Markets are telling. The best indicators of a region’s demands are the items it keeps in plentiful supply.
In New Orleans, residents demand ways to honor their slain loved ones. With a murder rate that has been tops in the nation for years, perhaps it’s no surprise that a number of custom T-shirt companies specialize in wearable memorials.
The city’s Times-Picayune newspaper wrote in 2004 that RIP tees were becoming as common as flowers at funerals, but filmmaker John Richie found more recently that, for many T-shirt shops, the shirts are a mainstay of their revenue.
Lawrence Elzy, owner of Exclusive Tees in the 7th Ward, told Richie during a documentary shoot that there are roughly 20 shops like his in a 3-square-mile area.
“If I’m too busy, my customer will go to another shop, and if they’re too busy, their customer will come here. There’s not a shortage,” he said.
When Elzy first opened, he wanted to focus on birthdays, family reunions, “things more of the living,” but he quickly realized it wasn’t a sound business plan.
“You can survive without doing Rest In Peace shirts, but your business will never grow - because of New Orleans.”
In five days in New Orleans, I saw about a dozen of these shirts. In the Calliope Projects, someone had put a pink RIP shirt on a post to remind passersby that Keira Holmes Gordon was gunned down last year just days before her 2nd birthday. A woman who lost all four of her brothers to gun violence arrived at an interview wearing a shirt bearing their likenesses.
At APEX Youth Center, Keith Singleton, 18, wore a hoodie memorializing his pal, Joseph “Joker” Elliott, who was slain in January. During a photo shoot a couple of days later, Justin Elliott wore a different shirt in honor of Joker, his cousin.
“It’s just basically to remember that person or to show that this was my friend, this was my loved one,” Elzy said during the documentary. “The day he died, the next morning you’re in the shop getting a shirt and you’ll get a shirt every day until that person is buried.”
Today’s story on CNN.com explains how violence in New Orleans isn’t like violence in other cities. Studies have found it is rarely gang-related, silent witnesses abound, killers often opt for the outdoors over the privacy of tucked-away structures and the city’s young people, usually in their teens or 20s, are the most common victims.
Richie interviewed Elzy as part of the documentary’s efforts to address the violence, as well as the innovative ways in which many residents are working to combat it.
At first, Richie gathered seven of the city’s youngsters and gave them cameras. He taught them to shoot and edit and asked them to discuss with their friends how the killings affected them.
“No matter what we were talking about,” Richie said, “it always came back to killing – very quickly.”
The plan to base the movie solely on the kids’ footage didn’t work. In a city where snitching can command a death sentence and expressing fear or emotions makes you prey in the streets, the kids clammed up on camera.
So Richie went with a more straightforward approach. “Shell Shocked” is in the editing phase as Richie’s Scrub Brush Productions scrounges up the funds for the final cut.
The movie, though incomplete, features crime scene footage alongside interviews with people from all walks of life talking about the depth of poverty in certain neighborhoods, the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina, the accessibility of guns and the importance of mentoring.
Several mothers who lost their sons to violence become emotional during their interviews, as does Elzy when he describes customers’ reactions when they come to pick up their RIP T-shirts.
“Sometimes I get up and walk off because you have to watch parents and friends cry,” Elzy said. “You want to cry, too, but I just get up and walk off. Maybe I just go and use the bathroom sometimes or I go take a walk like I need some air or something. Some of them, I give them my number, tell them if you need someone to talk to, call me.”
Criminal defense attorney George Gates told CNN he wonders if the way New Orleans deals with death plays a role in young people’s perceptions of passing away. Along with memorial T-shirts and tattoos honoring loved ones, the city’s jazz funerals offer a “celebration of life” after the burial.
The brass band plays solemn dirges en route to the cemetery but puts on a more lively show of funk, jazz and Dixieland as mourners leave the burial grounds. The “second line” celebrates by dancing, stepping, flagging handkerchiefs and pumping umbrellas in honor of the person just laid to rest.
The New Orleans-raised Gates said he worries it may give young people a skewed perspective on dying.
“They don’t see death. … They see a celebration in death that that person never had in life,” he said. “They see a huge party and what they think about is that party when they die.”