Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy

Spiegel and Grau, 2015
366 pp

"There were pictures of three colored men wanted in Mississippi for murder. That meant they had killed a white man because killing a colored man wasn't considered murder in Mississippi."  

-- Chester Himes, A Rage in Harlem, 36


The above quotation is something I happened to come upon recently in my reading, and it feels more than appropriate in connection with Jill Leovy's Ghettoside.   Ms. Leovy reveals in her book that African-American men have been "the nation's number one crime victims," only six percent of the population, but a staggering "40 percent of those murdered."  Her book focuses on the area of Los Angeles formerly known as South Central; more specifically, she zooms in on the Watts area, and part of her thesis is that more often than not, "the idea that murders of blacks somehow didn't count."  "Black-on-black" murders in Watts are rarely reported since the media prefers to focus on "the spectacles" -- "mass shootings, celebrity murders" etc.; in the recent past, the police would even report these kinds of killings as "NHI - No Human Involved."  Ms. Leovy's book reveals that despite popular opinion, the victims in this neighborhood weren't just druggies, gang members or people from dysfunctional families -- a number of innocent people from good families, with no history of breaking the law or gang membership also found themselves too often caught up in the violence that plagues this area.  She believes that for the most part, the LAPD failed in its job to keep these people safe; she cites a number of factors that underscore her idea that the scarcity of resources (including policemen that actually care about the people in the community they're supposed to watch over)  that should be afforded to these neighborhoods and to the law-abiding people who live there is, in fact, one of the factors that actually helped to perpetuate the violence, leading to the rise in gang-administered "justice."   As she notes, "The system's failure to catch killers effectively made black lives cheap," and the failure of the system to "respond vigorously to violent injury and death" paved the way for homicide to become "endemic."

 In examining the epidemic of violence that plagued Watts, she focuses on the case of Bryant Tennelle, an innocent, non-gang affiliated African-American and the youngest child of the family.  Bryant's father was a detective out of Robbery and Homicide, and he had made the decision years earlier to raise his family in the area. He had a nice home, nice neighbors, and the people there felt some measure of safety knowing that there was a cop in their midst.  His decision to live there contrasts the choice of many LAPD officers who opted to live in more distant neighborhoods or out of Los Angeles completely, for example in Simi Valley (where I used to live, and where there's an LA cop in every neighborhood).  Ms. Leovy's in-depth examination of all facets of the investigation into Tennelle's death reveals a multitude of problems not only in the context of the community (the crisscrossing of  rival gang territories, reluctant witnesses, etc), but also the problems in the LAPD -- unconcerned, unmotivated policemen,  the lack of resources (especially desperately needed overtime to tackle the sheer volume of cases still unsolved as well as those ongoing), problems in finding and training just the right people to work in the neighborhood ... and this list goes on.  Ms. Leovy also reveals that in fact there are those rare individuals who actually care -- and will go to great lengths not only to solve their cases, but also to help people when they can. One of these people is John Skaggs, "the antidote" who refused to believe that any life was cheap -- and went well out of his way to provide some measure of justice for the victims' families, and in the case of Tennelle's death, protection and help for the witnesses.

Jill Leovy has walked these streets for years; she was also embedded at the Seventy-seventh Division of the LAPD -- and in 2006, she started "The Homicide Report" at the website of the Los Angeles Times,  an attempt at providing  a "comprehensive, day-by-day accounting of every homicide in the county." When she started working on her book in 2008, she embedded herself yet again, accompanying the detectives of the Southeast Bureau as they made their way to "crime scenes, court hearing and interviews;" she also spent evenings and weekends with the families of victims, attending funerals and just walking the streets.

This book's publication coincides with recent events that have raised awareness of racism and the abuse of police powers, especially in connection with African-American communities.  It is an issue that is (I feel) of immediate concern and one which has crucial implications for everyone in this country. Not everyone will agree with Ms. Leovy's idea that more policing is necessary in neighborhoods with the highest crime rates; not every cop has the potential to be another John Skaggs or his devoted/caring colleagues in the LAPD.  In fact, while I was researching Ms. Leovy and her work on "The Homicide Report," I came across an article relating an "open letter" to the Madison, WI, police chief from the Young Gifted and Black Coalition calling for NO policing in their communities in the county:
"Our ultimate goal is to be able to hold our own communities accountable and to expel what we consider an occupying force in our neighborhoods. Our people need opportunities for self-determination, not policing."
Ghettoside has indeed been an eye-opener of a book, and while I don't agree with everything Ms. Leovy says here, the biggest idea that every reader of this book ought to come away with is that discounting or ignoring the violent deaths of African-Americans -- just because they're living in troubled communities and because they're not white --  under any circumstances is just wrong and should absolutely not be tolerated.   Discounting or ignoring the problems that affect lives in these communities  is also untenable.  Obviously, this is not a new problem that is limited to the neighborhoods in South Central in modern times; the quotation I started with shows that in 1957, writer Chester Himes was aware that black lives had no value as opposed to the lives of white people, and this attitude has been perpetuated (especially in the context of the criminal justice system)  from the beginning of our nation's history.   That's the real problem -- an even bigger one is how to solve it.