The murder of young African-American males in poor neighborhoods is a terrible blight on American society. It’s something we, as a country, seem to accept as intractable and unresolvable. But it isn't, as Jill Leovy’s gripping new book Ghettoside shows from the inside-out.
Leovy, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, founded the "Homicide Report" in 2007 to provide a balance between the rare, massively-covered, high-profile cases and the ignored, everyday murders of black men on the margins. It’s an incredible work of reportage, a clear-eyed look at a horrible problem: dead people who don't even warrant the back page.
Ostensibly, it’s the story of the murder investigation of Bryant Tennelle, the mildly wayward son of Detective Wally Tennelle, a black police officer, the only one who lives in the Watts area where his son is gunned down.
On the case is the dogged, no-bullshit Detective John Skaggs, an intriguing mix of Harry Bosch and Laird Hamilton. In following a single case, Leovy opens up a world where murders go unsolved year-after-year-after-year, leaving entire communities traumatized. The specificity of Ghettoside uncovers the universal.
The book has garnered raves from the New York Times not once but twice, and she got to sit down on a little program called The Daily Show. I realize it’s trivializing Leovy’s important work to compare it to pop culture, but the "don’t know, don’t show" line from "Boyz n the Hood" kept running through my head. And John Singleton’s movie is 24 freaking years old.
Here are ten ways in which Ghettoside upends conventional crime wisdom.
1.) It’s not too much application of the law, it’s too little.
This is the central argument of Ghettoside from which all others germinate. Leovy writes, "The perceived harshness of American criminal justice and its fundamental weakness are in reality two sides of a coin, the former a kind of poor compensation for the latter." The unsolved killings of black American men is the epidemic. Picking up kids for dealing weed as murder clearance rates languish doesn't solve the problem, it exacerbates tension as the killings continue unabated.
2.) Surprise, surprise, the modern murder problem originated in slavery, codified during Jim Crow, and has only seen moderate improvement since the Civil Rights Era.
Homicide has ravaged the black community for more than a century. As the book says, "The raw agony it visited on thousands of ordinary people was mostly invisible." In the late 19th-century a Louisiana newspaper said blacks killing blacks was "Providence," in 1968 the Kerner Commission said in those killings "law is generally enforced at its minimum," and in 2013, even in safer times, 109 murders came from three high-crime station areas, 43% of all Los Angeles murders that year. Poor African-American men have taken the brunt of American violence since the beginning and the more things change...
3.) Chaos reigns in a vacuum.
Leovy notes, "When people are stripped of legal protection and placed in desperate straits, they are more, not less, likely to turn on each other." Imagine if someone you knew was murdered. Odds are, what, 100% you’d trust the cops to solve the case? Well, if you live in a neighborhood where killings are actually common and less than half of murders are solved, trust in the police plummets and guess what takes its place? Vigilante justice didn't die with the Old West. Ghettoside points out that swiftness and certainty of punishment deters crime, not severity (which is why the death penalty isn’t a deterrent), so long drawn-out oft-unsolved cases instill no confidence in authority, only in the gun that was just tucked into a waistband.
4.) Nature v. nurture matters way less than putting murderers in jail.
Neither the left-leaning leniency toward criminals in the 1960s-70s, nor the "get tough" right-wing approach in the 1980s made a damn thing change. Violent criminals shouldn’t be on the streets, low-level nuisances shouldn't be crowding the prisons. It seems obvious, but investigating, closing, and prosecuting violent crimes should be the primary job of the police. It was Det. Skaggs reason for being, he hated that "the system looked busy, but didn’t do its job."
5.) The system constantly lets police down.
One (of many) dispiriting aspects of Ghettoside is that homicide investigators aren't given the resources they need. The book will quickly dispel any notion that solving inner-city murders is a priority. The detectives are second-class citizens, the overtime needed to close cases dangled-and-yanked-away like a cat toy. It’s sad how many good men get out, but throughout the book they find themselves on an island. "Mentorship is important in policing, and especially in ghettoside homicide work, an art form so underrated that it had been relegated mainly to an oral tradition." Less skilled detectives means less murders put down, the circle continues unbroken, the cycle of violence remains.
6.) It’s all connected.
One amazing, if self-evident fact that’s repeated in Ghettoside is that somebody always knows who did it. Always. Most of the people in these poor districts exist in a small radius, they all know who has beef with who, what problems are brewing, and who is a target. The killings aren't random, somebody is connected to someone else, so there’s a good chance the perpetrator is "at-large" within a few blocks, or he’ll soon return to the scene of the crime. It’s where he lives. That’s why shoe leather detective work is so effective and why Skaggs has a David Mamet quote on the office whiteboard. Like the rich white man says, "Always. Be. Closing."
7.) It’s the black market economy, stupid.
As Leovy explains, the inner-city interconnectedness goes beyond the drug game. The vast underground economy is a "complex system of etiquette, backed by the threat of violence." It includes illegal car repairs, hair braiding, gambling, one off-the-books hustle after another. It’s like in "Goodfellas" when Henry Hill says the mafia's main gig is providing protection for those who can’t go to the police. In other words, "Young men in Watts frequently compared their participation in so-called gang culture to the way white-collar businesspeople sue customers, competitors, or suppliers in civil court." Having police and detectives who understand how Watts works, and how murder must be considered apart from the local economy, is key to curing what ails us. (Sidenote. The mafia was doing the same thing in its heyday. Stop pretending otherwise.)
Leovy doesn’t address the homicides-by-cop in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and so on, but the connection to unsolved murders, mistrust between poor African-American communities and the police, and the deaths of young men at the hands of cops is easy to make. Simply put, ensuring the black lives that are snuffed out on the streets matter would go a long way to helping the ongoing problem. For both sides.
9.) Homicide grief is a living waking death of its own.
There is a look that the parents of murdered children carry with them, a zombie-like stare, a sad blank expression that’s all too common in crime-ridden neighborhoods. There are too many parents burying too many children thanks to the "Monster" as it’s called in Ghettoside. Detective Tennelle had a creed, one he learned from an early partner standing over a murdered prostitute, "She ain’t a whore no more. She’s some daddy’s baby." It’s an American shame we don't see the majority of victims in the same way.
10.) When people truly care for their fellow citizens, good things can happen.
After a tenacious investigation led by Det. Skaggs, two young men were convicted for the murder of Det. Tennelle’s son Bryant.