Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What's Gone Wrong In Oakland

What's Gone Wrong In Oakland

And Philly, and a lot of other black inner cities in America? This is a powerful article from the December 9, 2007 San Francisco Chronicle:

The body count is woven into the civic consciousness here - a number chased by homicide inspectors, studied by criminologists, lamented in churches, reported by journalists. Every mayor leaves City Hall on broken promises to quell the violence, and the killings continue. An additional 115 have been killed this year, putting Oakland on pace for another gruesome record.
In the last five years, 557 people were slain on the city's streets, making Oakland the state's second-most murderous city, behind Compton.
Most victims are young, black men who are dying in forgotten neighborhoods of East and West Oakland.
A handful of their killers, speaking from prison, describe an environment where violence is so woven into the culture that murder has become a symbol of manhood.
The inmates say the only difference between these neighborhoods and prison is the absence of walls. The same hierarchies apply - the meanest rise to the top. It's a survival skill that ensures ownership of drug corners, a sense of self-worth, female attention and protection from attack.
Experts fear that the neighborhoods are only getting more violent. There are entire blocks without a single two-parent family, where drug dealers have become the predominant male role models, and children fend for themselves in crowded, chaotic homes where they are routinely exposed to drugs, sex and guns.
Criminal families are on their third and fourth generations. Grandparents - the ones who have historically stepped in to help raise fatherless boys and instill a sense of right and wrong - are dying off.

Increasingly, the young murder suspects coming to the station for questioning seem to lack basic morality, said Sgt. Tim Nolan, who has been investigating Oakland homicides for 17 years.
"There are more and more families where there's less and less structure," he said. "Talking to these suspects day in and out, there's a higher percentage today with no sense of right and wrong. It's frightening, but we are creating super-criminals."
All it takes is a look, a put-down or a lost fight, and bullets fly. Disrespect has become the No. 1 reason to kill.
Witnesses are cowed into silence because snitches have been known to disappear. Nearly half of all murders in Oakland go uncharged for lack of a willing witness, so a shooter knows he has about a 50-50 chance of getting away with it.
"Murder is hardly ever a whodunit in Oakland," said criminal defense attorney William Du Bois, who has been representing Oakland homicide suspects for nearly three decades.
Because witnesses won't testify, certain Oakland neighborhoods have an abnormally high per capita rate of killers walking the streets. They are known, feared, and have an incredibly toxic influence on impressionable young boys aching for structure.
"In these neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, all the doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, architects and postal workers have left," said Richard Miles, chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bay Area.
"The kids have nobody but drug lords to look up to."
For this report, The Chronicle conducted prison and telephone interviews with five convicted Oakland killers, reviewed the court files of 60 murder trials, listened to police interrogation tapes and talked with homicide inspectors, district attorneys, family members, criminal defense lawyers, forensic therapists and criminologists.'

A majority grew up without a father - he was either murdered, incarcerated or abandoned his children.
Mom is typically absent, too, either because she's working several jobs for minimum wage or because she's also lost to the streets through drugs, prostitution or prison.
Many of the convicted killers were quasi-homeless in grade school, moving every 90 days on eviction cycles, or bouncing between friends' and relatives' homes, where they slept on recliners and couches and floors.
Inside the home is pure chaos. Typically, they live with a third-generation relative, an elderly grandmother or aunt, who also opens her home to several other wayward relatives. They all pile into one home, bringing their boyfriends and girlfriends and their children. There's no particular person in charge, no house rules, and people come and go.
Often it's in these houses where young boys first learn how to hold a gun, how to break a rock of cocaine into dime and nickel bags for sale.
Without parents to help them mature, the mental world of these young killers stays stuck in an infantile, egotistic state, said forensic psychologist Shawn Johnston, who has conducted more than 15,000 court evaluations of adult and juvenile criminals in 15 Northern California counties.
"What keeps us from killing each other is empathy, and we learn it from bonding with parents who pick us back up when we get hurt or teased as children," Johnston said. "Without it, you get guys who live in a constant state of protecting the fantasy that they are the most important thing this side of the Milky Way. And because they don't have empathy, they will shoot or stab to protect their illusion."

Those of you who have read my book Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (Praeger, 1999) will recognize some parallels between the culture of honor violence in the Old Southwest and the problems this insightful article describes in Oakland.

But along with the parallels, there are some substantial differences. The Old Southwest's problems were a minority of men in a mainstream population. Most white men in the Old Southwest did not engage in dueling or bar brawls, and those that did were still part of a mainstream culture where the criminal justice system often (but not always) punished murder and manslaughter. This article describes neighborhoods where this destructive culture is not a minority at all, and in a subculture that is fairly well isolated from the mainstream not just of American society, but even from the mainstream of black America. (Contrary to what the news media would like you to believe, the average black person in America does not live in a ghetto.)

There is a strong desire in some circles to see gun control as the solution to the problems of inner city violence. This has never worked, and this article points out that the cultural problems that have developed in Oakland are so severe that:

Gun laws can't reach places like East and West Oakland. Rarely do boys go get a gun and kill - the gun is already there. Guns are as common as cell phones. Friends give their friends guns for protection after losing a fistfight. Every day, drug addicts trade guns for a fix. Groups of boys share guns, keeping them hidden in abandoned homes, in empty lots, in the rain gutters and under their beds.
I'm not quite sure what can be done to fix places like Oakland. There is a tipping point where such a large fraction of the population are engaged in socially destructive behaviors that it is difficult for the government to fix the problem. As the article points out, it is difficult to get witnesses to testify in murder cases in Oakland, because snitches die. The honor violence culture of the Old Southwest, while it had problems (because juries were reluctant to convict), at least did not have this climate of fear preventing the justice system from trying to work.

There may not be a constitutional solution to problems this severe. The Old Southwest's problems were fixed largely by a change in attitude--one driven by the efforts of evangelicals to replace an honor culture ("What will others think of me?") with a conscience culture ("God sees my sins, and knows what I have done"). Times have changed; I am skeptical that a subculture as deeply damaged as this article describes can be fixed without extraordinary and probably unconstitutional changes in criminal procedure. In addition, that transformation of the Old Southwest was driven by a religious revival that is simply unimaginable in post-Christian America.

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