Ghettoside in Los Angeles

downtown los angeles

I just finished working my way through Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, which is a deep dive into the LA Police Department’s homicide detective unit for South LA. I picked this one up at the library thinking it would be a perfect intersection of my interests: black people, urban challenges, and criminal justice, but I have to admit I came away conflicted.

GhettosideGhettoside follows LAPD Detective Skaggs as he tries to solve the murder of a colleague’s son. Leovy spends a lot of time describing Skaggs’ character — how hardworking and dedicated he is to seeing each case through to the end. She also builds a picture of South LA from the point of view of several residents, especially those who have lost loved ones to homicide. She describes the unpredictable certainty of violence for young black men in the area, and all of the complex ways people try to avoid it.

Leovy’s got a lot of great going on here. She embedded with LAPD to really get deep on the story, and as a result, the book is almost like a fictional crime thriller in how close it shadows detectives working homicide cases. She shows the real burnout that detectives face trying to handle massive caseloads and working without optimal funding resources. And she encapsulates some of the real tragedy of losing family members and friends to violence.

But at the same time there’s a not-so-subtle message that Leovy’s putting out through the book, which is the idea that black neighborhoods wouldn’t be such violent and forsaken places if cities put more of their resources into swiftly and harshly punishing black perpetrators of homicide:

When violent people are permitted to operate with impunity, they get their way. Advantage tilts to them. Others are forced to do their bidding. No amount of ‘community’ feeling or activism can eclipse this dynamic […] [Victims] need some powerful outside force to sweep in and take their tormentors away. That’s what the criminal justice system is for.

Of course it’s true that black people in high-crime neighborhoods wish there were less violence. Middle-class blacks in particular move away from neighborhoods all the time because they’ve had experiences with (or fear) community violence. To pretend that fear doesn’t matter would be disrespectful.

However, it’s overly-simplistic to make one factor seem like the sole cause of a massive issue like black-on-black homicide. As Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently described in his essay The Case for Reparations, black people and black communities have been through countless rounds of violence and marginalization since slavery. A simplistic stroke of “taking tormentors away” would in reality mean gauging more holes into already broken family networks and not solving the root problems that lead to crime, such as unemployment, poor housing, and continued de facto segregation.

Leovy herself notes that when someone is killed in South LA, or when someone snitches, there’s frequently a hit put out on that person. Removing residents to put them in prison wouldn’t stop others from going after the witnesses who put someone behind bars. The cycle would continue.

Again, I think Leovy does have a lot of insightful content here, especially when it comes to noting how black-on-black homicides often get ignored by police structures, and that this kind of violence can thrive within communities that feel abandoned by the rest of the world. It’s just that the abandonment isn’t solely about public safety, it’s about economic empowerment and a host of other issues too.


Header Image: Flickr

Why I Can Only Read So Many Slavery Narratives

slave shackles
National Museum of American History via Flickr

I read Kindred a few months ago and had a hard time functioning normally for a couple of days afterward. The book followed Dana, a black woman from the late 1900s who is involuntarily drawn back to time travel onto an American slave plantation. On the plantation she experiences or witnesses all manner of indignities and injustice – she must contort her spirit to a back-breaking system to stay alive.

I had a similarly strong reaction reading An Untamed State, which, while not about slavery in the 1800s sense, was about modern day sex slavery of a woman kidnapped in Haiti.

Many people have recommend to me A Known World by Edward P. Jones, which does look like a fantastic book and I happen to own it now, but at the same time I’m finding myself reluctant to actually pick it up and read it. Why? Because, the setting of the novel is slavery, and sometimes I just don’t feel up to the emotional toll of reading another book about slaves.

When I was a kid, I lived in a city of very few black people. Most folks were white, some were Asian or Latino, and just a couple were black. I remember in class when we’d talk about slavery and all of the kids would turn to look at me, to see… I don’t even know what they wanted to see, maybe how I was handling it or to try and imagine what it would have been like if I were a slave. The word “slave” was thrown around on the playground as a joke to any other kid, regardless of color. I’m going to make you my slave! The point is, as a young person it was pretty traumatizing to talk about slavery, which meant that I didn’t really decide to think about it or process my thoughts about slavery until I was much older.

As I grew up I came to think about slavery in the Ta-Nehisi Coates sense, of how this one period of intense oppression, of physical and mental hurt has lead to systemic poverty and perpetual criminalization and marginalization of black bodies. Books and movies like Kindred reminded me of the intense servility and subservience that slavery forced upon African Americans. While we’ve now had decades of black pride and racial justice movements to try and recoup some of what we lost, during the time of slavery’s peak and Jim Crow you didn’t have a choice – you had to be obedient and obsequious to whites. Living in Oakland, with the strong history of the Black Panthers grounding my feet, this past is sometimes hard to reconcile with. Quite simply, sometimes, I just don’t want to visualize that subservience.

It’s not that I want to ignore my history or that I don’t think slavery narratives should exist. To the contrary, they are ABSOLUTELY important and I firmly believe in studying the history of oppressed communities. White people in particular need to understand slavery and the legacies it wrought. But for myself as a black woman, there is a point where I’m not sure what more I get out of slavery media. Do I need to see a man getting whipped naked in front of his children one more time? To read about another black woman being raped by her white master? When these scenes and moments are literally a part of my family tree, at what point do I get to look away for a moment to catch my breath? There are times when I just need a little space before I’m ready to go through the trauma of re-visualizing my ancestry. Never ever to forget, only to keep moving.