Jan 8 2007
01:14 pm

Today is January 8. In this young year, there have been no fewer than eight people murdered in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Ms. Helen Hill was number seven.

...shortly before 6 a.m. Thursday, Hill died of a gunshot to the neck inside her home, where police would also find her husband, shot three times, clutching 2-year-old Francis near the couple's front door.

Helen Hill was an artist and filmmaker, an animator by profession; a community activist by avocation. Her husband, Dr. Paul , is a doctor who co-founded a clinic in Treme to help the city's poor. That clinic was lost, along with their home at Clark & Cleveland in Mid-City New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The Globe and Mail continues the story...

Dr. Gailiunas was hit four times in the cheek and arm but was released from hospital yesterday. Their two-year-old son, Francis, was unhurt. He was reportedly found in the entrance of his house, protected by his injured father.

In a city that has become accustomed to tragedy and to an endless strings of crime -- there have been a dozen homicides in the past two weeks -- this latest outrage was just too much.

"I'm so aggravated and angry," said Helen Gillet, an experimental cellist who gathered with about two dozen other friends of the couple outside their modest frame house in New Orleans's Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood late yesterday afternoon. "I'm outraged at what's going on in the community."

Dr. Gailiunas, who worked in a clinic for the poor run by the Daughters of Charity religious order, and Ms. Hill were part of the community of artists, poets and other creative types, refugees from the rest of the United States and elsewhere, who have been drawn to New Orleans because of its singular history and culture.

They all know that the city is bedevilled by crime, but what has happened since Katrina has shaken them to the core. There were 161 homicides here last year -- all in a city that has only about 220,000 people, half the number from before Katrina, giving it one of America's highest homicide rates.

These kind folks had left New Orleans, but returned on Aug. 28, 2006 - one year to the day commemorating the beginning of the destruction of their re-adopted city.

I probably wouldn't have even noticed this news, except for the fact that a friend of mine was a friend of theirs.

His tribute to her, "Helen Hill and the Death of New Orleans," seems quite fitting a tribute for a person I shall never meet. It is also fodder for an honest conversation:

(more after the jump)

I can hold my tongue; what I can't do is follow her example in refusing to give in to hopelessness. Because the only thing that could save New Orleans would be an army of people like Paul and Helen, willing to practice the sacrifice that mealy-mouthed politicians are by now afraid to even call for insincerely, and devoted to helping people with whom they have nothing in common, because it's the right thing to do. And armies of such people don't exist; they're so far from existing that the loss of one Helen Hill is an incalculable blow, not just to those of us who knew her personally and loved her deeply, but to the whole goddamn undeserving world. New Orleans was dealt a body blow, first by nature and then by an incompetent and uncaring presidential administration. but thanks to the corruption and indifference of many of its locals, it was already on the ropes. If what's left of the population there now is willing to tolerate an environment where barbarians prey on the few people willing to help them, to give their time and use their talents to try and [rebuild] something out of the rubble, just because it need [to] be done, then New Orleans is cutting its own throat.

Not that the police can be much of a help in such circumstances, but the fact is that the NOPD lost 188 officers in 2006. Recruiting isn't going well either.

As for how the police are faring with this spate of homicides (Ms. Hill was the 5th of 5 in a 14 hour span; all "unrelated"):

No witnesses to any of the killings has come forward, police said Thursday, begging for help to solve the most recent murders. Assistant Superintendent Steven Nicholas described the recent killings as brazen acts, often committed in broad daylight and, in one case, within a block of police officers.

The article linked in the Times-Picayune above indicates that police officers were responding to a call at a nearby bed-&-breakfast (perhaps one like this?) where a thug armed with a gun was seen wandering the halls, going door-to-door, knocking at each one. If you want to insist that those crimes weren't directly related, then you have one gun-toting predator trawling in a B&B, probably targeting reasonably well-to-do out-of-towners; then, you have another out on the street invading homes and shooting people while they hold their children. And the Marigny (where this particular crime happened) is directly east of Esplanade Ave., and immediately adjacent to the Vieux Carre (the French Quarter). I've walked all the way from the Faubourg Marigny to Congo Square at night along Rampart myself (to get from Snug Harbor to Funky Butt on foot) -- that was probably considered a dicey maneuver at the time; apparently, that would be suicidal now.

Sometimes you stay safe in your naïveté. These aren't punks who are going to bet they can tell you "where you got 'dem shoes." These are armed, desperate thugs that the cops (what few cops there are, for that matter) can't catch.

That's information you need before you decide whether or not you ever want to be personally involved in the post-apocalyptic nightmare that the Crescent City is fast descending into.

I've long been a supporter of the reconstruction effort, but I don't know that I'd put my life on the line to see that city rebuilt. What Ms. Hill and Dr. Gailiunas did was not an intellectual exercise. I've paid nothing (other than what I've donated and what I've written) in material terms. Not only did this couple lose the city that they loved and 90% of their earthly possessions in the flood, Helen Hill lost her life, Paul Gailiunas lost his wife, and their child lost her mother upon coming back. By any meaningful calculation, that is too high of a price to pay for any human being.

If Dr. Gailiunas returns to New Orleans after all of this, he's a far more evolved being than me.

For what very little that it's worth: The families of Ms. Hill and Dr. Gailiunas have my sympathy, my condolences, my frustration, and my anger.

Hildegard's picture

I don't know you or Phil or

I don't know you or Phil or anybody involved in this, but that blog entry - the really long one - is one of the most moving things I've ever read. That last paragraph especially; I cannot articulately comment on it. It's a fucked up world we live in, to be sure, but New Orleans is one serious can of condensed corruption and social derangement. What happened to Helen is deeply personal to those who loved her (and it sounds like knowing her was inextricable from loving her). What is chilling is that in all likelihood for the person who killed her, it wasn't personal. And it may be that the killer was an animal bent on evil, but it's more likely he's just some fuck-up with a gun freakin on PCP, and that's no excuse, but it's more of a comment on how this kind of thing goes down than any hopeless effort at rationalization, which is what everyone will want to do. And your friend comments on that by rightly dismissing the kneejerk liberal (and somewhat condescending) pat conclusion that the killer "panicked." He's being human and letting himself be outraged by her murder, and he has a right to feel that way. Sounds like he's working hard on not letting his anger rule him. He sounds like a really good friend.

Anyway, I'm disturbed and upset. And sorry.

Andy Axel's picture

Yeah, me too. For all of

Yeah, me too.

For all of that, my point was this: I can see why "care" would forsake New Orleans.

And I wouldn't blame it for a hot second.


Dirty mouth language -- it's the new black.

Hildegard's picture

I can, too. But why take it

I can, too. But why take it out on the whole town? I can understand why under those circumstances a man or woman might leave tomorrow. But care? Shit, leave the rest of them some care. A lot of good people down there are still poor with no rap sheet, have never hurt anybody, and they still need medical care and education and training and hope. I wonder how many of them feel sick about what happened to Helen. I'd try to think more about them than the one mean killer on the loose. I'd try, anyway. But I can't imagine walking in the shoes of somebody who loved her.

Andy Axel's picture

The story is old, running

The story is old, running back at least to the Book of Job.

And, if you believe in that tradition, "why bad things happen to good people" is one of those eternal mysteries that we are simply supposed to accept.

It's crap like this that really tests the limits of my capacity to sympathize or to understand or to let go of the quite rational belief that "this sort of stuff just shouldn't happen. Period."

Truth is, it does happen, and it happens with distressing frequency.

The hell of it is that -- unlike a hurricane -- this was completely preventable. That waste of human breath didn't need to pick up a gun on that morning. He didn't need to invade someone's home. He didn't need to pull the trigger.

Some armed jackass-moron-dickwad-nutcase sought to do someone harm. You don't carry a gun around the Faubourg Marigny at six in the morning and go banging on doors unless you're bent on mayhem.

On the one hand, you've got to think: Gee, the situation must be pretty darned desperate to drive people to such ends.

On the other, you've got to think: It never gets so bad, no matter how bad it gets, that you have to resort to armed robbery and murder to get by. There's always an option.

That motherless fuck *chose* to be a murderer.

I can understand why under those circumstances a man or woman might leave tomorrow. But care? Shit, leave the rest of them some care. A lot of good people down there are still poor with no rap sheet, have never hurt anybody, and they still need medical care and education and training and hope.

Such was always the case with New Orleans.

I mean, look -- I'm just trying to put myself in 'dem shoes. Like I said, I've long been a supporter of the recovery and reconstruction. If it was my home, I would probably feel really strongly about it -- and I'd probably be one of the first in line to try to find a suitable home to go back and rebuild.

But New Orleans isn't my home. It never has been. For me, that's a purely intellectual exercise.

It wasn't for these folks.

And for that matter, these people were the care of New Orleans. They went back so that they could participate in the cultural exchange down there. They went so that Paul could practice medicine for the indigent.

I don't think you can find much evidence to impugn the notion that they cared.

I find it difficult to find the words -- but this is just not violence that's going to end itself. It's just not. I wanted to believe it, but I can't. It would just be delusional on my part.

So who do you find to care in those circumstances? Especially given the risk?


Dirty mouth language -- it's the new black.

Hildegard's picture

So who do you find to care

So who do you find to care in those circumstances? Especially given the risk?

Not me, obviously. But plenty of people never give up. When somebody is removed from any personal stake in the tragedy - like me, for example - it's easy to lean back in my armchair sociologist mode and wonder about what conditions create motherless fucks who chose to kill. If I had a personal stake in it, I'd be inclined to give up on whatever those conditions are because, Christ, what's the point? These motherless fucks are hopeless, and whatever conditions breed them are hopeless. Look, I'm not saying that's wrong. At this point in my life, having observed a lot of things near and far, I'd say hopelessness might just be "the new realism." But I wouldn't limit it to this or that city. New Orleans is just a shining - or especially sinister - example of worse things to come. Because these motherless fucks are everywhere, you know.

I don't think you can find much evidence to impugn the notion that they cared.

I don't think I've tried to. On the contrary, they're the kind who never give up, and that's what burns about this story. They were the hope and the care, now devastated. What's nice is, there are still plenty of people like them who will read their story and still try to follow their example. Which is why there is still hope. Things may just keep getting worse if those people try. But death most assuredly prevails when all hope dies.

Two more people like Helen and Paul stepping in to make a difference in the aftermath of this nightmare will do exponentially more good for that city than a thousand demonstrators demanding an end to violence. The city won't do anything about it - well, OK, they'll catch the killer (or somebody who could be the killer), put him on death row, say, "Yay, justice!" and watch their society sink deeper into poverty- and drug-fueled despair.

If that happens and that's OK with everybody, they might as well write, "Helen, you were so naive" as her epitaph.

Colleen's picture

This was a very well done

This was a very well done entry and I understand your frustration and anger over what happened to Helen Hill and the other victims in NOLA. At the Voices of NOLA we've organized a "Virtual March on New Orleans" for people around the country to let their frustration be known. Take a look at the Voices site ((link...)) and please join us by faxing your frustration over the violence in this city.


Colleen Mondor

Andy Axel's picture

Take a look at the Voices

Take a look at the Voices site ((link...)) and please join us by faxing your frustration over the violence in this city.

Thanks, Coleen.

I'd send a ream by fax to the Mayor's office if I thought it would make a difference.

You must have a higher opinion of Ray Reagan Nagin than I do.

That said, I will read the site and consider your request. It's the least I could do.


Dirty mouth language -- it's the new black.

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