Sunday, March 18, 2012

Too much shooting; too little honest attention to realities

If I'd simply come across the title of David M. Kennedy's book, I don' think I'd have bothered to read it. Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America sounds like something written by a self-absorbed egomaniac, not an earnest work of popular criminology. I'd have missed something worth reading.

Fortunately, I heard Kennedy interviewed on Fresh Air and found what he had to say fascinating, so I gave the book a try. This is a man with a plan -- a plan to reduce killing in mostly Black communities. He could have been numbed by several decades of trying to find solutions; instead he's outraged. Here's how he introduces what our society is up against:

Everybody knows crime is down these days, it's a national success story. America's homicide rate hit almost 10 per 100,000 in the peak years; it's now about half that. But not for black men. Black men are dying, overwhelmingly by gunshot, at a horrendous pace. In 2005, black men aged eighteen to twenty-four were murdered at a rate of 102 per 100,000 (white men of the same age: 12.2 per 100,000). Recent data show that, even as homicide overall continues to decline, black men are dying more. …

Working to curb gang violence alongside Boston police, he discovered that if you could understand that gang members are rational within the terms of their setting, you could come up with rational measures that quickly cut the number of homicides, even while all the attendant horrors of poverty and inner city powerlessness still ruled in Black and brown communities. But he also learned that most intervention didn't continue to work because the three intersecting "communities" living within the agony -- law enforcement (culturally if not literally white), "ghetto" dwellers, and the street thugs -- had contradictory and destructive ideas about the others' realities. You could make short term gains, but the structures of power, poverty and policing made for back sliding into violence and misery.

The real problem, though, is not in our currently ineffective strategies, and the answer to the problem is not just to substitute new strategies for the old ones. The real -- the deep -- problem is what happens between communities, and how that generates the appalling situation on the ground: the communities that look at each other and say, This is your fault; the communities that see each other as toxic and malevolent; the communities that cannot imagine working together for a common purpose; the communities that do not understand how profoundly they want the same things; the communities that do not see how they are backing each other, and themselves, into corners none chose, none wants. To see what's really going on, we have to see this. …

…law enforcement has in general written these communities off. There is a powerful conventional wisdom in the law enforcement circles I live in: that these communities are at heart uncaring, complicit, corrupt, destroyed. Nobody cares about the crime, the law enforcement narrative goes, or they'd raise their kids right, get them to finish school, have them work entry-level jobs -- like I did, like my kids do -- instead of working the corners. They don't care about the violence; nobody will even tell us who the shooters are. … As long as this is how law enforcement sees the neighborhoods, they will continue to occupy them, stop everybody, arrest everybody, send all the men to prison.

The second important community is the community in even the poorest, hardest-hit black neighborhoods. It's vital, caring, resourceful; it wants what any community wants: to be safe, to prosper, for its sons and daughters to prosper. It's not happening. It's not safe, and they're not prospering. The community looks around itself, at the poverty, the violence, the drugs, and asks, why? And it has an answer. Many in the black community believe that this is all happening because we -- the outsiders, the cops, the white folks, the powerful -- want it to happen. All of it: the drugs, the killing, the destruction, all of it. …

That last insight is what this book is best at -- Kennedy describes for law enforcement and society at large how police methods and policing look to people on the wrong end of it. Here's lots more -- pay attention.

… In the hottest neighborhoods this is the dominant public narrative: The government brings the drugs in so they can put our kids in jail so the cops will have work and the private prisons can make their dividends.

Let's start with the fact that the idea, common currency in these neighborhoods, that the government is running a carefully organized racial conspiracy against black America is not as crazy as it sounds. Up until the late 1960s, when the civil-rights movement finally won out, America was a carefully organized racial conspiracy against black America. Written into the Constitution: blacks are three fifths of a person, free states will regard fugitive slaves as property. …

In these neighborhoods, the historical experience of abuse under color of law continues. It is a kind of arithmetic truth that the worst of this is in the most desperate neighborhoods, that the worst law enforcement, and the worst of law enforcement's unintended consequences, gets focused on the already most damaged, most alienated, most suspicious communities. Where the police break the law all the time. All the time.

What happens on the other side of the door when the drug guys go in: Everybody there is shouted down, manhandled, put on the floor, handcuffed. Every door opened, every room entered. Shoot the dogs, sometimes. Cereal, flour, milk poured into the sink, onto the kitchen floor. The baby's toys and videos broken open. Drawers pulled out, dumped, everything pawed through, on the floor. Beds upended, mattresses slit, furniture upended, cushions slit. The guys in armor are relieved that they haven't been shot, haven't had to shoot anybody; they're laughing, stomping around, tearing the place apart. Neighbors gather outside, watch through the door and windows, hear things. Most places when it's over the team piles out and leaves, doesn't even secure the shattered door. Anybody not arrested gets cut loose, shocky, crying. It's horrible. If it weren't the cops who'd done it to you, you'd. . . call the cops.

And we need to understand the way all this looks to the community. At best, law enforcement is not solving their problems. They are not safe, they are not secure, drug dealers own the streets, their kids are getting shot, they're getting shot. … Given the truth of our American history, it is all too easy for angry black communities to believe that this is not just incapacity: that it is malign. … Add the suspicion, or perhaps the conviction, not in fact all that wild-eyed, given history, that outsiders might be seeking to control and to oppress. It becomes not so hard to understand why conspiracy might seem a live option. Overseer, slave catcher, Ku Klux Klan, cop, DEA -- all seamless.

Residents want to know why their kids, good kids, get stopped all the time. Ministers want to know why they got pulled over and treated rudely, got treated like a drug dealer. People want to know why they're getting treated like this, the white folks in the suburbs aren't, and they're the ones driving in to buy dope. They want to know why the county is building a new jail when the ceilings in the school are falling in. They say the cops are selling dope to the corner boys. They want to know why their cousin got tuned up by the cops who arrested him. They want to know why nobody's talking about how the government is bringing the drugs in. They want to know why the cops aren't doing their job.

When this is what law enforcement looks like in poor communities, you can't end violence. Nothing works.

Kennedy maintains vigorously that the police don't want it this way, that the cops turn numb and cynical because they know the "war on drugs" they are required to carry on is a fruitless politically convenient fraud that doesn't make life better for anyone. He insists they are not racist bullies -- they just look like a racist occupying army from the 'burbs to people in the afflicted communities.

The relentless law enforcement we see is intended to save lives, to protect neighborhoods, to bring order to the streets. I have spent my adult life with the men and women who do the work, and I know this to be true. I have no time for the easy armchair cant that says this is all about profiling and racism and bias in the criminal justice system. It simply is not so. Nobody who has ever actually been on these streets could believe it for a moment. There is disparate treatment in law enforcement, no question, but that's not what's driving the problem.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, explicitly responded on NPR to Kennedy. For all his good will, she says he is still not getting it.

… you know, much of David Kennedy's work I agree with, but I think it's very easy to kind of brush off, as he does, the notion that the system operates much like a caste system if you are, in fact, not trapped within it.

... I have spent years representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color; and attempting to assist people who have been released from prison, quote-unquote "re-enter" into a society that never seemed to have much use to them in the first place.

And in the course of that work, I had my own awakening about our criminal justice system and this system of mass incarceration. Probably 10 years ago, I might have shared David Kennedy's view, but I don't any longer. My years of experience and the research that I have done has led me to the regrettable conclusion that our system of mass incarceration functions more like a caste system than a system of crime prevention or control.

Now, that's not to say that many of the people who work within it, including my own husband who's a federal prosecutor, aren't well-intentioned. Many of them are. But the problem is that the structure of the system guarantees that millions of people will be swept into the system for relatively minor crimes, the very sorts of crimes that are ignored on the other side of town, swept into the system, branded criminals and felons and then stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement.

I live in one of those neighborhoods that struggles with all this. A predominantly Brown neighborhood, not a Black one -- and that makes a difference. The Mission is not a really bad place, but still a neighborhood where street murders happen with some frequency; where parents fear shootings when their children play outside; where police hang posters hoping to get leads on crimes. A gang injunction forbidding certain individuals to congregate covers the neighborhood.

I've seen the cops treat residents respectfully --and I've seen them swarm like an invading force. I know most of us just want to be safe and unmolested as we go about our lives. I don't have any answers. But I'm gratefully to both Kennedy and Alexander for demanding that we not turn away from something very bad that goes on under our noses.

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