A couple of months ago I was reading an article about gun violence in America and a factoid caught my attention: “Eighteenth-century [homicide] rates among settlers on the wild edge of American colonies were almost exactly those of South-Central [Los Angeles] blacks in the tw
enty-first century.” What a simple yet unexpected comparison, and one that could make for an interesting revisiting of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis”– what does it mean for America to be defined by such a violent and lawless state? I was astounded, and the statement lodged in my head somewhere. So did the source of the quote, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy.
When I eventually got my hands on a copy, I was in for a bit of a surprise. I had mentally swapped “The” for “A” in the subtitle. I was expecting a sweeping statement about homicide (in particular gun violence) in this country. While Leovy does offer up a sweeping thesis (we’ll get to that in a bit) and some other clever points of reference for lawlessness and violence (Medieval European blood feuds! The !Kung of the Kalahari! Immigrant enclaves in The Netherlands today!) the book is fundamentally focused on South Central Los Angeles.
Leovy, longtime LA Times reporter, embedded with homicide detectives in one of the South Central police districts in two stints and covered the homicide beat for a blog, spending a decade (2000-2010) focused on “The Monster” (L.A. detectives’ name for the plague of homicide in their city). Her thesis is this, that “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.” Leovy shows the split personality of the LAPD: on one hand, leadership that sees “preventative” policing (which often uses racial profiling and cracking down on minor drug offenses) as the way forward and the homicide detectives whose jobs (which they fully believe in) are made tougher by those same “broken windows” policies which sow distrust of the police force. (Side note: Leovy notes that one of the neighborhoods central to her narrative literally doesn’t have any broken windows and is, by any metric other than murder rate, a very nice area)
This thesis is fleshed out by numerous stories of homicides and the people tasked with figuring out who committed them, all of which provide context for the central narrative: the murder of Bryant Tennelle. Tennelle’s death is typical in that he was a young black man killed by a gang initiate because of tenuous gang connections (he was wearing a hat associated with a local gang), but it is also profoundly different because Tennelle was the son of a homicide detective.
If homicide flourishes in places where retaliation is a kind of informal law, then the solution, Leovy suggests, is good police work that solves murder cases and takes the perpetrators off the streets. The obstacles for efficient policing are manifold, but largely a lack of human resources and the communities deeply ambivalent regard of police. There are simply not enough well-trained homicide detectives and folks have been burned by the police (either through inability of detectives to close cases or the brutality of beat cops).
Leovy is a great writer and there are a few things she does exceptionally well in this book. She manages to never reduce the victims of homicide to statistics, forcing the reader too see the full person and the hole their death has left in their families and communities. Several of the bereaved mothers are also bereaved aunts, bereaved sisters, bereaved wives, and bereaved grandmothers too, sometimes several times over. One of the first images of Ghettoside is Barbara Pritchett receiving the sneakers of her murdered son Dovon, and by the epilogue, she’s lost a cousin too.
If it seems like Leovy’s report is entirely hopeless, it isn’t. If her argument that what South Central needs is more top homicide detectives rings hollow, it’s because I haven’t mentioned John Skaggs. Detective Skaggs is all chiseled jaw and rigid world-view, but most of all, he’s a good detective. And not in the way Adrian Monk or Hercule Poirot are good detectives; his work is the persistent knocking even when a potential witness won’t answer the door. Skaggs makes connections with witnesses and victims’ families that close cases. And he cares deeply about his work and training others to be good at it too.
Ghettoside is a true-crime retelling, a meditation on the meaning of justice, and a jeremiad rolled into one. And it’s worth a read.
Reading Ghettoside made me think of the responses to a tweet by Akoto Ofori-Atta, a writer at The Trace, an organization dedicated to reporting on gun violence in the United States. It makes a sobering read: