One of the joys of being on holiday is of course the extra reading time. Among the thrillers and novels, I read Jill Leovy’s. It’s a brilliant piece of reportage about the many murders of young black men in southern Los Angeles, mainly killed by other young black men.
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The book mixes in a gripping narrative a few individual cases – the dead youths and their families, the immediate events, the detectives working on the case – along with a wider analysis of both the sorry history of the high murder rate and the structures of society and policing that (she argues) largely account for it. Leovy’s fundamental point is that the apparent lawlessness of the ghetto is in fact the law of the streets filling the vacuum left by the absence of ‘normal’ law, and the state’s abdication of its monopoly of violence in such territories. She, like her few heroic detectives working hard to solve every case like any other murder, sees the absence of genuine law enforcement as the root problem.
As she writes: “Gangs could seem pointlessly self destructive, but the reason they existed was no mystery. Boys and men always tend to group together for protection. They seek advantage in numbers. Unchecked by a state monopoly on violence, such groupings fight, commit crimes, and ascend to factional dominance as conditions permit. Fundamentally, gangs are a consequence of lawlessness, not a cause.”
One of the eye-opening aspects of the book lies in its descriptions of how little resource the homicide divisions in the south of LA have been allocated, compared to policing fads such as visibly patrolling streets, or preventive schemes. This extended to under-manning, overtime bans (on murder cases!), not allowing detectives to take their cars home, and even stationery shortages.
Interestingly, the epilogue describes a recent steep reduction in the murder rate, albeit remaining many times higher than other parts of the city and state. Leovy argues that there have been a number of contributory factors including demographic change (fewer blacks and more Hispanics in the city itself) but highlights in particular a significant increase in social security payments to poor black people, specially men, and especially to people coming out of prison. Supplemental Security Income payments give individuals a crucially different set of incentives: “Money translates to autonomy. Economic autonomy is like legal autonomy. It helps break apart homicidal enclaves by reducing interdependence and lowering the stakes in conflicts.” It is easier to walk away from the calling in of tit for tat favours by other gang members. Leovy suggests the Affordable Care Act will reinforce this autonomy. The section briefly notes the high rate of imprisonment too – David Skarbek’sis a great complement to this book, looking specifically at the interactions between gangs and the US penal system.
Still, Leovy concludes, it is important not to lose sight of the key lesson that too little policing and enforcement of the law is corrosive. Every desperately sad story in this book underlines the message.