Friday, April 15, 2016

Murder in black L.A.

A cinematic book that mostly shares the police view of Black-on-Black murder in Los Angeles might seen an odd choice for a reader struggling to respond to an epidemic of police shootings of Black and Latino men in my own city. But Jill Leovy's Ghettoside: a true story of murder in America is gritty reporting, worth reading even if from within a skeptical frame.

The title is what homicide cops call the Watts or South Central sections of the city. For ambitious officers, it is a career sink, a swamp of futility from which to escape as fast as possible. The homicide squad is even worse for ambitious cops; most murders are never solved, witnesses won't cooperate, and there aren't even proper desks and computers for the overburdened officers. Journalist Jill Leovy embedded with these officers for a decade and reports what she saw. Her book has the makings of a conventional TV cop show, following heroic detectives who overcome obstacles to get their man (or sometimes tragically not.)

And yet, Leovy is a diligent and thoughtful reporter of ghastly realities. She recounts the bottomless grief of mothers of the murdered; the precarious existence of scared young men on hard streets where being in a gang might seem a life preserver, till it isn't; and the gross stupidity and indifference of downtown law enforcement leaders, politicians, and the media that simply ignore ninety percent of killings of Black men. Her detective exemplars call most of the rest of their department "40 percenters" -- time servers willing to accept that only that fraction of murders lead to an arrest. They react in disgust when an outbreak of gang violence causes the brass briefly to flood their neighborhood with uniformed patrol cars, and to conduct hundreds of stop and searches and parole and probation checks -- but to make no arrests nor stop the murders. The emergency even forced detectives into their unaccustomed "ill-fitting blue uniforms."

Detectives disliked looking like patrol officers, since people were then less likely to talk to them. The uniforms added to the sense that the neighborhood was under siege, but did nothing to insert justice into it. The spectacle of Rick Gordon, one of the city's most effective investigators, compelled to play the role of blue scarecrow at the very moment when his craft mattered most was a microcosm of how police had long functioned in the United States: preoccupied with control and prevention, obsessed with nuisance crime, and lax when it came to answering for black lives.

I couldn't help but recall this description when standing amid a room full of blue-clad officers in the SFPD meeting on Wednesday where our cops tried to impose their story on their killing of Luis Gongora.

Leovy offers an historical explanation for how South L.A. became a killing ground where so many young Black men shoot each other. When Black people flocked to southern California in the Great Migration, the white convention of treating their communities as outside the rule of law came along with them.

Criminal law in the United States has always displayed a tendency to go through the motions. ... But where things got really bad was in the South. In that region's long, painful history of caste domination and counterrevolution lurks every factor that counters the formation of a state monopoly on violence. ... After the Civil War and Reconstruction, ex-Confederates murdered their way to control again ...

White conservatives favored legal systems that looked the part, but still achieved their racist intent -- a "winking" system that, by design, just went through the motions. Southern legal institutions appeared to observe constitutional due process, but real power was held outside the law. Getting away with murder was key to the white-supremacy project. Impunity is a stencil of law; it outlines a shadow system....

For blacks, this system meant being killable. Blacks were "shot down for nothing" by whites. But that was not all. They murdered each other too -- in fields, labor camps, and at Saturday night gatherings where there was "just so much killing going on." Their rates of death by homicide were similar to -- and at times higher than -- what they would be decades later in northern inner cities. ...

White people "had the law," to quote a curious phrase that crops up in historic sources. Black people didn't. Formal law impinged on them only for purposes of control, not protection. Small crimes were crushed, big ones indulged -- so long as the victims were black. ...

It might not seem self-evident that impunity for white violence against blacks would engender black-on-black murder. But when people are stripped of legal protection and placed in desperate straits, they are more, not less, likely to turn on each other. Lawless settings are terrifying; if people can do whatever they like to each other, there are always enough bullies to make it ugly. ... Beyond this, white people saw to it that solidarity among black people was kept at a minimum. ... For people of all colors, the South was stew of factors that produce homicide ... A flood of black migrants, schooled by the lawless South, swept into cities such as Los Angeles. They brought with them their high homicide rates and their tendency for legal self-help. The police they met were not unlike those back home. LAPD officers shot and killed many people and were free with their fists ...

But L.A. cops were different in important ways: there were more of them and they were a lot more intrusive. ... Southern black migrants were used to police who ignored them. But these cops were ever-present, hounding them with aggravating "preventive" tactics. [In the 1980s and beyond] the pendulum swung. ... Get tough policies became political winners. ...Since it is not the harshness of punishment but its swiftness and certainty that deters crime, black people still had good reason to feel unprotected. Murderers still went free, while the new crime suppression tactics bore more than a passing resemblance to the old Southern wink. ... Segregation, economic isolation, and the flawed workings of American criminal justice created the same conditions anew. ...

Having explicated this, Leovy sums it up as the thoughts of one of her cops: "the system looks busy, but it didn't do its job."

Ghettoside is a deep dive into the Los Angeles Leovy describes in this historical frame. For its immediacy and compassion for victims and shooters alike, it's worth reading. But I did wonder -- might maintaining a violent cage within which blacks will kill each other be the real job? The question seems obvious but unasked here.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

I think the police have a terrible job and Bill Clinton made a good point (I think it was him) that Black Lives Matter should also be caring about black on black crime. We, who don't live with this kind of violence, have no clue what it must be like to walk into it or live with it.

Years and years ago we used to drive through LA more often than we do now; so this may not be current info; but I remember one trip, the public rest stop off the freeway in one of the barrios was closed due to vandalism. You could see the damage from the freeway. I mean it made no sense but they had ripped out toilets and painted graffiti on the walls. Why? And then another trip through Watts where the McDonalds required a quarter to use the locked bathrooms because they were trying to avoid vandalism. This problem has been ongoing a long time and the solution might be breaking up neighborhoods of poverty where the poor don't all live together, but as it stands people cluster into their own niches (except in rural America) and not sure the poor or middle want to integrate based not on color but economics...

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