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An Open Letter to Sheriff of St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana

Little Man With a Gun in His Hand:
An Open Letter to Sheriff Jack Strain, of St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana
By Tim Wise
July 4, 2006
Dear Sheriff Strain,

I always liked Slidell, even before Lucinda Williams sang about going
there to "look for (her) joy." And my fond feelings for the town were
rekindled recently when I discovered that Grayson Capps--with whom I
went to Tulane in the late '80s, and who's quite the singer-
songwriter himself--had written a song about it too. Well, sorta.
It's really about a guy who's trying to get home to his true love,
but there's this big car wreck outside of Slidell, caused by a woman
who's drunk and talking on her cell phone. So while he waits for the
clean-up crew to carry away the carnage, he sits on a barstool in one
of the town's watering holes and knocks back a few. More than a few,
actually. I figure the car wreck is a metaphor for the guy's life, or
then again, maybe not. Like Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a
cigar, and anyway, Grayson always struck me as a pretty literal
fellow, not given to undue irony or flourish. I've got it on my iPod:
good stuff.

The way I see it, ya' gotta love any place that gets a song written
about it--even Luckenbach, Texas. So although I never enjoyed that
interminably long drive across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans
when I lived down there, on the few occasions when I made it to St.
Tammany Parish, I always found the people to be nice. And considering
that St. Tammany is the parish home to Abita Springs, from which
place emanates some damned fine spring water, and even better beer,
well, what's not to like?

But today, I'm starting to wonder if maybe I should rethink my
feelings towards your Parish; perhaps even the "nice people" thing.
After all, those "nice people" elected you Sheriff, and yet there you
were on TV recently, saying that you and your deputies weren't going
to put up with any of the "trash" from New Orleans coming to St.
Tammany in the wake of Katrina and its aftermath (1).

I know you probably think you're just looking out for the citizens of
your community. After all, you fashion yourself an important man,
without whom everything would go to hell in a hand-basket. That shiny
badge of yours, not to mention your gun, makes it official too: Jack
Strain is a big man. Of course, Barney Fife had a badge and a gun, as
did every member of the Keystone Cops, so, I suppose importance (to
say nothing of competence) is in the eye of the beholder. And yes, I
know those guys were fictional officers of the law, but it appears
you have a soft spot for fiction, as we'll see here shortly, so keep
reading.

What exactly did you mean, Sheriff Jack, when you said that anyone
wearing dreadlocks or a "Chee-Wee" haircut would be paid a visit by
one of your deputies? (For those who don't know, a Chee-Wee is a
regional snack, not unlike Cheetos). Are certain hairstyles now seen
as probable cause for a stop-and-search in St. Tammany? Under what
creative interpretation of the Constitution--you know, that piece of
paper that trumps whatever it is you think the law should be--do you
figure such a policy is legal? Or do you just not care?

Putting aside legality for a second, perhaps I can just address you
as a man, and a father. You see, I have two little girls: five and
three. Among the many challenges involved with raising kids is trying
to teach them not to say mean-spirited things about others. You know
how kids are, right? Always pushing the envelope with such childish
slurs as "poo-poo head" or "butt-face," or something they heard at
pre-school, and which they don't realize to be hurtful until a parent
sits them down and explains that whole Golden Rule thing. Maybe
you've had this experience with your own kids: trying to get them to
follow the old maxim, "If you can't say something nice, don't say
anything at all," and then realizing--as my wife and I have--that
it's a lesson you'll be re-teaching a lot, seeing as how once just
isn't enough to make an impression. Kids are like that: in one ear
and out the other.

But how much harder must it be for parents to teach their children
proper behavior, and to teach them not to use hurtful words, when
they have as adult role models, people like...well, people like you,
Sheriff. People who refer to others of the human family as "trash,"
as you did on at least a half-dozen occasions in that interview. It's
bad enough to ever call people by such a dehumanizing slur--after
all, trash is what we take to the city incinerator and burn every
week, or to the landfill to bury, so consider, for a second the
homicidal symbolism of your words--but to do so when you yourself
have likely never met any of the persons for whom you reserved this
verbal abuse makes it all the more vile.

You began by speaking of the "trash" in New Orleans rather
generically, leaving us all to wonder who you might be speaking of,
not that we couldn't venture a guess. We know all the code words
y'all have in places like St. Tammany for poor black people, after
all. But then, just to make sure we hadn't misinterpreted, you
clarified things, specifying that the trash in question were folks
from the city's public housing projects, who you feared would be
making the trek to Mandeville or some such place, in search of
opportunities to ply their criminal trade, or new folks to victimize.

First, don't flatter yourself. The idea that the people of New
Orleans really want to come to St. Tammany Parish--thereby trading in
one of the most culturally vibrant and important cities in the
history of the cosmos for a place where the opening of a new Chili's
is cause for celebration--is more than a little silly. Please,
remember where you live: a Parish whose most famous resident is David
Duke; a Parish whose Republican Party Executive Committee several
years ago unanimously voted Duke--the nation's most prominent Nazi--
to be their chairperson. No, I don't think you need to worry about
too many black folks seeking out such a place to live. Of course, if
they did, the fact that you'd be more troubled by their presence than
the presence of the nation's most prominent Nazi (and convicted
criminal, seeing as how Duke recently spent time in jail for tax
evasion and fraud) says a lot about you and the values you hold dear.

Secondly, while you take great pleasure in calling those who lived in
New Orleans public housing before Katrina trash, it should be noted
that in some regards, they compare favorably to the folks in your own
backyard. So, for example, consider that according to Census data,
ten percent of your young people between 16-19 have apparently
dropped out of school, which is actually higher than the percentage
of dropouts among folks that age who lived in the B.W. Cooper Homes,
or the old Desire projects in New Orleans, and roughly the same as
the dropout rate for youth who resided in the St. Bernard development
(2).

Of course, you wouldn't be the first person to negatively (and
inaccurately) stereotype residents of public housing. It happens all
the time, most often coming from people who have never set foot in
the places about which they claim to know so much. I'm guessing that
would be true for you, Sheriff Jack.

But I've been in those places where the "trash," as you put it, live,
and you might be surprised at how wrong your preconceived notions
are. I spent the better part of fifteen months working with New
Orleans public housing residents on various community initiatives in
the mid-90s, and had the occasion to meet the kind of people you
condemn. I've sat in their living rooms, and listened to them talk
about their hopes, fears and dreams. I've heard them muster up more
optimism in the face of crushing poverty than I could likely conjure--
hell, more optimism than I have on a normal day now, even with all
the privileges I've been afforded; and I've watched them demonstrate
more character, in spite of all the odds stacked against them, than
people in any other community I ever visited. Oh, and I can tell you
this, without fear of contradiction: I saw far more drugs on my dorm
floor at Tulane than I ever saw in the projects, to say nothing of
problem drinking. I heard of far more sexual assaults at Tulane than
in the housing developments when I was in both places--not that the
former were as likely to be prosecuted, of course, or come to the
attention of law enforcement at all, for that matter.

Truth is, if you look at New Orleans public housing, and examine some
facts about the people who live there (or at least did before the
flooding)--as opposed to consulting your own uninformed biases about
the same--it's not hard to see that only an ignorant lout or a real
asshole would call the residents of such places trash. Now don't get
mad: since I'm fully prepared to let you figure out which of the
terms fits you better, I haven't actually called you either, so I'm
not in violation of that whole "say something nice or don't say
anything" rule that I so neatly promulgated a while back.

First off, about half the residents of New Orleans public housing
prior to the flood were minors--they're kids, Sheriff. In the
Iberville development, forty-two percent were twelve years old or
younger, and twenty percent were younger than five. In St. Bernard, a
third were twelve or younger, and one in seven were under five years
of age. In B.W. Cooper, the numbers were thirty-six percent twelve
and younger, and 17.3 percent five or below. The same is true in the
other projects. So, what this means is that as of the 2000 census, of
the 15,000 or so residents of public housing (itself a very small
percentage of the city's black folks, or even black poor), about 7500
were minors, perhaps 5500 or so were twelve or younger, and around
2500 were infants or toddlers (3). So, these are a large number of
the folks you just called trash. Children. I'm sure your momma and
your pastor would both be proud.

Oh, and I'm sure you'll say you didn't mean them. Sorta' like you
said you didn't want to call anyone names, and then proceeded to call
them trash and thugs, and make fun of their hairstyles by comparing
them to fried cheese puffs. Sorta like you said you and your deputies
didn't want to violate anyone's civil rights, right after you
announced you'd be stopping anyone wearing their hair in one of two
styles you know damned good and well are almost exclusively worn by
black folks. Which means you can say whatever you like about your
intentions, and I'll reserve the right to think you're lying.

So, you'll say you don't mean the kids, but rather, just their
parents. They're the irresponsible ones, you'll insist. But in truth,
you'd be wrong about the grown-ups too. So at least your ignorance is
consistently woven throughout your commentary, and God knows, there's
much to be said for consistency, Sheriff Jack.

Not that you're interested, but the facts are these: Contrary to
conventional "wisdom," in most of the housing developments and their
surrounding New Orleans neighborhoods, prior to Katrina, about six in
ten households received income from paid employment, while only about
one in four received income from government "welfare" programs. Even
though the vast majority of residents in such places were officially
poor, only a small percentage received public assistance in the form
of cash support. In places like the old Desire and Florida projects,
sixty-one and sixty-nine percent of households, respectively, had at
least one person in them who worked at a paid job; and in the case of
Desire, only about five percent (or one in twenty households)
received money from public assistance programs, or so-called welfare
(4).

Although it's true that most adults in public housing don't work
outside the home, when you exclude those who are elderly or disabled--
two groups that make up more than a third of adults in most cases--it
hardly seems fair to label the grown-ups in and around public housing
as irresponsible. A third of all persons sixteen or older in St.
Bernard, for example, worked full-time--same thing in B.W. Cooper, or
the Treme/Lafitte community (5), with a large number of the remainder
working part-time, trying to help make ends meet. The clear majority
of able-bodied adults in these places are either working or looking
for work, contrary to popular belief. And the rest who don't work at
a paying job, typically stay home so they can care for small
children: the kind of thing that gets a mother labeled "good" and
responsible, so long as she's white and middle-class.

On a personal level, the strongest work ethic I ever witnessed was
that of a resident of New Orleans public housing with whom I had the
good fortune to work many years ago: a woman whose son was murdered
while she and I were working at the same organization, but who
nonetheless came in the very next day because, in spite of her grief,
she had a job to do. I don't know about you Sheriff Jack, but I've
called in sick because I was tired, and here was someone who felt it
necessary to show up to work, even in the immediate aftermath of one
of the greatest losses a mother can experience. Lazy? I don't think
so. I'd be willing to bet you've got deputies or administrative staff
out of the office today, right now, for less valid reasons than that.
I'd bet you've missed plenty of days of work fighting the bad guys of
Covington, for reasons that would seem quite pathetic compared to
losing a child.

And finally Sheriff Jack, getting back to your comments in that
interview, I really should point out that you've got some nerve
sweating the so-called criminal element in New Orleans anyway. See, I
hopped on your department's website today. Among other things, that's
where I was able to ascertain that your real name isn't Jack. It's
Rodney, for which "Jack" is not a typical nickname, but I guess it
sounded tougher, manlier, and so you went with it. Good for you. Cops
should have tough names. But anyway, back to my point.

So, I'm checking out your website, trying to figure out what it is
you have against people with dreadlocks, and I'll be damned if I
didn't stumble across your Twenty Most Wanted list of alleged perps.
And, nothing personal, but it looks to me as though you've got plenty
of criminal types in St. Tammany, without having to worry about
imported black New Orleanians. Funny though, only two of the twenty
most wanted appear to have dreads, or any kind of particularly black
haircut.

No sir, no braids or cornrows on Jesse Buras, a fine upstanding white
member of your community, right there on Harbor Drive in Slidell,
who's wanted for DWI and possession of drug paraphernalia; or Tony
Beasley, also white, also lacking in Rasta locks, who failed to
appear in court after his third DWI. Now this one is especially
funny, seeing as how you criticized New Orleans for being soft on
criminals in your interview. After all, you seem to have a three-time
loser out there regularly pulling out of his driveway on Melody
Street, after downing a case of Milwaukee's Best, and still, you
haven't managed to lock him up yet. Way to go, Sheriff.

Or what about Jimmy Blackwell Jr., a real stand-up guy (white, no
"Chee-wee" hair), wanted for assault and battery, unlawful entry into
a residence and violation of a protective order. Sounds like a
domestic violence problem to me Sheriff Jack. How many times have ya'
been out there to his place on Nottingham Drive without arresting
him, anyway?

Or Kirk Cochran, who appears to not believe in paying child support,
or showing up to face charges over the same? Or Darwin Crowe, wanted
for aggravated battery? Or Randy Ezell, of Covington, who, among
other things, seems to fancy talking dirty to folks on the phone? Or
Walter DePriest, who is charged with being so unsatisfied with his
own life, that he's taken to stealing other folks' identity,
presumably for some financial gain?

Or the two white women y'all are looking for: one of whom is wanted
for passing bad checks (and who has a lovely tattoo of a devil on her
mid-section), and the other of whom failed to register as a sex
offender?

Yes sir, y'all got some real winners out there in St. Tammany, Mr. Po-
lice man. And some of 'em are bald, and some have short hair, and
some look like former Boy Scouts, and some definitely don't, and some
have facial hair, and then again, some are clean-shaven. But even the
black folks, who seem to scare you the most, don't all look a certain
way. A few are women, and none of the men look anything like Bob
Marley, truth be told. Which leads one to conclude that your thinly-
veiled racial profiling is not only racist, but rather stupid-ass law
enforcement, seeing as how your twenty most wanted list seem to have
more of a problem with receding hair lines than anything else.

Oh, and I know that all of these folks I've mentioned are presumed
innocent until a jury or judge says otherwise. But since it was you
who said on TV that defense lawyers should be run out of town--
especially the kind who would defend New Orleans "trash"--(again,
you, with the deep and abiding commitment to the Constitution), I
figure you won't mind me speaking of them as if they had already been
adjudicated guilty.

I dunno, maybe you were just pandering to the David Duke types: folks
who left Jefferson Parish (the original New Orleans white flight
suburb) and moved to St. Tammany in recent years to get even farther
away from black people. Or maybe you'd had one too many Abita Turbo
Dogs before they stuck that camera in your face. Or maybe you weren't
pandering, or plastered: maybe you're just a jackass. But please, the
next time you think about wasting several minutes of taxpayer-paid
time in front of a news crew, remember that that's time you could be
spending tracking down devil-tattooed white check-kiters, or serial
drunk drivers like Tony Beasley--or, for that matter the woman in
Grayson Capps' song, whose inebriated driving led to the death of
five people. Bet she's white too, with nice white person hair.

Of course, I realize his song is fictional. But given your attraction
to fabricated images--like your own fevered perceptions of black New
Orleanians--I'm guessing it's just as good as the truth for the likes
of you. You and all the drunk driving, cell-phone-in-the-car talking,
obscene phone call making, wife beating, identity-thieving, joy-
seeking neo-Nazis of St. Tammany Parish. Now that wasn't very nice of
me, was it?
_______________

Tim Wise is the author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a
Privileged Son (Soft Skull, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial
Preference in Black and White (Routledge, 2005). He can be reached at
 timjwise@msn.com and his essays can be read at www.timwise.org

NOTES:

(1)  http://www.wdsu.com/video/9449345/index.html?taf=no

(2) Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, 2005, www.gnocdc.org.
The GNOCDC site primarily relies on data from the U.S. Census Bureau,
Census 2000, Sample Characteristics, SF3.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

A Picture 06.Jul.2006 17:31

is worth

1,000 insults.

* Business Address: P. O. Box 1120; Covington, LA 70434
* Street Address: 701 North Columbia Street; Covington, LA 70433
* E-mail Address:  stpsol@bellsouth.net
* Business Phone: 985.809.8200
* FAX: 985.809.8285
* Prison Phone: 985.898.2320
* Prison FAX: 985.898.2716
This is what a
This is what a "good 'ol boy" looks like.