“We Get Shit Done to Us:” Economic and State Sponsored Violence in Treme

by Latoya Peterson

*Spoilers Ahead*

Stiffer stipulations attached to each sentence
Budget cutbacks but increased police presence
And even if you get out of prison still livin
join the other five million under state supervision
This is business, no faces just lines and statistics
from your phone, your zip code, to S-S-I digits
The system break man child and women into figures
Two columns for who is, and who ain’t niggaz
Numbers is hardly real and they never have feelings
but you push too hard, even numbers got limits
Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret:
the million other straws underneath it – it’s all mathematics

—”Mathematics,” Mos Def, Black on Both Sides

STATE VIOLENCE

Near the beginning of the episode, Davis is in lock up after being harassed by the National Guard. Still, he yelled “Go the fuck back to Fallujah!” and got put in lock up as Toni tries to calm him down. Her grim reminder that the police and the guard are on edge serves as foreshadowing for later events – it is worthwhile to note that Davis is still more or less in one piece after the altercation.

Later on, Antoine is not so fortunate. After singing on the street with Annie and Sonny after his gig at the strip club, he drunkenly stumbles into a police car. The police react swiftly and brutally, kicking Antoine’s horn and punching him in the face. Horrified, Annie and Sonny look on, but cannot protest much for fear of retribution. The SMO squad is especially effective in this portrayal: at this point in the series, a police car in the background of a shot provides a sense of fear and foreboding. None of the characters as of yet have had a positive interaction with the police, which mimics the dynamics in a lot of communities of color – instead of a welcome sight, police presence means something horrible is about to happen -not crime prevention.

The concept of state violence extends further throughout the episode – Ladonna’s struggle to locate her brother within the criminal justice system, and being stymied at every turn also demonstrates the pernicious nature of state control over incarcerated citizens. Law enforcement appears to be unconcerned with who they have in custody and why – only that a prisoner is accounted for.

It’s understood that the police are under pressure – but what about the other citizens?

ECONOMIC VIOLENCE

Lorenzo: “I hear they got plans for the lower nine. They gonna bulldoze all of it, give the land to developers.”
Albert: “That’s why you need to come back – they can’t bulldoze nothing if the homeowners don’t allow it.”
Lorenzo: “Who gonna stop ‘em?”
Albert: “…Those motherfuckers think people won’t fight. Most won’t. But some will.”

The Times Picayune sheds some light on the entire scene that played out with Lorenzo and Albert’s search:

Albert and Lorenzo go in search of Albert’s Wild Man in the Lower 9th Ward, where floodwaters knocked many homes off their foundations. The devastation made the Lower 9th Ward officially closed to habitation until January 2006. Homeowners were allowed daylight “look and leave” visits until that time. The horrific phenomenon of residents finding dead loved ones upon returning to their homes was not uncommon, even in homes that had presumably been searched.
It was a widely held belief that the most floodwater-damaged portion of the Lower 9th Ward would be sold to developers. A frequent suspect in the stories was Donald Trump, supposedly eying the Industrial Canal-adjacent neighborhood for a luxury golf resort. One of the benefits of Brad Pitt’s Make it Right project in the neighborhood was its demonstration that homes would be rebuilt in the neighborhood, not tees and greens for Trump resort patrons.

The house Albert and Lorenzo visit is marked with a spray-painted X. The markings in the four quadrants designate (on top) the search squad that visited the site, (left side) the date of the visit, (right side) notations for hazards such as gas and water leaks, downed wires or dead animals. The bottom quadrant, in this case inaccurately marked with a 0, denotes bodies found at the site. The markings were made on all homes in the flood zone, and are still visible on many homes today.

As Colorlines has discussed before, there are massive race and class issues with the New Orleans citizens who want to return home. Tram Nguyen has been covering the situation, and explained in 2009:

Four years after Katrina, the city of New Orleans can still break your heart. Not with the raw suffering of the hurricane and its aftermath, but with the stark exposure of an economic apartheid that keeps poor people of color locked out of the city’s political process, as well as its prospects for restored housing and renewed economic growth.

By some accounts, New Orleans’s recovery has made progress. The city’s population level reached 73.7 percent of its pre-Katrina number by the end of 2008, according to the January 2009 New Orleans Index released by the Brookings Institution and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. (Updated figures will be available in August.) Because the region had already been literally “under water,” New Orleans pretty much bypassed the foreclosure crisis that is engulfing many parts of the country. And compared to the national unemployment rate, at 8.5 percent in March, New Orleans unemployment has hovered at about 5 percent since November 2008.

But this more prosperous picture may be the result of cropping out many of the city’s poor former residents—most of whom are Black—who have been blocked from returning.

And in Nguyen’s follow up article from this month, things are no better:

The city’s housing crisis also reflects the disastrous impact of public housing demolitions and redevelopment policies. In New Orleans, many former public housing residents say that on top of losing their homes, they were shut out of participating in the redevelopment process. For many, it was clear that there was just too much money at stake to let the residents get in the way. In the wake of Katrina, Louisiana became a bonanza of federal subsidies for firms ready to take advantage of the opportunity to rebuild. The developers, as a former staffer for one private company put it, stood to “make money hand over fist” through a number of unusually generous bond deals.

That all the homes in the Big Four are gone is a stark reality in New Orleans. So now, after decades of government policies that put housing needs into the hands of private developers, local activists are looking beyond simply fighting for better and more affordable housing. They are joining with housing advocates throughout the nation to emerge from the national crisis with nothing less than the assertion of housing as a human right.

Alongside the commentary on destruction and displacement, episode three provides a glimpse at the tensions surrounding gentrification and displacement. An altercation begins between Davis and his two gay neighbors, with Davis asserting that they were soulless gentrifiers taking over the city.

However, the conversation doesn’t play to type – while Davis’ neighbors talks about what they are doing as historical preservation and not gentrification, the scene illuminates some of the more complicated dynamics at play in some of NOLA. Davis’ neighbor is well aware of the history and legacy of Treme, saying defiantly: “I’m from Uptown, Mr. Mackery is from mid-City – we’re as New Orleans as you.”

And, playing into the earlier theme of state sanctioned violence, the neighbors react with horror when Davis accuses them of calling the police on the second line celebrations “We have never once called the cops!” he replies indignantly, again showing an insider, us-against-them outlook that Davis actively tries to deny.

However, it is the final scene that is the most heartbreaking. Albert and the other Mardi Gras Indians gather together to both mourn the passing of their Wild Man and to recommit to their community, singing a song called “Indian Red” with the lyrics “won’t bow/don’t know how.” The chant almost becomes a metaphysical experience, uniting those assembled in the bleak environment and transporting them to another place. It is at that moment a Katrina tour bus full of tourists snapping photos of the destruction pulls up, shattering the reverie and exposing how many of these tours exploit the suffering of those still in NOLA in order to bank a profit. While the driver decides to decently leave the scene at Alberts urging, the mystified looks of the Mardi Gras Indian crew as the bus rolls off down the road is a haunting ending to a gripping episode.

OTHER OBSERVATIONS

This week’s “Treme Explained” column shed some more insight into link between gang affiliations and the Mardi Gras Indians:

In an essay about Mardi Gras Indian history and traditions, including the role-call roll of the anthem “Indian Red,” historian Kalamu Ya Salaam quotes Allison “Tootie” Montana on the hierarchy of various Indian gang officers and their functions on the street.

“Your Spy Boy is way out front, three blocks in front the chief,” Montana said. “The Flag Boy is one block in front so he can see the Spy Boy up ahead and he can wave his flag to let the chief know what is going on. … The Wild Man wearing the horns in there to keep the crowd open and to keep it clear. He’s between the Flag Boy and the Chief.”

The hierarchy of Indian gangs and various members’ roles is further explained in this David Kunian essay, for which he visited a practice session presided over by Monk Boudreaux, Big Chief of the Golden Eagles.

The off-handed comment made by Delmond about New Orleans wearing musicians down is most evident in Antoine and Sonny’s respective trajectories. Antoine is losing himself in various carnal pleasures trying to escape his life – women, weed, alcohol. This episode put this in stark focus where things did not pan out for him – after Antonie gets left in NOLA while other band members headed up to New York, his ill-fated late night song session illuminates how many of his dreams are broken. Sonny suffers from a similar affliction, drowning his insecurity in drink, drugs (at least when they are available) and sarcasm. While it is still unclear how much of his time on the boat is true, he clearly longs for a different type of reality – and watching Annie receive more acclaim for her awesome fiddle skills drives him deeper and deeper into despondency.

Ladonna’s venting about “that 7th ward creole shit” and her treatment by her husband’s family deserves its own post. “People like us, my mother, me, my brother? We just folks from around the way. We get shit done to us.” Stay tuned, I need to do a bit more research.

Albert gets more and more interesting as this show goes on. “Put your pants on – get your girl and go!” I think he is the character I am most curious about.

Creighton and his daughter discovering YouTube is hopefully a continuing plot point.