"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Our July Pick for (Book) Soup of the Month is Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

2016 has so far been a year for the world to re-evaluate many issues.  The European Union.  Global migration and domestic immigration. The U.S. political system. #BlackLivesMatter.  Perhaps most pressing, this country’s propensity for gun violence has prompted Governor Brown to sign into law a slew of new gun-control measures, as the rest of the country dithers about the situation, even after the historic House sit-down in the wake of the Orlando tragedy.

Speaking to the latter two concerns, the release in paperback of Jill Leovy’s devastating, true-crime survey, Ghettoside, could not be better-timed.  It reads like a novel, and this meticulously researched investigation of violence in South Los Angeles - specifically, black-on-black crime in urban areas, and the complexities of law enforcement therein - should be required reading for everyone who resides here. 


We all know that there are areas in Los Angeles where, more or less, one “just doesn’t go.”  An L.A. resident for over thirty years, I can say, with no pride, that I’ve not once been to Watts, the Hollenbeck Division, the Seventy-Seventh Street Division (where the L.A. riots broke out), nor any of the areas surveyed in this book, and have only a general idea of where they are geographically located.   Not only is there no pressing reason to go there, one of the very first things I realized about L.A. is that, realistically, one can live here without ever glimpsing the blighted areas of the region (the revitalization of Downtown L.A., with its many elements of gentrification notwithstanding). Once, on an Amtrak heading to Santa Barbara, I recall reading a sign specifying “Something Housing Project.”  “Oh, that’s what it looks like,” I thought, “interesting.” Our freeways, which were, in general, built through less affluent neighborhoods, serenely glide many of us over streets where lives are lost in shameful numbers. 

Leovy’s book is grounded in eleven years of research.  She was embedded in the LAPD’s Seventy-Seventh-Street Division, and in 2006 launched an online L.A. Times feature, “The Homicide Report,” an effort, she writes in her Author’s Note “to provide a…day-to-day accounting of every homicide in (L.A.) County.”  The blog ran for two years, in which she reported on “about a thousand” homicides.  Just think about that figure!  What have you been doing in the past two years?  And that’s only taking into consideration deaths, not assaults, not rapes, not robberies.  Typical of the striking detail of Ghettoside is the definition of “almocides” - almost homicides - a portmanteau reference to the “four or five injury shootings for every fatal one in South Los Angeles,” leaving thirty, mostly black, males per month “paralyzed, comatose (or) brain injured” in the early 2000s.  

There are many, many statistics in this book, as well as a survey of the great black migration from southern states after World War II, and much time is spent on minutiae of the inner workings of the LAPD.  So, in a way, it’s a sociological text, as well as a police procedural.  Another heartbreaking detail reported by Leovy:  three generations after that initial migration from the South, numerous parents sent their sons out of L.A., back to the areas where the families originally lived – explicitly so that the young men wouldn’t be killed. A police chaplain describes “homicide eyes,” a flat gaze common to the grief of family members losing loved ones to violence.

Regarding the always-controversial LAPD, Leovy’s approach is not at all the usual “us-vs-them” (i.e. cops-vs-criminals) narrative.  She doesn’t take sides, nor really discuss, the legacy of the LAPD.  Rather, she focuses on the interface between the criminal justice system and the communities it polices. She writes, “To assert that black Americans suffer from too little application of the law, not too much, seems at odds with common perception.” 


Where this already extraordinary book truly excels is in the depth of its characters, the details of individual cases Leovy witnesses in real time.  She relates the separate, seemingly random, shootings of two young black men, Dovon Harris (aged 15) and Bryan Tennelle, (aged 18 and the son of an LAPD detective who lived and worked in the precinct, a rarity) and the aftermath to their families.  She narrates the efforts of detectives Wally Tennelle, John Skaggs, Greg de la Rosa, and others, to navigate law enforcement protocol, bureaucracy, and complicated relationships within the force, as well as the maddening (to me) complexity of working with underserved communities, the codes and dynamics which prevail there, and the wracking reality of families’ bereavement living under what one detective termed, “The Monster – the whole mess of it.” 

In her epilogue, Leovy writes that, as of 2015, “homicides in Los Angeles County have fallen to levels that (were) unimaginable…at the turn of the (21st) century…the Monster is in retreat.” You’ll have to read the book to understand the complexities behind The Monster’s unraveling. Since the epilogue was written, homicide rates have once again increased in Los Angeles, and  Leovy’s summary remains pertinent: “Anyone who tracks homicide in L.A. County can’t escape the obvious: black men remain disproportionately victimized…we should not disagree about the problem’s urgency.”  It’s a stunning and brave work. 
-Amelia, Book Soup Bookseller