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Five Thoughts About Baltimore Organized Into a List Because the Last Thing Anyone Needs is Another Think Piece About Baltimore.
Here’s one thing that is often lost in the general storyline: When a neighborhood is overwhelmed by a never-ending cycle of violence and poverty and joblessness and poorly performing schools, the real victims are the people who live in those neighborhoods. When teachers and cops and others we need to trust become overwhelmed and cut corners, give up, or turn bad, the real victims are the people who live in those neighborhoods. When young people are killed by violence (gang, drug, domestic, police-related), the real victims are the people who live in those neighborhoods. When the media comes to town, the same is true. And when false public perceptions are created, the same is true. And when peoples’ real lives and daily experiences are turned into political theater, the same is true. And, stay with me here, when riots break out in these neighborhoods, the real victims are the people who live in those neighborhoods. Seeing a trend here? Believe it or not, it’s a trend that is too often missed.
I used to teach high school at a bottom-five school in Brooklyn. Shortly thereafter, I wrote a Masters thesis on the use of metal detectors in schools. I went back to my old school and surveyed students, teachers, and parents on school security. Here’s the overwhelming response I got. First, every kid in the school knew that the metal detector system was flawed and offered them little or no protection. The vans carrying the metal detector staff and equipment showed up once a week and parked right in front of the school and left after first period. That was the extra security the school got. Second, almost every kid in the school still wanted the system in place. They knew it offered little extra security, but they wanted it anyway. Kids living in violent neighborhoods don’t want fewer police and less protection, they want more of both.
Don’t oversimplify the role of police in these situations. Should we demand justice when police specifically or systematically mistreat people? Hell yes. Should we lump all police and the broader profession into this pile. Hell no. We celebrate these folks when they run into buildings everyone else is running away from. They have a remarkably tough job for which they are wildly underpaid. The odds and resources make many of their goals unachievable. Yes, we need to be able to trust them, so when they break (or obliterate) that trust, justice must be served. And yes, the police in our most violent neighborhoods have a difficult, thankless, dangerous job that often fails to reward those who exhibit the best traits we could hope for. Both those things are true. That’s one part of what makes this such a difficult problem to cover and understand.
There are not too many arrests and convictions in poor neighborhoods. There are too few. The list of unsolved murders in rough neighborhoods is a key factor that drives hopelessness, feelings of worthlessness, and ultimately more lawlessness. If we want to really live up to the phrase Black Lives Matter, we have to identify and punish those who end those lives. For a great overview of this topic, and a look at victims and cops (both good and bad) in one of the country’s roughest areas, I highly recommend Ghettoside by Jill Leovy. Here’s a quote from the book: “Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides … The system’s failure to catch killers effectively made black lives cheap.”
And finally, a quick anecdote from back when I was teaching African American Literature at that high school in Brooklyn. On a day when the class was discussing Native Son by Richard Wright, we had a guest student who was visiting from Los Angeles. This was the only time during my New York teaching career when I wasn’t the only white person in the class. We had reached the point in the novel where its main character Bigger Thomas had committed his second murder and was hiding from police in Chicago’s tenements. I began that day’s class with a simple question: If you lived in neighborhood where Bigger Thomas was hiding and you knew his location, would you tell the police? The question set off a heated debate in the classroom. A third of the students said that they wouldn’t turn Bigger in to the police because the justice system was too biased and Bigger would never get a fair trial. Another third of the class said that they’d feel compelled to turn him in because, regardless of the failings of the justice system, murder is morally wrong. The remaining students explained that they too would turn Bigger Thomas over to the police; but for a more concrete reason. They didn’t want to be the next victim. A violent person on the streets simply increased the likelihood of getting killed. I then asked the students how many of them had either been victims of a gunshot or knew someone who had been murdered. Every hand in the class went up. At the end of the class, our guest from Los Angeles approached my desk to let me know that her Advanced Placement English class had just completed the same novel. During the two weeks they spent on the book, not a single issue we had just debated ever came up. She said that if I had asked the same opening question to her class, every student would have said that they’d turn Bigger over to the police. They might have even thought the question was a joke. All of these events — and the coverage of them — can be perceived entirely differently through different sets of eyes. Forget about walking a mile in each other’s shoes. We don’t even see the same meaning in the words we read on a page.