Little Man With a Gun in His Hand: An Open Letter to Sheriff Jack Strain, of St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana

Published on Black, July 13, 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 various and sundry forms of 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 (Ah, ah, I said maybe). 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?



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

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

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