Hit the latest Zocalo lecture last night at the Central Library downtown. The topic, presented by L.A. Times reporter and Homicide Report writer Jill Leovy, was the problem of disproportionate murder rates of young black and Latino men in Los Angeles.
The focus of the talk was really more on the black communities, since that's where the numbers are really bad. It's a huge problem. Nationally, 5 out of 100,000 people were murdered last year. In Los Angeles county the rate for Latino men was 50 out of 100,000. For black men it was 176 out of 100,000.
For me, the talk wasn't particularly eye opening. The thought she presents on the why of these murders parallels my own and boils down to this: When the formal authority is weak, the community will create and enforce its own authority. In a lot of ways you see the same thing in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There are a lot of factors that go into this. A community living in fear of killers who get away with it, a distrust of the system that they see as letting them get away with it. Witnesses routinely don't talk about what they've seen for fear they'll be killed. In an environment like that violence becomes currency. It is used to settle disputes, redress wrongs, send messages.
One story Leovy talked about, which didn't make it into the papers, was about a man who had been burned to death. Seems he owed some money and a couple guys showed up, dowsed him with gasoline and lit him on fire in front of a dozen witnesses, who let him burn. It was originally ruled a suicide because none of the witnesses would say anything about what had happened. Eventually, though, someone came forward. I'm sure the killers are still free.
The anecdote above underscores another contributor to the problem; the lack of media coverage. A lot doesn't make it into the news. A lot of murders go unreported. You hear about the sheer number of deaths and you have to wonder if you heard about any of them. Chances are you didn't.
It's understandable that when people around you are being murdered and no one's saying fuck all about it that maybe you'll get a little jaded. Maybe you'll start seeing it as it's all being swept under the rug.
And it's not just the lack of scrutiny that contributes to that sense. When twenty-three day old Luis Angel Garcia was shot and killed in September the LAPD had up to 20 detectives on the case. Somebody had killed a baby, after all.
Compare that to the other 14 homicides in Rampart that month. They were given over to just six detectives.
It's things like this that create the sense that the people outside these communities don't care. These murders don't get the media coverage, the solve rate is less than 40%, people are dying and no one seems able to stop it. After a while, even the people who want to believe the system works, that the system is for them, are going to give up.
And it was that thought that really got me thinking. Do people care? It's a good question.
I'd like to think they do, but I'm really not sure. The talk was pretty full of a wide range of people. All of them there, seemingly, because they recognize that this is a problem. But that's still a tiny speck compared to the rest of the population.
What about me? Do I care? The simple fact that I'm asking this question points me toward yes, but I don't think it's that simple.
These murders aren't in my neighborhood. They're not among my friends and family. My chances of being killed, even in Los Angeles, which, let's be honest, isn't the den of murder and sin the Mid-West would like you to think, is remarkably low. Our overall murder rates are not that much higher than the rest of the nation and, in fact, are lower than they've been in more than twenty years. If you only look at the murder rates of whites it actually starts to look a lot like Europe.
I don't live in a "bad neighborhood". I have a full time job that allows me to own my own home. I can split hairs on my ethnicity all I want, but the fact remains that I'm as white as the next guy. My life hasn't been touched by murder and violence in years and I make a point of keeping it that way.
What am I really doing to help solve the problem? Obviously, I can't go be Batman and beat the crap out of the bad guys. That wouldn't solve the problem, anyway.
But is talking about it here enough? Is there more I can do? Should do? Want to do?
I ran into Will Beall at the talk last night. He mentioned LA Noir to a couple of friends he was with and I was surprised to find that one of them has actually read this blog.
So in writing this I think I've come up with my answer. Yeah, I do care. I don't know who reads this but I do it anyway. And it's not just to poke fun at idiot criminals and call for their heads (which, I know, not helping). If it can broaden the discussion even a little bit or help then I've done something positive.
And I can't hope for much else.