Like James Forman, Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own (see the entry about this wonderful book elsewhere in this bibliography [here]), Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside examines crime in inner-city minority neighborhoods through an unconventional lens. Ghettoside focuses on African-Americans as victims of police indifference, in contrast to today’s (very legitimate) focus on African-Americans as victims of police excesses. Leovy argues that the alienation in many poor black communities is as much a result of under-policing as over-policing, resulting in the failure of the state to provide safe, secure communities, as it does in less impoverished communities throughout the United States. For example, Leovy points out that in the years covered in her book, African-American males comprised only six percent of America’s population, but nearly forty percent of those murdered each year. The comparative lack of resources directed at this “epidemic” and the dehumanized labeling of most of the violence as “gang related” (even though in 2008, for example, in one-third of these cases the victims were not combatants, just people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or who were mistaken for someone else) has resulted in the breakdown of the criminal justice system in these communities at every level.
In an interview with Bill Keller of The Marshall Project, “What We Have Learned Since Rodney King: Not Nearly Enough,” [here] Leovy describes her findings (all of the quotes below are Leovy’s from the Keller interview):
“The safe take safety for granted. They assume that they are safe because safety is a state of nature, and that violence is an aberration. They fail to realize that, historically, it’s the safe people who are the strange ones…[The safe] don’t have to negotiate with killers. Their neighbors don’t coerce them. Their living rooms are not firebombed if they break ranks with the community.”
“[Safe people] are the beneficiaries of institutional progress that has shifted the burden of conflict resolution from individuals, families, clans or sects to a highly- developed criminal justice system, rooted in democratic processes, controlled by an independent judiciary, and governed by the rule of law. They don’t know how lucky they are.”
“The real problem is that formal justice is materially lacking among populations that suffer high rates of violence. It’s missing, and it must be supplied…More than half of killers of black men go free in cities all over the country. The unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County posted solve rates for homicide in the thirty-percent range through some of the most violent periods of the Eighties and Nineties. This translates to thousands of killers operating with impunity over decades in America’s poorest urban enclaves–dozens per square mile…And that is just a glimpse of the uncharted depths of the impunity problem, a statistical dark zone, where no good information exists on the frequency of non-lethal crimes, assaults and threats. The resulting lawlessness is a cruel form of deprivation afflicting tens of thousands of mostly poor, minority residents of America’s inner-cities, who get roughed up, robbed and raped with appalling frequency and live in daily fear that their sons might be killed. Its remedy must be to supply official justice, not just engage in “dialogue.” Violence is not a problem for coaches and pastors to solve; the state must do its job.”
“[V]iolence among black men in places like Watts and Compton is anything but senseless. It is, in fact, extremely useful…and insofar as it produces results and can be used with impunity, it represents a crushingly decisive application of sense. Those who wield it stand to gain.”
“What is so strange and interesting is that the political back and forth over policing has been so consistent, for so long, with the same durable themes and complaints sounded on both sides, not just since Rodney King and the millions of dollars spent on police reforms after the L.A. Riots, but since long before, back to the 1960’s, even the Thirties and Forties. Much has changed and yet nothing has. We are chasing each other around a box.”
“Self-styled progressives, especially, often talk as if legitimacy-building were merely a matter of creating “improved relations” between police officers and minority residents of urban neighborhoods…This is as hollow, in its way, as conservative talk of self-generated culture and moral renewal in black neighborhoods. [These things] may have value, but as a cure for lawlessness I think they miss the core point…The state’s job is to intervene in conflicts…and it must do so unequivocally and consistently.”
“So, police need to annoy and alienate fewer non-offenders, and arrest more serious, violent offenders…and concentrate on ensuring judicial resolution of serious crimes…Violent crime in America today, as in generations past, begs for more systematically thorough and effective investigation, and clean, vigorous prosecution.[Leovy describes how computers, cars, office supplies and tape recorders are in short supply in the police districts that investigate crime in poor minority neighborhoods.] A mother who grieves for a son lost to an unsolved homicide should not go years without hearing from police about new investigative efforts. A witness who testifies in spite of threats should not be abandoned to deal alone with the long-term consequences. [Leovy also describes how real the fear of members of these communities plagued with crime are of being injured or killed if they show up in court to testify as witnesses.] Homicide units in high-crime areas should be solving nearly all murders, not half or less. The system will build legitimacy through its constitutionally constrained yet vigorous, response to people who are hurt, violated and bereaved by violence. The criminal justice system must deliver.”
“Obviously, I don’t think black Americans generally ignore black-on-black homicide. That has not been my experience. Especially those living in high-crime neighborhoods do talk about the problem of homicide, all the time. In fact, they agonize over it–it’s just that no one is listening to them.”
“[T]hose who haven’t experienced this world first-hand can’t know what it’s like. The hardest part to handle for any frontline worker is the public indifference. That is the part that can make you crazy–much harder to handle than the sight of blood. Victims get no press coverage, no protests. I beg to differ with those who assert otherwise–I have been to the scene of hundreds of homicides, and closely tracked their aftermath over many years, and the lack of press coverage and public outrage is conspicuous. It feels like no one cares…There is also a lot of just plain muddy thinking and silly assertions far too casually thrown about for an issue of such crushing weight.”
“The institutions of criminal justice, so remorseless in other ways in an era of get-tough sentencing and ‘preventive policing’…remained feeble when it came to answering for the lives of black murder victims…Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death…homicide becomes endemic.”
These are powerful words. Particularly noteworthy is Leovy’s refusal to line up with one side or the other in the Black Lives/Blue Lives dichotomy. Leovy knows from experience that poor minority communities are too often policed in brutal ways. But she also recognizes that it is obscene that the majority of poor minority residents of these communities, who are law-abiding souls just trying to live life like the rest of us, must live among murderers and other predators, and that our society has been unable to provide them with something so basic to a civilized society as personal security.
Both the brutalized policing and the mortal danger to the residents of these communities are indecent. As is the fact that so many Americans only seem to see one or the other of these two, very related problems.
 “The most ordinary thing – the walk to school, a bike ride around the block, a trip to the supermarket – could just go wrong. And when it happened, we were only hands, and those hands pledged to us, and then the fire some of us kept between the belt buckle and waist.” The Beautiful Struggle, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Spiegel & Grau, 2008, p.33.