With a homicide rate higher than that of Chicago, New Orleans ranks among the most violent cities in the United States. It’s a city with centuries of racialized inequality and exploitation that, like the river currents that led to its founding, threaten to drown residents in their consequences. A little over half of New Orleanians live below the poverty line, struggling to get by. Almost a quarter of city residents experience chronic food insecurity—a policy euphemism for occasional starvation—meaning there are 87,360 folks unsure they’ll be able to survive in a city famous for its food culture.
As a historian of slavery, emancipation, and labor in Louisiana, I understand the extent to which these problems are interrelated—how poverty begets poverty; how suffering generates violence. There’s even a wealth of cognitive science behind the idea that exposure to poverty and violence alters the way our brains function and process information. These stresses make it more likely, for a variety of reasons, that we’ll fall victim to the poverty and violence if we’re exposed to either. They also make it clear why violence and poverty in New Orleans, with its historical commitment to racial exploitation and terror, are often most pronounced in majority African American communities.
As a native New Orleanian, I was excited to meet Charles Anderson roughly ten years ago when we worked together to launch a summer camp in the New Orleans neighborhood of Broadmoor (Full disclosure: I also met LaToya Cantrell, another candidate for mayor who was crucial to the effort, on the same project. NOLA is fortunate to have such passionate and qualified candidates, and I wish them both well). Seeing the dedication of outsiders to transforming our city for the better was really moving, though I understand why that also rubs some folks the wrong way. Charles’ art and activism have been a fixture in the city for the last decade, so when I learned Charles would be running for mayor, I knew I wanted to interview him.
Our conversation follows below, which I’ve edited lightly for length and clarity.
Charles, you’re not a native of New Orleans. If I remember correctly, you’re from New Jersey, so what brought you to the city and kept you here?
I came to New Orleans 10 years ago specifically because I wanted to help stop the epidemic of violence in the city. I was 25 at the time, and I saw a march organized around ending the violence, and I was so inspired by it; seeing the people here who desperately wanted change. So I took all of my stuff and—I had never been here—I moved down here and started trying to get involved in the movement.
And what kind of projects have you been involved with since you moved here?
The program that I’m most proud of, which I helped start here, is called CeaseFire, which takes a public health approach to stopping violence. They employ “interrupters” who go out on the street and help intervene and deescalate conflicts within communities before they become violent. And it’s extremely effective in the areas where it’s present.
The place where we first started was Central City, which is historically the most violent area in New Orleans. You’re looking at ten to twelve murders per year in a ten by ten block area. Since CeaseFire was implemented there, we’ve seen 220 straight days without a murder. We’ve had 100 straight days without a shooting. So these interrupters—many of them have lived a violent life and turned things around—they obviously know what they’re doing, and they’re making an incredible difference in that community.
And it sounds like you’re helping to do and support amazing work there. I think the big question on everyone’s mind, though, is what made you want to run for mayor?
First and foremost, I’m concerned about the murder epidemic in our city. That’s why I moved to New Orleans in the first place. That’s what continues to drive my work here. I said from the get-go that I’d be willing to do anything for that cause. And when I heard rumors of plans that mayoral candidates were coming up with, I got pretty concerned and wanted to throw my hat in the ring.
I believe that CeaseFire needs to be not only retained by the city, but expanded across the whole area. These are proven solutions that no other candidates are talking about. I know that if we invest $30 million dollars into CeaseFire over four years, we can cut murders in the city by 50%.
So what does that look like locally, say, in the Uptown, Mid-City, or Gentilly neighborhoods?
Well, even this building we’re in right now—the St. Roch Market – is in a neighborhood that’s among the top five in the city impacted by violence. We have far too many shootings and killings in this area. Not to say there isn’t great stuff going on here with great people. But this is an area where violence is highly contagious and spreading. So what CeaseFire would do is come in and set up a CeaseFire site—a ten-by-ten-block area that they walk and they listen to community members.
When conflicts arise over, say, $300 dollars of drug debt, they go and intervene and make sure that debt is paid and that the situation doesn’t escalate into violence. And that helps prevent retaliation—what I mean when I say violence can be contagious in neighborhoods where it’s a chronic problem—and this helps stabilize these communities. There are these little pockets of violence that account for a significant percentage of the shootings in the city. And this is something we can do to put a stop to that.
Most folks are probably unfamiliar with thinking of violence as a contagion. Maybe you can explain—what do you mean when you use those words?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think the old method of looking at violence as something we need to punish our way out of clearly doesn’t work. We have, here in Louisiana, the highest incarceration rate in the world. And we’re still dealing with crippling levels of violence.
The CeaseFire model uses a public health approach. It looks at violence as a disease because violence is something that someone can catch. If you’re repeatedly exposed to violence and trauma, you become significantly more likely to act violently and to become a victim of violence. So when you look at the way violence spreads, it spreads like a disease. What you do to end that epidemic is to go to the carriers and people that have the highest risk, and you make sure that those folks with the highest risk don’t catch the disease, act violently, and spread violence in their communities.
So it’s not so much that there are some “bad actors” in these communities, as much as that the communities themselves have been infected, through a variety of circumstances, by an epidemic of violence.
That’s exactly right. It’s almost like violence is in the air. It’s just unavoidable in these places until we help intervene to limit the spread of this trauma.
I think a lot of New Orleanians know you as an artist and activist rather than a politician or a “suit.” I wonder if you wouldn’t mind sharing what led you into art and how it relates to your antiviolence activism.
Absolutely. When I came down to New Orleans, I met a lot of people who were impacted by violence. And one of the people I met a mother who had lost her son to violence, Ms. Deseree, who became a really good friend. She saw that I had a creative side and asked me to draw her son, Yoshio, who had been lost to violence in 2005. I hadn’t really drawn anything since high school, but I did it and she absolutely loved it. She started singing and dancing, and I realized that I could folks like Ms. Deseree, who had been impacted by violence, heal through art. I guess it’s also a way to pay my respects to victims, many of whom are dehumanized in the media, and embrace them—to show another side of them.
So I started this phase where I was just drawing everyone involved in my life. When I draw people, and I do a lot of portraits, I try to show that I see them as their best selves in their best moments. I think it shows what we’re capable of. It’s a way to elevate what we see around us to view new layers of possibility; to envision a world of peace. When you’re involved in activism, you can wind up explaining a vision to people. Art allows me to show them how I see them and what we, as a community, could be.
So what about your subjects inspires you to draw them? Are there any themes or inspirations that guide you?
That’s a really good question. I think that most of the time, the people that I draw are people I know. I know their character; their personalities. And getting to know them, I see moments where they show who they are; where they reveal themselves to be peace warriors. That’s the sort of stuff that gets me really excited.
You’re hoping to address issues of violence in your campaign that are really widespread and deeply rooted in your community and in the city of New Orleans. What do you think are the roots of this violence and how can you help to address these and begin the process of transforming our city?
In New Orleans, we have 16-25 year-olds whose need are chronically unmet. And they see it as necessary to take someone’s life over five dollars of weed. That’s an actual example of Kadeem Wise, who was shot down in 2007 over a five dollar debt for marijuana. And it’s something, to me, that shows that we can stop violence, but we have to understand its roots. In areas that are chronically poor, where violence is already epidemic, community members feel like they don’t have any options. So it’s crucial that we intervene to help people fight additions, to get training and transportation to make it easier to get a job.
We can’t keep trying to gain peace through enforcement. We have to listen to the members of our communities. These people want peace in their neighborhoods. We need to give them the tools and funding they need to make that a reality.
Over the years, Charles Anderson has held many positions and organized many events as an peace activist including: organizing the Moment of Silence (2007-2010), PeaceFest (2008-present), aiding in organizing “Yes, We Care” (2010) and many shootings responses, coached baseball at Victory Youth Training Academy (2011, 2013-2015) and Community Coordinator for Solutions Not Shootings (2011). Charles has a vast experience in organizing around real solutions for gun violence. In 2011, Charles decided to pursue a career in art as a way to spread the message about CeaseFire. Over the past five years, he has expanded that mission and began to draw people who were involved in the New Orleans peace movement.