Monday, August 3, 2015

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

Many years in the making, this recounting of the deaths of young black men in the neighborhood of South Los Angeles has the intellectual and emotional impact of a rubber mallet struck hard against the head. It is sickening, anger-inducing, and confounding, like listening to the litany of femicides in Book Four of Roberto BolaƱo’s masterpiece, 2666 . Only the facts elicit this reaction, for Leovy’s writing is dispassionate, cool and clear, which is the only way we could get through this horrifying accounting.

Murder rates in South Los Angeles are vastly higher than the rest of the country, a huge proportion of which are deaths of young black males. What strikes the reader first is how few of these cases are solved, or even investigated exhaustively. Police investigators are stymied by the lack of public involvement in their attempts to question witnesses and are both overwhelmed by the numbers of murders and inured to black-on-black violence. They may be sloppy in their collection of evidence, ignore hints given by bystanders, or even fail to get the names right. Unless it touches one of their own, the case may never be solved.

The community can hardly “step up” to give evidence if it means their family will be targeted next by the perpetrators. This inability to cooperate with the police creates a cycle of misunderstandings and inaction and an environment of hostility that perpetuates itself. Only the persistent and timely application of the law—conviction of murders—will break the cycle.

Leovy focuses on one case in particular: the death of the son of a police detective. She follows the case through the investigation, interrogation of witnesses and suspects, trial and sentencing. The whole story is riveting reading. There are so many ways cases in our legal system fail to result in a conviction. That this one case did not fail is testament to the work of a group of dedicated officers who sought justice and actually found it.

Leovy occasionally calls our attention away from that particular case to look at concurrent conditions and investigations in the same or other parts of the city, giving us perspective. What strikes the reader is the utter senseless and capricious nature of the murders. Families with young men play a waiting game, constantly aware of the danger surrounding them. It is an inhospitable, intolerable, and hostile environment in which to live.

Which brings us to Leovy’s closing statements. Perhaps she led us there, writing her case and its solution like a trial lawyer leading to the big reveal: the black-centeredness of the south side of Los Angeles cannot be so ghettoized if it is to survive. Leovy points out the ways that Los Angeles living is appealing—rampant tropical flowers and warm sunshine among them. And many folks resent being chased from their homes (or rent-controlled apartments). There is also the economic reality of not having the funds to move house. But if I was mother to a young black man, I would move away from there as early as I could. Not only does the violence ruin the boy, it kills the man.

Leovy conclusions suggest that crime, especially violent crime, must be adjudicated "with ceaseless vigor and determination" in order for people to feel confident the justice system is working for them. Anything less serves no one. She points out that murder rates have fallen in South Los Angeles since the time she began her writing. Demographic change is one driver:
"the city’s black population is fast disappearing…as the city’s black residents scatter to the exurbs. To some extent, their high homicide rate travel with them. But the change has also coincided with—at long last—a dramatic easing of the residential hyper-segregation that set the conditions for sky-high inner-city murder rates. As black people finally begin to integrate into more mobile and mixed communities, the Monster is in retreat."
Not soon enough for thousands of dead black men.
"Explicitly confronting the reality of how murder happens in American is the first step toward deciding that it is not acceptable, and that for too long black men have lived inadequately protected by the laws of their own country."
I first heard about this book on the NYTimes podcast, which can be downloaded for free on iTunes. This work should be nominated for nonfiction awards this year. It is a splendid job of witnessing.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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