May 24, 2013
Posted on Nov 25, 2011
“Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America”
Few white Americans are aware how racially segregated our society remains in the 21st century, yet the gaping divide becomes immediately apparent to anyone who gets behind prison walls. It is still a shock to me, even after years of driving the same route, to turn off the rural road lined with the homes of mostly white families onto the grounds of the prison in which I teach, where barbed-wire fences enclose a sea of dark faces. Inside the prison, instructors waiting for permission to proceed to classrooms watch inmates file past the grille gate like the sequential images of a filmstrip. Most are urban gang members convicted of gun violence and drug dealing. One by one, the tattooed, identically dressed young African-American men move silently along the hallway, staring straight ahead in compliance with prison rules.
As David M. Kennedy points out in his riveting new book, “Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America,” the rise of mass incarceration in the U.S. has added terribly to the devastation that guns and drugs inflict on our inner cities. More than 2.3 million people in this country are now behind bars, almost 40 percent of them black. One in nine African-American men aged 20 to 34 is in prison; some 60 percent of black high school dropouts serve time by age 40. Many of the laws locking them up took shape during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s and the ensuing surge in gun violence. “Crack blew through America’s poor black neighborhoods like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had traded their steeds for supercharged bulldozers,” Kennedy recalls. More than any other factor, the drug lit a fuse that littered city streets with the bodies of young “thugs” and innocent victims caught in the crossfire. Although homicides among black men aged 18 to 24 declined in the early 1980s, with crack the rate shot up, from 68 per 100,000 to more than 180 between 1984 and 1993.
Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America
By David M. Kennedy
Bloomsbury USA, 320 pages
In the 1990s, municipal, state and federal governments responded to the violence by expanding police forces (45 percent in New York City) and sharply increasing prison sentencing. These policies, to some extent, made cities safer, but at an incredible social cost: So many men from impoverished urban neighborhoods do time that youths in the community come to see this as a normal stage in adult male life. The prisoners’ own children, raised by mothers and grandmothers struggling to find resources, are 50 percent more likely than other kids to end up in prison. Once inmates return home, their lack of education and job skills severely limit their chances of legal employment. Many fall back into crime and substance abuse, exacerbating the social, economic and moral decay of their communities and filling prisons yet again.
Given the ongoing economic crisis and rampant availability of guns in the U.S.—more than 200 million at current estimates, some 65 million of them handguns—the chances of breaking the cycle of inner-city poverty, violent crime, drugs and incarceration might seem bleak. But unlike so much work in urban sociology and criminology, “Don’t Shoot” offers a genuine message of hope. This is the gripping story of Boston’s Operation Ceasefire and the interventions it spawned across the nation. The book is part memoir, part police thriller, taking us through the ups and downs in the genesis and evolution of one of the most promising responses to urban violence and drug markets in the last two decades. The notes refer to scholarly studies affirming the merits of the strategies Kennedy and his associates developed over 16 years of work, but his writing here is the antithesis of academic jargon: a rapid-fire, street-smart prose that brooks no dissent, colored with telling detail to convey the tragedy of inner cities—the dealer hocking heroin in full view of the Baltimore police; the EMTs frantically trying to revive the young man dying at Kennedy’s feet; the RIP Facebook pages of black youth, still alive, preparing for their own deaths.
Kennedy acquired his knowledge of criminology without formal education in the field. We learn about his family’s experience in the Detroit riots of 1967 when he was 8, and his political activism at Swarthmore. From Swarthmore he went to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government where he joined a team headed by professor Mark Moore to study the new ideas of problem-oriented policing. Working for Moore took Kennedy to Los Angeles in 1985, where he accompanied two officers on foot patrol through the crack-infested Watts housing project of Nickerson Gardens, perhaps, Kennedy writes, the most dangerous place in the country that day. “If you could have seen the fear and tension—fear-vision goggles—everything would have glowed white-hot.” Despite the horror of such neighborhoods, he realized, there was a profound sense of community among their “decent” residents (to borrow Elijah Anderson’s term)—the majority of adults who fretted over their children’s safety, made sure they were fed, properly clothed and went to school, and helped one another through the roughest periods.
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