The violence has changed me, but this is home
Voices on Violence arose as a response to the Mother’s Day shootings in New Orleans that injured 20 people. Comprised of one-on-one interviews with a diverse group of residents, the series explores why and how people live here, how they assess risk, and what specific things they believe can help change the cycle of violence in New Orleans. The interviews will appear daily this week at NolaVie, as well as on air at 4:45 p.m. on WWNO radio, 89.9 FM, the local NPR affiliate. Please join the conversation; send commentary, responses and interview suggestions to [email protected].
Who: Valerie West, 44, a New Orleans native who returned home after years of travelling the world as a military wife because her kids wanted to graduate from high school in the city in which they were born. A housekeeper at Ochsner who lets loose every Sunday as an active member of the New Orleans second line culture (her club is the Original New Orleans Lady Buckjumpers). A teen mother who saw all three of her kids go to college. A woman whose life was forever changed by violence.
In her own words, here’s what Valerie has to say about:
The second line culture: We’ve been doing this for a long time. This goes back to when slaves and free people of color were only allowed to celebrate and get together on Sunday and enjoy the presence of each other. Now, we’ve taken that culture into something totally different. I’m out there every Sunday. I’m deeply rooted in the culture today and the Lady Buckjumpers are my sisterhood.
I didn’t go to the second line on Mother’s Day. I was on my way there from work, but there was a presence that did not allow me to go.
The day her son was murdered: My son, Gerald West, was killed on Easter Sunday two years ago. I went to the Pigeontown Steppers that day. I was there, went home and took a nap and, maybe about 10 o’clock, I got a call that my son had been shot at a local daiquiri shop. I was in disbelief. I mean, I could not believe that my child had gotten shot. I made it to the scene in about 10 minutes and my child was pronounced dead.
A 30-year beef: My son was killed because of a beef that has gone on since I was a little girl. I was maybe 10 years old when the first killing started. And it’s just been going back and forth with retaliation killings for almost 40 years with the same beef. “I killed your cousin, you killed my cousin.” Back and forth. That’s been going on for a long time.
When my son was killed, there was a lot of people saying, “We’ll take care of it Miss Valerie, we’ll get them.” But I said no. I did not even want my child’s name attached to someone being retaliated against because I know the pain.
The system fails us. They leave it up to the young people to take care of the situation. They let the little murders pass on until it’s something big. And as citizens we’re afraid to speak up because there is not enough protection for our families from retaliation.
Her life since the murder: It has made me an angrier person dealing with my son’s death. I am a victim of a violent crime. My son was murdered. It makes you bitter, angry, hurtful. It’s unexplainable about the violence.
I mean every day of your life you go through this again. It’s like watching a movie. I can replay it in my mind. The hurt gets better but it’s still a continuous thing. I couldn’t understand the pain someone goes through until I had to sit in that chair and watch my child in a box dead. It’s unbearable some days.
The killers: To the young people who are doing it, you have no idea what state you put a family in with the hurt, the pain, the anger. Just dealing with death. Based upon what? You mad at a person? You can’t get life back once it’s taken from you.
Stereotypes: I was a teen mother whose three children all went to college. Statistically, they say my kids would be teen parents, but all my kids went to college. My oldest son owns his own business. My daughter is a manager and in college right now. My son who was murdered at 22 had never been arrested, he went to school and was supposed to start a new job the day after he was murdered.
So you can’t stereotype who this crime is going to happen to. It’s just randomly out there for the gangster to choose the chapter of your life and change it.
The risk of living in New Orleans: I believe in a higher calling so I trust and believe that there is nothing I can do to make me safe. I can’t stay inside, we’ve had cases where bullets come through the houses. I just go about my life.
I’ve traveled all over the world, been in the military. The violence has changed me a little, but it’s still worth it, because it’s home.
Voices on Violence: Conversations about life in New Orleans is a NolaVie/WWNO series that features individual interviews with the city’s residents. If you would like to be interviewed, or to comment on the series, email [email protected]
Brett Will Taylor is a southern storyteller whose previous column, Love NOLA, appeared weekly on NolaVie. He now shares his stories at Brett Will Taylor: A Storyteller and his Stories. Follow him @bwtshaman.