Topic: The Razzoo Killing
The Big Razzoo
A recent killing dredges up a long history of racial tensions in the French Quarter
By J.B. Borders
I can’t shake the feeling.
I thought I would be over it by now, but it still hasn’t passed.
Every time someone or something calls my attention to the New Year’s Eve homicide at Razzoo’s night club in the French Quarter, I feel this rush of emotions – anger, for sure, but also disappointment over the bungled political manipulation of the situation and a sense of frustration, I suppose, about not being able to reverse this tragic occurrence, this needlessly wasteful loss of a young brother’s life.
I know I should be inured to it by now – unfazed by the death of yet another black man on the streets of New Orleans. There are so many. They pop up so frequently. It’s not supposed to be a big deal. But for some strange reason, this one matters more than most – to me, at least – and I’ve been trying to understand why.
For starters, I have this eerie feeling that I’m connected to this killing in some way that’s not apparent to me yet. I didn’t know the young man, Levon Jones, the 25-year-old college student from Atlanta who was choked to death by three white bouncers at Razzoo after an altercation broke out when, for some reason, one of Jones’ buddies was denied entrance to the club. I didn’t know Jones but I have the sneaking suspicion that if I ask around enough, I’ll know someone who knows someone in his family. And if that turns out to be the case – if I actually know his parents or his grandparents or aunts and uncles – then I will only feel worse.
Like many New Orleanians, my out-of-town friends have this understanding with me: they know they can give my name and phone number to their children and friends and other “good people” who are coming to the city for visits. If anybody gets in a jam or needs some advice about what to do, see, hear or eat when they come to town, they can give me a call.
I make it a point, though, not to impose on the younger visitors, especially my friends’ sons and daughters. I realize that part of the magic of coming to New Orleans when you’re in your twenties is partying like it’s your last days on Earth, uninhibited by the ties and obligations to your world back at home. So I try and give these young adults the kind of latitude I appreciated when I was a young man on the road in a new town on a Saturday night trying to find some fun and excitement.
But with such a huge surge in recent years in the number of black tourists coming to town, maybe people like me need to make more of an effort to let visitors like Levon Jones know that New Orleans can be a treacherous place to party – that it is deadly in ways you won’t read about in the tour books and entertainment guides.
As the father of a man roughly the same age as Levon Jones, I’ve begun to feel an almost parental obligation to help give these young brothers a little advice when they come to town. I don’t want to dampen their fun; I just want them to know they can’t come here and naively wander around these streets and other public spaces unaware of the ancient, long-standing hatreds, fears and prejudices that color some people’s reaction to regular, stand-up black men. White kids can afford to be clueless but our children don’t really have that luxury yet.
The word “razzoo” has fallen out of regular use these days, but when I was a kid, it was the catch phrase for all manner of good-natured pranks friends would play on each other. In general, though, to razzoo someone meant to snatch some property or possession right from under their noses after momentarily distracting them with a silly ruse of some sort or the other.
We used to pull these stunts a lot when we were playing marbles, especially if we were losing at the time. In the midst of the game, the prankster might point upward and ask his intended victim an earnest-sounding question: “What color does the sky look to you?” Normally, the unwary target would look up and mull the question over for a second or two. The answer, of course, would be “Blue.” Meanwhile, the prankster has snuck some of the victim’s marbles away from him and as soon as he hears the word “blue”, he responds with a cry of “Razzoo.”
At other times, a mischievous kid would just walk up to someone and snatch a bag of potato chips or a candy bar right out of their hands and run off down the street laughing, “Razzoo! Razzoo!”
It’s amazing how often this foolishness worked and how much it tickled us every time someone succeeded in pulling off such a prank.
It’s ironic that something so tragic should have occurred at a place with such a playful-sounding name. It’s regrettable that the police and so many other people could have stood by that night and merely looked on as the life was choked out of a young man for twelve excruciating minutes. It’s a little too creepy and voyeuristic that it would all be captured on videotape, though I doubt that recording will ever make it to America’s Funniest Home Videos or to Cops, for that matter.
More critically, someone should have anticipated that something like this would happen someday and done something to prevent it. Instead of being so concerned always about protecting white folks from black folks, someone should have developed some sort of contingency plan for protecting black folks from white folks someday, even in the French Quarter. It’s that failure of imagination – that a black man could be a victim and not just a victimizer – that resulted in the death of Levon Jones.
I know where Razzoo’s is but I’ve never set foot in the place. I didn’t have anything against it before the Jones killing; I just stopped spending time on Bourbon Street ages ago. I’ve outgrown its offerings. The thrill is definitely gone. And for a number of reasons, I’m a much better man for having moved on. But it’s slowly dawning on me that part of the reason this New Year’s Eve killing keeps gnawing at me is that I still have issues with the culture of Bourbon Street.
When I was a teenager in the mid-1960s, my buddies and I would venture down to the French Quarter from time to time. We were not welcome there. Even after we became legally old enough to enter some of the strip joints on the street, the barkers at the front doors of these clubs pointedly told us they didn’t want our business.
Once, five or six of us systematically walked down the street and stood in front of every club just to see how the doormen would react. I guess we had nothing better to do with our time. The doormen were all white and since several of them cursed us with racial epithets, it didn’t take much for us to figure out that they didn’t want us looking at the near-naked white women dancing behind those doors because we were black.
At that age, however, we didn’t care that the women were white. All that mattered to us was that they were naked. Naked Women! They could have been purple and we still would have been gawking at their uncovered breasts. (In fact, that’s one of the reasons we spent so much time in the libraries back then. National Geographic always seemed to have these photo spreads featuring breast-baring women of Africa and the South Pacific. That we learned some geography or cultural anthropology in the process was purely accidental.)
Sometimes, we would play games and come up with devious means to see how much of a free peek we could get into the strip joints. We would break out of our group, for instance, and try to blend in singly with a group of white male tourists who would invariably assign one member of their delegation to ask the doorman questions while the others took as long a look as possible at the performance inside. Our mission was to get as much of a view ourselves before the doorman spotted us and had to decide how to block our angle of vision without losing this potential sale.
One night a doorman we were pestering opened up his jacket to reveal a pistol stuck in his waist. He threatened to do harm to one of the members of our group. The confrontation quickly escalated. Our buddy lost his cool and became almost uncontrollably incensed. There was some pushing, some cursing and some calls for the police. We pulled our friend away and hightailed it through the crowd and off to a side street before the cops could intervene on the bar’s behalf.
These battles and confrontations on Bourbon Street were part of a larger war that was taking place then in the public spaces of New Orleans – and my friends and I were smack dab in the middle of the mess. If it wasn’t Bourbon Street, it was Canal Street and its various stores and shops. Or it was City Park or the playgrounds on Napoleon Avenue. We were intent then on asserting our presence, our right to be in those places and we scuffled from time to time with those whites who sought to prevent us from doing so.
We always knew these skirmishes could turn deadly but, unlike today, we never started out thinking that we had to kill anybody or be killed to make our point. We just knew we weren’t going to take any crap from anybody. End of story.
Though race relations were slow to change in New Orleans in the 1960s and ‘70s, things did begin to improve considerably on Bourbon Street about 25 years ago. The racial tension was no longer visibly on the surface. More black folks started patronizing the clubs. Other black folks began working as doormen, dancers and musicians. In fact, black folks seem to be doing everything but owning something on Bourbon Street these days, though I can’t say that for certain because I am no authority on the place.
Nevertheless, despite the occasional negative racial vibes that surface during the Bayou Classic and the Essence Festival, I would have been willing to bet anything that the contest for the peaceful integration of African Americans on Bourbon Street was a closed issue. And then came this killing on New Year’s Eve.
Maybe I was wrong to imagine that we had secured anything on Bourbon Street. Maybe that’s the lesson of Levon Jones’s sacrifice. Maybe we still can’t let our guards down, even at play time. For the minute we relax, someone is likely to snatch something of value from us and run off laughing, “Razzoo! Razzoo!”