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The Old Familiar Song

Jill Leovy
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America
(Spiegel & Grau, 2015)

In the fifth and final season of The Wire, our antsy, alcoholic anti-hero Detective McNulty gets fed up with all the black bodies—the quietly mounting corpses of young, black victims of murders that will go unsolved. Nobody in Baltimore seems to care that 22 black bodies were found stashed and rotting in the crumbling walls of temporary housing units. There simply isn’t enough money to solve those murders, McNulty is told. And so McNulty begins doctoring the white bodies of homeless men, dead from addiction and neglect, creating circumstances that point to a serial killer and then funneling the money that flows in to solve those ersatz murders towards justice for the true victims, those forgotten black bodies. For once, McNulty is happy to juke the stats.

McNulty’s solution is fantastical, but the problem is not. In her new book, Ghettoside, Los Angeles Times crime reporter Jill Leovy vividly chronicles the epidemic of murders plaguing young black men in lower- and middle-class black America. In 2010, the homicide mortality rate for black men between 25 and 34 was about 15 times the rate for white men of the same age. As Leovy puts it, black men are “just 6 percent of the country’s population but nearly 40 percent of those murdered. […] They were murdered every day, in every city, their bodies stacking up by the thousands, year after year.” The murder of black men by black men is nothing new. In 1915, one South Carolina official explained, “One negro killing another—the old familiar song.” An Alabama sheriff was more concise: “One less nigger.”

The recent murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have sharpened the focus on police harassment and assault in black communities; there’s a pervasive, dismal sense that the police are bent on making life miserable for American blacks under the racist guise of crime prevention. Leovy makes the opposite case: black communities are not over- but under-policed. “It may seem paradoxical,” she wrote in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “but the police tactics that protesters have recently denounced as harassment and discrimination actually overcompensate for what is, in essence, a weak police presence in these neighborhoods.” She does not deny that policemen have operated in black neighborhoods with impunity, but she notes that the lack of police interest in keeping the peace has resulted in an epidemic of lawless personal violence and bloodshed. Police neglect is not a symptom of the black homicide epidemic, it is the cause.

In Ghettoside, Leovy limits her scope to one ravaged battlefield, South Los Angeles, and one young victim, the son of an L.A.P.D. officer, 18-year-old Bryant Tennelle, who was shot in South L.A. on May 11, 2007. For over a decade Leovy has covered this beat, embedded at the L.A.P.D.’s South Bureau. As the creator of the Times’s Homicide Report, which has detailed every murder in L.A. since 2007, Leovy knows the numbers as well as anyone. In focusing her story, Leovy makes an overwhelming phenomenon accessible. She also shows us that murder prevention is as much a matter of dedicated individuals, like McNulty, as it is a matter of systemic change. Unlike McNulty, the heroes of Ghettoside aren’t working the system—they’re trying to make it work.

Enter Detective John Skaggs, assigned to solve Tennelle’s murder. Skaggs is a sort of ür-detective, the type who refuses to rest until the case is closed. But Skaggs is no cliché. Tenacious and sunny by turns, he’s a complicated character. One superior describes him as “a hard, hard man.” But he patiently helps one witness, a prostitute, clean up her life, and remains close to her even after she testifies. And though he is white, and Republican, and makes a six-figure salary, he wins the trust of the neighborhood. Leovy describes him as “descending into the most horrifying crevasse of American violence like a carpenter going to work, hammer in one hand, lunch pail in the other, whistling all the way.”

In telling Skaggs’s story, Leovy exposes all the problems and potentials of American homicide investigations. Fans of The Wire will find much to love in this world: unpaid overtime, complacent bureaucrats, failed marriages, casual racism, homeless informants, hookers with hearts of gold. Some of the most fascinating moments of Ghettoside concern the minutia of policing, “an art form so underrated it has been mostly relegated to oral history.” As Leovy shows, the inertia of the justice system is only matched by the indefatigability of its best agents, such as Skaggs. But even their best efforts are often overwhelmed by cost-cuts and broken-windows policing.

Ghettoside’s narrative climax arrives when Skaggs interrogates the main suspect in Tennelle’s murder, Devin Davis, called Baby Man. Davis himself is a teenager, 17, and a member of the Rollin’ Hundreds Blocc Crips gang. The scene is taut and thrilling. Skaggs circles Davis like a tiger stalking prey. His tactics are strange and astonishing: he leads Davis on, hinting at an accusation and then backs off, meandering on long tangents and leaving Davis desperate and confused. One officer calls it “Boring Them to Death.” Leovy writes,

Skaggs hinted at a Very Serious Talk about to occur. But instead of starting it, he burrowed into technicalities. He declared his intention to be upfront. Then he wandered. He promised to get to the point. Then he didn’t. He peppered his speech with various throat-clearing asides: “Are you with me?” “So, listen!” “We’ll get to that!” But he never got anywhere.

It’s fascinating—Kafka from the other side of the interrogation table. And though Davis is powerless, we can’t help but root for Skaggs, so incredible is his skill. In these moments, Leovy is masterful, too. Her prose is riveting, hilarious, and detailed—it soars.

But when the confession finally comes, it’s crushing. Leovy describes Davis as a loner who “gave the impression of suffering from a mental or social disability.” On the day of Bryant’s murder, a neighborhood acquaintance handed Davis a gun and told him to shoot. “I got out of the car, closed my eyes, and just started doing it,” he confesses, crying. “I don’t know why! I was scared! I didn’t want nobody thinking of me as no bitch or nothin’ […] I just wanted to have friends! That’s all I wanted.” Suddenly we remember that Devin Davis is a child like Bryant, a victim of the same system. As Leovy points out, Davis saw Bryant as a fair target because he was a young black male.

There’s no human villain in Ghettoside. I kept waiting for the chapter where Leovy rolls out an explanation of Who’s Responsible (vicious druglords, perhaps, conscripting young kids into lives of crime and violence) to no avail. She doesn’t point fingers—not at the perps, not at the police, not at poverty, not even at politicians. At times, this becomes frustrating. What are the propulsive forces behind the gang shootings? Who constitutes the amorphous black “they” that ravage these communities?

In a recent article for the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh notes the two perspectives that sociologists have typically applied to black life in America. The first is Structuralism, espoused by “those who emphasize the role of institutional racism and economic circumstances”; the other is Culturalism, favored by “those who emphasize the importance of self-perpetuating norms and behaviors.” Leovy is an adamant Structuralist. She never turns to black culture as an explanation for the violence. The closest she comes to naming a villain is the old racist system that turns a blind eye as black men explode with rage, powerlessness, and lack of mobility in overcrowded, desperate ghettos. She writes,

Police, prosecutors, and politicians in L.A. blamed gangs for the homicide problem. They portrayed gangs as formidable nations of organized crime or as an exotic new social disease. But among street officers in South Bureau, doubts sometimes surfaced, a sense that what was breathlessly termed ‘gang culture’ was pretty ordinary group behavior.

At first, I was tempted to dismiss Leovy’s stance as idealism. Nearly everyone in Ghettoside seems well intentioned, if misled. Surely, I thought, a belief in human agency demands we hold police departments and gangmembers accountable for their actions. But Leovy’s characters are nuanced and full, and her perspective is supported by her incredible attention to detail. And as I kept reading, I thought that, perhaps, her refusal to point fingers is indeed a rebuttal of a different kind of idealism—the idealism of easy answers. How much easier, and tempting, to say that if we catch that druglord, or jail those “thugs,” or employ this cutting-edge technology, the problem will be solved? But that hasn’t proven true. The problem implicates us all.

Well into the book, I realized that Bryant Tennelle was born the same year as me, and I began to imagine my own murder. Would it make the news? Inspire outrage? A New York Times obit? I couldn’t help but think it might. My expectations may be outsized, but I’ve been raised to believe in the intrinsic worth of my own life. And that sense of worth walks with me everyday, like a good friend, encouraging me to pursue my desires and expect good things from the world. The belief that one is valued in the world holds such power. Leovy writes, “There was something in the way the nation acquiesced in shootings and stabbings among ‘inner city’ black men that suggested these men were expendable—or worse, that perhaps the nation was better off without them.”

The book’s title, Ghettoside, refers to the term South L.A. police use casually to describe “violent black pockets of the country.” But the phrase also implies ghettocide—death by ghetto. As Leovy adeptly argues, it is our gross national apathy that has created these death holes and allowed them to fester. There is no nefarious conspiracy, only centuries of segregation, neglect, and injustice.

Ghettoside is haunted by a second set of victims, the families of the dead. Leovy never loses sight of them. It’s hard to make murder feel real and meaningful on the page, but Leovy’s attention to the particularities of grief is heartrending. One mother spends her days lying in the dark, “unable to will herself to move or speak.” When Skaggs brings her her dead son’s sneakers, she “pressed the open top of the shoe against her mouth and nose, and inhaled its scent with a long, deep breath. Then she closed her eyes and wept.” Leovy walked this beat for over a decade, learning the anguish of those who lost loved ones. “It’s not the carnage that’s horrible,” she recently reflected on NPR’s Fresh Air. “It’s the grief and the sadness of it that will make your hair stand on end.”


Madeline Gressel

MADELINE GRESSEL is a writer and journalist currently based at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. Formerly the music critic for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, she now focuses on environmental issues and the criminal justice system.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2015

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