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.
For more, read “It’s the Ecstasy, Stupid” by Sheerly Avni, and “Ingredients for Murder” and “The Invisible City: Entering Oakland” by James Harris.
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.
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.
Harris: And you don’t blame the drug. You say it’s not the drug—it’s some of the traditional causes like public school systems failing, parents not at home?
Avni: As cities get wealthier and wealthier, the difference between rich and poor gets more striking and more frustrating. What we just said about Oakland being a really dangerous city, well, it’s even more dangerous if you’re in East or West Oakland, because I was looking on the map, in the past three years, there’s been one homicide in my part of town and none in Piedmont. So that means that ... when you have a really, really rich city, and a lots of really, really poor people in it, there’s a couple of things that happens. One is that the rich people tend to send their kids to private schools—they stop caring about what happens in the public schools, although that is shifting in Oakland right now.
Harris: In what way would you say is that shifting?
Avni: More and more of the middle-class people who come to move into Oakland have decided they want to send their kids to public schools and they’ve put a lot of money and time into local schools in their neighborhood. And there’s a slight shift, more diversity in the schools—schools that were before all—one was 85 percent black; now it’s 35 percent black.
Scheer: In the wealthier neighborhoods like Piedmont, the police force there is probably more available, and the residents expect the police to be there. Whereas in West Oakland, you might not see a police officer for months. And maybe that’s also part of the cause, it’s not just the education. ...
Avni: And if you do see the police, they may be members of the Oakland Riders. Most of these kids, the first memory they have is of the police busting through their door and beating up on a family member. So these—the young people I work with will never turn to the police for safety, even if they are not engaged in criminal behavior themselves.
Scheer: James, you live in Oakland. What do you think about—when it’s one of the most dangerous cities?
Harris: Well, Josh, if we look at some of the things that Sheerly was talking about earlier—the corruption in public schools, the lack of solid home base—that is the problem. And I say, as a community, Oakland, frankly, could care less about whether or not black kids, Latino kids are living or dying. Because if they cared, it wouldn’t happen.
Scheer: And what about the new mayor? Do you think he cares?
Harris: I think the new mayor cares, but I think we have a new challenge, and that challenge is how do we get people to care? So I want to know from you guys, why is it that we won’t try to solve this problem? Why is it that our local governments won’t do that?
Scheer: Well, I think that one is that the same elected officials for the past 10 years have been in power. There’s no change, there’s no changeover. So there’s no new ideas, and it’s the same people, so if you keep on voting the same people in, maybe there needs to be a major change in the police force and the mayor. Maybe you shouldn’t have elected a 70-year-old mayor. Maybe you should elect someone who is young, who has vision—someone like your sister, coming from a new school of thought, the state senators and that problem. And, obviously, someone has to care about fixing the education system and putting money in that education system, and that comes from the state and the local government. And there needs to be—there are people who care. You need to pull them out and get them caring. Right?
Harris: Sheerly, is it just that we’re optimists, or perhaps I’m just the angry guy who wants a solution? But your work in juvenile hall, your work as an educator, what are you hearing from these kids?
Avni: They ... have tons of advice, and it’s good advice. Last week we asked them about education, because we were thinking about the recent Supreme Court decision, and all the kids writing about what their experiences with the education is like in juvenile hall talked about how bad the schools are, the teaching is in the hall, because you’ve gotta go lowest common denominator. There’s one kid with a learning disability; you’re doing fourth-grade math. And a lot of these kids are really smart. They say, “We want better schools. We want better education.” They also, another one, said ... in Oakland there is a new juvenile facility that is modeled, it has just been built, it was very expensive. All of you environmentally conscious will be happy to note that it’s a “green” building. So our kids are being disposed of in an environmentally sound way. But it is based architecturally and also philosophically on the model of Santa Rita Jail. So what you’re doing is you’re taking a bunch of kids who used to be in a rehabilitative facility and putting them in a facility that is architecturally designed for group management. It means that you now have 14-, 15-year-old kids talking to their parents through glass when they come to visit them. It means that it’s much harder for boys to get a chance to see their children when their children are born, which means you’re literally ruining their possibility of bonding with their kids. And I know I’m going off topic and ranting here, but I guess the solutions are there in the things the kids say: “Treat us like human beings.” Another kid said, “How come we don’t have any programs? There’s more programs in jail than in juvenile hall.” Another one wrote, “You can tell by what the new building looks like what they really think of us.” Another one wrote, “I don’t have any models, ever, of anyone that ever went to college.” Another one said, “I can’t afford to work at McDonald’s. I have to feed two brothers.” I had a girl—this was in Las Vegas, so clearly it’s not just local—explain to me that there was no way she could stop working as a prostitute because she has two sisters to support. So what am I supposed to tell her? Get a minimum-wage job, and if you can’t afford to take care of your sisters, that we’re going to have to go through CPS [Child Protection Services]? You don’t want to break up families ... and not give a solution.
Harris: So if you had a solution, you’d probably be the president.
Avni: Well, no, I wouldn’t. That’s the problem. That’s the thing, we all have the solution, teach them, pay attention to them, stop treating them as criminals, you know.
Scheer: Get mentors.
Avni: Get mentors. When you do get mentors, make it easier for them to access the facilities. Apportion more money to schools, provide college scholarships. It’s not rocket science.
Harris: It’s not at all rocket science. We’ll continue to talk about some ways that we can get at a solution, or some ways that we can begin to rethink this problem, but it saddens me most because we know the answers. And we just won’t make the necessary effort to make the change.
Scheer: What hope is there? It’s the same elected people. They don’t care, right? You talked about that in your piece. I mean, people don’t care. There needs to be something that shakes them up, whether it be Beverly Hills being flooded with trash, or whatever, there needs to be something that shakes up the system enough so that people can get what they need.
Harris: Sheerly, is there no hope?
Avni: Of course there’s hope. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it; so it’s hard. But there’s about 15 different organizations that I could name just off the top of my head that are available in Oakland for helping kids get employment, mentorship, even transportation to school. All sorts of different things that could help them get what they want and get what they need. So, absolutely, on an individual level, there’s not a single person out there that can’t make it if they want to. On an institutional level, to Truthdig listeners right out there, we’re very active on the war. I know that the people who read Truthdig care a lot about what’s happening in Iraq, what’s happening with our presidency. If you also spent one hour a week in your local school, or tutoring some level in juvenile facilities, there is a war going on where we are right now. And you can fight that one, too.
Harris: I think that’s well said. But, just tell me when you have the time to volunteer at juvenile hall? I’m suggesting that the society we’re living in has become so harsh on the average American that the average American doesn’t have any time to really help out the public sector or to give back to the public.
Avni: You can make time.
Harris: They can make time?
Scheer: That’s what I’m saying though, you have to shake up people to let them know that there’s a problem. So many people don’t know there’s anything going on, and, you know, when you have someone who is elected and lives in the hills and doesn’t know what’s going on in West Oakland, that’s a possibility, right? Someone has to educate [Mayor] Ron Dellums and others, other people across the country.
Avni: Well, there’s also a racism issue here. It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that most people who are doing well are in the white middle class, or the Asian middle class, and have really, really strong opinions about what’s wrong with these people, that they can’t get their lives together. So let’s not pretend people are just busy.
Harris: Sheerly, thanks for joining us, and thanks for your candor. If you want to read Sheerly’s work, be sure to go to Truthdig.com. The name of the piece we discussed today is “It’s the Ecstasy, Stupid.” Until the next time, I bid you farewell for Josh Scheer, for Sheerly Avni. This is James Harris and this is Truthdig.
AP photo / Charles Rex Arbogast
Inmates Tone Knight, left, and Derrick Freeman in the courtyard at the Juvenile Medium Security Facility in Bordentown, N.J. Knight has spent about four years in detention centers for attempted murder but is now on his way out and headed to college.