As 2007 draws to a close, Bay Area citizens are witnessing the grim site of Oakland and Richmond trading off nightly reports of young men dead in what seems an undeclared war on the streets of the East Bay's poorest neighborhoods. Politicians, like George and Sharon Runner are getting ready to place a new alarmist crime measure on the state's ballot, this one timed to pick up the current anxieties about gang crime. Homicide among urban youth is usually the stuff of media attention, but not the unusually objective and systematic analysis offered in today's San Francisco Chronicle by Meredith May, Many young men in Oakland are killing and dying for respect.
Meredith May's well researched and written feature on Oakland homicides presents a portrait familiar to most sociologists and criminologists, but lost in the usual "gang killing" rhetoric of television and print media. According to May's sources, killings among Oakland's youth are embedded in family and community networks in which drugs, violence, and incarceration are common and repeated elements. It is a world where the threats of the criminal law pale behind the belief of many that a youthful death awaits them. As the title of May's article, "Many young black men in Oakland are killing and dying for respect," suggests, violence is bound up with the relentless search for security and respect in a world where the employment market and the legal system provide little of either.
Overall the article supports something this blog has frequently endorsed, i.e., the local nature of violent crime and the need for subtle locally based crime prevention strategies over the search destroy model of mass incarceration we have utilized for decades now.
I have one bone to pick with May however. The article is laced with alarmist rhetoric about kids with no morality and raising a generation of super criminals, mostly from mouths of law enforcement officers. These images are deeply racialized (whether the officers are conscious of that or not). They circulate in every generation (the exact phrases were used in the 1980s to describe the crack sellers of that era). Terrible childhood's do produce substantial consequences (both individual and collective) but we should resist giving in to ultimately racist images of inhuman predatory youth.
Lastly, anyone who really wants to see and end to this has to acknowledge three points. First, the link between gang criminality and the trilogy of females/respect/security that May describes, is driven in large part by the black market for drugs which these gangs control and fight for. Second, the war on drugs has done nothing to diminish that link. Third, only a legal market for the most popular drugs (marijuana and some form of cocaine) will ultimately displace youth gangs from their current status in the community.