Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, book review: Searing look at 'commonplace' black-on-black killings

Deaths are so common and so unremarkable in Ghettoside Los Angeles that they are considered as yet another fact of life
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Imagine being shot dead outside a liquor store for refusing to give a beggar small change, or while innocently pushing a bicycle down the street, getting on to a bus or for wearing the wrong-coloured clothes.

These are the everyday, often unreported, acts of violence that occur Ghettoside Los Angeles, "south of Ten", the east-west motorway that bisects the city. The deaths are so common and so unremarkable that they are considered (when they are thought of at all) as yet another fact of life. "Woo woo whoopdoobam" – another man down." LAPD detective Paul Mize remembers a banner headline in the Los Angeles Times stating that a bomb in Beirut had killed six people. "We had nine murders that weekend, and not one of them made the paper. Not one."

Why the silence? Because these are predominantly black-on-black killings that have been ignored for more than 100 years. A late-19th-century Louisiana newspaper editorial commented: "If negroes continue to slaughter each other, we will have to conclude that Providence has chosen to exterminate them in this way." Carter Spikes, a former member of the Black Businessman Gang, remembered that, even as late as the Seventies, police in Los Angeles "didn't care what black people did to each other. A nigger killing another nigger was no big deal."

These observations begin Jill Leovy's astonishing investigation, which mixes historical survey and true-crime story with polemic. Written over an 11-year period (2001-2012) when she was "embedded" in the LAPD's 77th Street Division, her account demonstrates the appalling consequence of assuming that nothing can be done. "Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death," she writes, "homicide becomes endemic."

According to Leovy, young black men are two to four times more likely to be murdered than young Hispanic men, even though they live in the same neighbourhood and are fewer in number. In Watts, the main focus of her study, the 130,000 population is only 39 per cent black. Yet murder is rife, witnesses are too scared to testify, rewards go unclaimed and researchers consistently refuse to talk about the problem for fear of being thought racist. Yet, Leovy insists, "for too long black men have lived inadequately protected by the laws of their own country".

After an introductory survey, she concentrates on the murder of two young boys: Bryant Tennelle, the 18-year-old son of a police officer (shot in a random act of bravado by a nervous gang recruit forced to show that he wasn't "a punk") and Dovon Harris, killed after taking evasive action and running away from a fight outside his school. Neither of the two victims was individually targeted. They simply had the misfortune to live in a world outside the law: where it was easy to be mistaken for someone else; where the challenging opening question from a stranger to a black man – "Where you from?" – had no right answer; where those who somehow survived a shooting were prevented from having visitors in hospital lest they be rival gang members entering the trauma centre to "finish it"; and where police investigators were automatically assumed to be racist.

"You don't care because he's a black man!" is the phrase repeatedly shouted at the hero of Leovy's narrative, Detective John Skaggs, an obsessively neat, coffee-drinking, Steinbeck-loving investigator who is avowedly not a racist. Mixing surfer slang with ghetto idioms, he pounds pavements, knocks on doors and repeats interviews in a time-consuming investigation built on the belief that Ghettoside work is 90 per cent talking to people "maybe 100 per cent".

While some one to 15 per cent of the population (depending on who you talk to) might be "dumb-ass knuckleheads", Skaggs is determined to treat people on the level. There's no such thing as a "cheap" life. As a detective tells him when standing over the body of a murdered sex worker: "She ain't a whore no more. She's some daddy's baby."

Through Skagg's eyes, Leovy attempts what one might call the rehumanising of a crime scene; the conversion from a statistic back into a life. This is not always straightforward. The killer of Tennelle tells Skaggs: "I didn't get to, like, really see him. All I know is that he was black."

Leovy explains: "He said it simply, as if it were obvious. Axiomatic, even. And it was. A black assailant looking to kill a gang rival is looking, before anything else, for another black male.

"This was the fundamental fact of Bryant Tennelle's death. Other elements contributed – the neighbourhood in which he lived, the company he chose to keep, the hat he was wearing that evening. But for all that – and for all the rhetoric about bad choices, senseless acts, at-risk behavior, and so forth – what killed Bryant was the one fact about himself that he could not change: he was black."

Although crime figures have recently gone down due to a decreasing population, an increase in public benefits, and the large numbers of black men in prison ("a rotten – and expensive way to combat the problem") Leovy's tone is firmly polemical. She insists that the disproportionate victimisation of black men remains and she writes with assured control.

At times her important, eye-opening, investigation is in danger of becoming a litany of grief and statistics, but any reservation the reader may have about being numbed by the relentless flow of events is as nothing compared to the power of sorrow that remains.

One particularly harrowing chapter, "Nothing Worse", includes Yadira Tennelle's lasting grief after her son's death: "At home she wandered into Bryant's bedroom, out, then back in, everything in its place, just as it had been when he died. She placed his picture in a locket on a necklace and wore it at all times. She hung a plaque on the living room wall. 'If love could have saved you,' it read, 'you would have lived forever.'"

James Runcie is the author of 'The Grantchester Mysteries'