This Is What Democracy Looks Like
Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

Community and Hope In the Face of 500 Murders

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My late mother-in-law, Linda Davidoff, trained me to notice the placement of a story in a newspaper. This morning's story in the Washington Post about the astonishing murder rate in Chicago this year was on the front page, above the fold, top left.  "Pay attention to this!", the Post commanded. 

Needless to say, this story about homicide statistics made the news while just about every single one of those 500 murders went unreported--in the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, or anywhere else.  On average, newspapers in major cities cover only about 10% of the murders that take place in any given year.  That's what prompted L.A. Times reporter Jill Leovy to start the "Homicide Report" blog in 2006 in which she attempted to report on every single murder that took place in the city that year.  That effort led to Leovy's much-acclaimed book, "Ghettoside:  A True Story of Murder in America" which I just finished last weekend.  It was a truly eye-opening book about black-on-black violence and I can't read about what's happening in Chicago without wondering if Leovy's analysis of Los Angeles would apply there.

Leovy builds a thoughtful and nuanced case that comes to a surprising conclusion:  the problem in high-crime urban neighborhoods is not over-enforcement by the police.  The problem is under-enforcement.  

Considering the absurdly high rates of incarceration in this country, that might sound like an strange conclusion.  And Leovy's book came out early in 2015, before the most recent round of stories about police harassment and shootings of African Americans.  But Leovy is adamant that good policing--especially good detective work--is a necessary part of the claim that "Black Lives Matter".  If you don't prosecute a murder, then you are sending a clear message that a person who was killed was worthless.

According to Leovy, in the 13 years prior to the homicide she describes at the opening of her book, just 38% of the 2,677 killings of black men in Los Angeles led to an arrest.  This is a crucial statistic, Leovy argues:  "...history shows us that lawlessness is its own kind of order.  Murder outbreaks, seen this way, are more than just the proliferation of discrete crimes.  They are part of a whole system of interactions determined by the absence of law."  I've thought a lot about community, but I hadn't thought about this--a community will police itself unless it is persuaded to give that power to someone else.

In Chicago, the homicide clearance rate in Chicago for 2016 is 19.3% as of August. Yet no one in any of the stories I've read today about Chicago refers to Leovy's reporting or her conclusions.  The Chicago police superintendent Gary McCarthy offered this analysis:

"It's not a police issue, it's a society issue," Johnson told reporters outside police headquarters after a long weekend that saw 65 people shot, 13 of them fatally.

"Impoverished neighborhoods, people without hope do these kinds of things," he said. "You show me a man that doesn't have hope, I'll show you one that's willing to pick up a gun and do anything with it.

"Those are the issues that's driving this violence. CPD is doing its job," he continued.

But if having no hope leads to violence, what kind of hope makes people consider other options?  Leovy gives a clear--and convincing--response.  People need to hope that the police will arrest, prosecute and convict violent offenders.  While it may well be true that many of the young men in the high-homicide areas lack hope that they will live a long life, they rebuild that hope only when they have enough confidence in the police that they will not try to retaliate for crimes committed against them or their family and friends.  And what's more, all the other people in the affected neighborhoods need to have enough confidence in the police that they are willing to talk to detectives and willing to testify in court.

The Washington Post story said almost nothing about the people who were shot this weekend, but it did report on the many people throughout the city who responded to activist Phillip Jackson's call for a "Community Peace Surge".  There were street festivals and block parties and neighborhood cookouts.  Neighbors challenged each other to leave their houses and to proclaim their commitment to living in peace instead of cowering in fear.  I'm sure these actions created hope.  They helped everyone see that good things are still possible in their neighborhoods.  But their efforts only go went so far.  Things were quiet on Friday and Saturday, but on Sunday 21 people were shot.

Towards the end of her amazing book, Jill Leovy offers this reflection:

The Monster [Leovy's term for the epidemic of murders of young black men] arose from what was meanest and most vicious in human nature.  But the dark swath of misery it had cut across generations of black Americans was a shadow thrown on the wall, a shape magnified many times the size of its source because of a refusal to see the black homicide problem for what it was:  a problem of human suffering caused by the absence of a state monopoly on violence.

The Monster's source was not general perversity of mind in the population that suffered.  It was a weak legal apparatus that had long failed to place black injuries and the loss of black lives at the heart of its response when mobilizing the law, first in the South and later in segregated cities.  The cases didn't get solved, and year after year, assaults piled on upon another, black men got shot up and killed, no one answered for it, and no one really cared much. (pp. 307-8)

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