Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Don't Shoot by David Kennedy

America's orgy of imprisonment is fantastic.... There was no connection to crime rates.  Crime went up, more people in prison.  Crime went down, more people in prison.  The sheer volume is staggering.  Current prison population versus 1970 prison population: an increase of more than 1100%.  More than one in a hundred American adults are locked up.

White men, over 18: one in 106.
Black men, over 18: one in 15.
Black men, 20-34: one in nine.

Randy reviewed this book a couple of months ago and did a great job recapping Kennedy's methods and successes, so I direct you to his post for a more thorough description.  In short, Kennedy (and, I assume, others, though he sort of humble brags his way through the book and aww-shucksingly gives himself a lot of credit) saw that bitter animosity and lack of communication between communities (usually African-American communities) and law enforcement did nothing to prevent violence and only made bad situations worse, so he embarked on numerous projects in various cities (including High Point, NC) to basically get gang members, social workers and law enforcement in a room and get everyone to realize that no one likes the status quo and that everyone will benefit from working together.  Wonderfully, Kennedy found that this strategy was very successful and could quickly and dramatically reduce gun violence, open drug markets, etc., though its sustained success depended on the commitment from government and law enforcement, which often was not forthcoming.

As comes across in Randy's review, the book is fascinating.  Some of the stories are shocking, depressing, and maddening, while others are inspiring, overwhelming and full of hope.  In the end, the work that Kennedy and his colleagues have done is amazing and their model should be used everywhere.  However, I do have some criticisms.  First of all, Kennedy comes across as a caricature of an academic, even as he tries to make himself sound like a grizzled guy who's seen some real shit.  He must have been so obnoxious for the cops, social workers and other veterans of these communities to work with sometimes.  My favorite parts would be when he'd talk about some huge breakthrough the research team had or some amazing discovery they made when a cop would just straight up tell them something that was totally obvious to anyone who had actually lived or worked in these inner-city communities.  It reminded me of European explorers "discovering" lands already inhabited for thousands of years.  Also, he makes all of the people in the book come across as fools several times when he emphasizes how long it takes them to realize the significance of certain facts.  For example, he said it took them 15 years to realize how significant it was that gang members they hadn't identified as the most prominent would want to be involved in their call-ins and programs.  Fifteen years!?  Really, Kennedy?  I wasn't there, but it seemed like he was explaining some relatively obvious concepts (just because you're black and in a gang doesn't mean you're not a rational human being).  Maybe given their prior experience the concepts would take some pondering, but not fifteen years worth.

Another question I had was about the role of race in Kennedy's experiences.  He bends over backward to say that the people in law enforcement who he worked with aren't racist.  While I believe him and don't think that police departments are just full of racists, I do wonder how he explains stats like the one quoted above.  A couple of times he gets into the disparity between arrests/police presence in black neighborhoods and that presence in white neighborhoods, but doesn't really explain where this comes from or how there's not a racist element at work.

Overall it was a very interesting book and its lessons, that preconceived notions and ideologies are useless in the face of practical, successful methods, can be applied to many areas beyond law enforcement.


Brittany said...

I am now very tempted to read that book. I work in a minority majority high school (only 13% white) where lots of my students are in gangs and have criminal records (one of my students today wrote an essay about how his greatest fear is death and how he's in a gang that he doesn't want to be in, but if he leaves they'll kill him, so he has to walk a fine line of being-in-the-gang and not-being-a-terrible-criminal). I get to hear about their experiences with cops ALL the time, and while I have to put my teenage-hyperbole filters on when they talk, they just can't be exaggerating that much. I also know that my mom and I (who look white) have very different experiences with cops than my dad and brother (who look very Hispanic). When my white friend and her very-Hispanic-looking husband were pulled over, the cops had her step out of the car to ask her privately if she was in the car of her own free will. I also lived with a cop for a while, and was often surprised at how ignorant the stuff she said was...

There are racist everyones, cops, teachers, doctors, lawyers, everything, it just seems that racist cops have the particular power to be dicky (so, to an extent, do teachers, as we get to have power over kids for an hour a day and at these minority-majority schools we don't see a lot of parental involvement which means no parental complaints. I have really wanted to punch teachers in the face for the crap they say).

I will stop rambling with this anecdote. I was attending a voluntary workshop on Multiculturalism and Diversity at my school. A teacher at my school, who was an immigrant, said "There is no racism in America, that is what makes America the greatest country in the world, that is why I came here. When I came here, I heard Americans were racist against black people because there are more black people in jail. If there are more black people in jail, that means more black people are criminals, nothing else." Hm. Now imagine if he had a gun and a pair of handcuffs! Scaryyyy.

R.M. Fiedler said...

I'd hate to imagine him with constitutionally mandated life-tenure and judge's robes.

Oh wait: http://www.businessinsider.com/judge-edith-jones-accused-of-racism-2013-6

Brent Waggoner said...

This book sounds really fascinating.