Thursday, July 23, 2015

Jill Leovy: Ghettoside

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This is the book of my reading year, and the one I think everyone should read. I loved Love, Nina, and it's a great read, but it's not a MUST read. Thank You for Your Service was last year. Jill Leovy's Ghettoside: this year, must read. It's short and readable, so you have no excuse, really. The only fault I found, really, is that the writing is a tad uneven, which is a strange thing for a book that's so hard to put down. It's almost like a couple of times I felt like I was reading something I had already read in different words a few pages before. This doesn't happen very often, and maybe it was just me. I read the book in under 24 hours.

Jill Leovy is a reporter from Los Angeles. She reported on crime in the Seventy-seventh Street Division which includes Watts and the famous "South Central" areas for about 10 years, including years of time when she was actually given a desk in the station with the detectives. She knows what she's talking about. For awhile, she had a blog called "The Homicide Report" on the LA Times website that had a daily accounting of every homicide that occurred in LA. She did three things (and probably more): she kept data on the killings, and she learned about the police who solved (or didn't solve) the cases) and she met the people involved in the murders- the victims, the suspects, the doers, the families, the witnesses, etc. And what she learned, and what is so important and clear in this book is that one of the main ways that our system is broken is by not catching people who kill other people.

It is not polite, she says, to discuss black on black crime. (Read my twitter feed right now, and you'll see that this is true- black twitter, rightly, is pushing back on white people on twitter who are dismissing discussion as "oh, black people kill black people.") But Leovy wants to talk about this more. While there are certainly people and police offers who think that black people in the ghetto killing other black people in the ghetto is [insert offensive/ridiculous/not worth retyping thing that signifies okay/appropriate/etc.], Levoy says that this attitude, this failure to catch the doers of violence, "the state's inability to catch and punish even a bare majority of murderers in black enclaves such as Watts was itself a root cause of the violence... perhaps the most terrible thing in contemporary American lie. The system's failure to catch killers effectively made black lives cheap." She goes on: "Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic." Basically, it is true, she says: black people in poor black areas like Watts ARE killing each other at a terrifying rate. She's not going to argue with the numbers; she's even tracked and created her own numbers over ten years of reporting. But what she is going to argue with is any concept that this is a black-people-problem. It is a systemic problem, and that problem is that the state isn't doing it's job. 

#blacklivesmatter has mostly focused on police violence towards black people. It is a huge and hugely important topic. Leovy's book came out in 2015, but the way publishing works, I'm sure that the hashtag wasn't as prominent when she was writing it. I think reading this book importantly expands the concept without saying it: she quotes Weber's concept of the "state monopoly on violence": "the government's exclusive right to exercise legitimate force. A monopoly provides citizens with legal autonomy, the liberating knowledge that the government will pursue anyone who violates their personal safety." That monopoly is broken where people don't believe that the government will protect their personal safety. Places like Watts, East and West Oakland, etc. Places where black people have routinely been treated like property or chattel by the police, places where the police routinely shoot when they could arrest, etc. As Leovy notes, police have routinely been busy using strategies of "control, prevention, and nuisance abatement rather than responding to victims of violence." Then the courts punish black people at different rates for the same crimes- heavier for black on white than for black on black. The media takes more notice of "awful" or "heinous" or "unusual" crimes: crimes where white people are the victims. Black lives don't matter. 

Again, Leovy points out that this is a difficult argument to make: most people know that the penal system is unfair to minorities, specifically black men. But what she's saying is that the two issues go hand in hand: the police don't want to solve the serious crimes, or to take back control of the state monopoly on violence, so they bring in black man after black man on trumped up drug charges, then cycle them through a shitty prison system. What they don't do is "fail to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate." You don't have to believe this incredibly short and inadequate summary of Leovy's amazing book- take three hours and read it yourself.

Oh, also, there's a plot, so you won't be bogged down in this kind of theoretical stuff. Following the plot, you will learn and believe this way better than I could ever explain. Leovy has some protagonists from both the LAPD and from the troubled, boiling streets of Watts. A long time LAPD officer's son is killed- they live in Watts and many other LAPD officers feel like it had only been a matter of time. The detectives in the area are flawed but serious characters that you can't help but liking- they don't care who the victim of a crime is, they believe that they deserve justice, and that the killer needs to be found. Witnesses and family members- they all have stories and opinions and lives, just like us. Like, they're human beings, too. I read this book right before I was called to jury duty for a murder charge, which I may write about later. I wondered about the police officers that caught the subject. I wondered if they really cared about the victims (who were not black) or about the accused (who is black). I wonder about the #blacklivesmatter movement and if it can step out to make the unpopular argument that black on black violence is a thing, and that that doesn't mean that black people as a whole are responsible. I wonder if society can hear that argument without resorting to our old, tired, antebellum notions of inferior black people. I wonder if society can think complicated thoughts about policing. A book that makes you think this many things is absolutely a must read.