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Crime, Poverty and Education: It’s Not Rocket Science
Posted on Sep 25, 2007
Truthdig regulars Sheerly Avni, James Harris and Josh Scheer put their heads together to try to figure out why the big problems that plague our communities never get solved.
Click here to listen to this interview.
James Harris: This is Truthdig. James Harris here with Josh Scheer and Sheerly Avni. I’ve got three Truthdiggers in the same room. If you haven’t read Sheerly’s article on Oakland, you certainly should do just that. She talks about the influence of Ecstasy, and Ecstasy being one of the contributors to the rise in crime and the rise in the murder rate in Oakland in 2006. Josh, you were sharing some statistics with me, and you were quite frankly surprised to see Oakland very high up on the murder list. Higher than Los Angeles, higher than some other cities that you mentioned. What shocked you so much about that?
Josh Scheer: It’s shocking to find them. I don’t know about Sheerly, whether it was hard to find them. But the ones I did find were from 2003. I was shocked that New York only has a 7.4 murder rate, whereas Detroit has a 39.4 murder rate. I could assume that some place like Camden, N.J., or Detroit, where they already have the bad media image; but certainly with Oakland or Atlanta, Ga., which has a high murder rate, I was shocked with St. Louis—I was shocked with St. Louis being one of the most dangerous cities in 2006.
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Harris: As we try to understand this, the sheer fact is that 15,000 people are murdered in America every year, if you combine all those cities. And the approach you took, Sheerly, in your article about Ecstasy being one of the contributing factors, perhaps, to this murder rate increase, please tell us a little about what you found as you wrote this story?
Sheerly Avni: Well, I think for me, I would say that Ecstasy is more of a symptom and that the chief diseases are ones that we know really well. ... It has to do with the fact that we have a public school system that was so completely corrupt and dysfunctional that it had to be taken over by the state. You have broken families, you have Oakland being one of the first communities that was really devastated by the crack epidemic, which means you have multigenerational dysfunction in the families. The list goes on and on and on and on. The specific thing about Ecstasy that was important to me was that the only reason I even knew that Ecstasy was having a big impact on the lives of the kids was because I happen to work for this publication that goes into juvenile hall every week. And that’s been going on for the past 10 years. So I’ve been hearing about kids “thizzing,” which is what they call it, and taking Ecstasy in a way that’s completely different from the way in which most of the people in mainstream media, who write about drugs and Ecstasy, remember that particular drug. So, it was more that, like I said in the piece, we’re all sitting around trying to understand what’s happening. The blind people touching different parts of an elephant, trying to understand what’s going on, and nobody’s paying attention to the kids, who have been screaming literally for at least five years, “I’m being killed by an elephant.” When the kids describe what “thizzing” has done to them, they describe it in the same lethal terms that you hear some of the white and Latino kids talking about what crystal meth has done to them. Which is, it has straight-up destroyed their lives. So that’s why I wanted to bring it to the fore.
Harris: I don’t understand how you go from popping a pill, or rolling, to shooting somebody. So what was the correlation that they were drawing?
Avni: Well, a couple of kids have written that you take the pills in order to get the heart, or you take the pills to get the courage to go up and do something crazy. You take the pills because it’s a way of letting off steam, and you take the pills because at some times, “Oh, man, take this, it will make you feel really good.” And we all know Ecstasy makes people feel absolutely great. But the quality of, and the proportions of MDMA to speed that you can get in your drugs, has gone down over the course of the past decade, and now, let’s say in the club scene, in the white mainstream middle-class club scene, cocaine is so cheap that cocaine has pretty much replaced Ecstasy as the drug of choice, in part because it’s so hard to get pure MDMA. What the kids are getting, mostly through the Asian street gangs, is Ecstasy that, if it’s even got any MDMA in it, is cut with so much speed that they’re mixing—. So let’s say you’re taking speed to go up, you’re drinking cough syrup to go down, you are smoking weed to go down. What you end up with is a brain that’s just completely not functional. And as one of the kids in a poem for the piece wrote, “If you feel like killing, then you’re going to feel more like killing. If you’re feeling bad, it’s going to make you feel worse.” And these are children who for the most part, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder ... because usually they know someone has died in the past month—that’s how the statistics play out. So, yeah, they’re feeling bad, they’re feeling mean, they’re full of anger. Guns are really easy to get. And one of the things you read about more and more is that killings in Oakland used to be based on specific grievances and specific drug wars and specific revenge and turfs and this and that and the other. Now, many more of the killings are just random and violent. Someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time after someone got disrespected at a party. That, to me, is more of a culture of just like reckless abandon, going wild, going dumb, than anything we’ve seen in Oakland thus far.
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