence in the city could help the murder rate drop by as much as 30 percent, experts say.

But while residents marched on Monday in a show of force against the violence, the shootings also became wrapped up with the darker reputations of so-called “second line” marches, where gunfire occasionally happens and which are often known, as Harper said, to have a “thug element” in the vicinity.

In this case, the Original Big 7 Social Aid and Pleasure Club has held a Mother’s Day event since 2001. Sunday’s event, which organizers said was intended "to celebrate the women of America in New Orleans for the hard time that they have taking care of children,” started at about 1 p.m. on Elysian Fields Avenue.

A video released Monday shows a festival crowd exploding in different directions about 45 minutes into the Mother’s Day street party. Celebrants appear to be ducking away from a man in a white t-shirt and dark pants, who then runs out of the frame.

Police on Tuesday were still trying to determine if there was more than one gunman after saying that there may have been as many as three.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.