April 19, 2014

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Crime and injustice

Crime in Detroit made big headlines (again) last week when it was announced that the tally for homicides during 2012 topped out at 411.

That grim figure represents a 10 percent increase over 2011, and is the highest number of killings in the city since 2007.

"We've just lost respect for each other," Mayor Dave Bing said during a press conference. "We've lost respect for life."

As was reported by other media, the mayor went on to say:

"I don't want to say that you can forget about this generation or the generation before us, but if we're going to solve the problem, we've got to get into the heads and the minds and the hearts of our young people, and it's going to take all of us to do that."

So, the problem is a collective "we" who don't respect life? 

It's not economic desperation, or hopelessness, or the drastic downsizing of the city's police force or a massively ill-conceived War on Drugs that, rather than reducing crime, only serves to fuel it?

Forget self-examination, official accountability or real thoughtfulness on the part of the Bing administration. Instead, offer only the shallowest of bromides.

Bingo strikes again!

He's right about one thing though: In terms of addressing major problems, the collective "we" can't just sit back and hope others will serve up solutions to all the issues plaguing us. 

Which is why, on Friday night, a group of about 50 people gathered at a former police station in southwest Detroit to talk about the issues of crime and punishment from another perspective.

Sponsored by the nonprofit Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion as part of its "First Friday Forum" series, the topic for the evening was "Race & the Justice System: The New Jim Crow."

The event's title can be traced to law professor Michelle Alexander's best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

A story in The New York Times last March offers this summary:

"The book marshals pages of statistics and legal citations to argue that ... the War on Drugs has devastated black America. Today, professor Alexander writes, nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point, only to find themselves falling into permanent second-class citizenship after they get out. That is a familiar argument made by many critics of the criminal justice system, but professor Alexander's book goes further, asserting that the crackdown was less a response to the actual explosion of violent crime than a deliberate effort to push back against the civil rights movement."

The crowd of the forum — which featured a heartening mix of people, both in terms of race and age — offered no dispute. On the contrary, many offered testimony supporting the fact that people of color are being subjected to widespread discrimination when it comes to how they are treated by our criminal justice system.

In fact, it wasn't just those in the audience attesting to the extent of the problem. Some of the most damning observations came from Judith Levy, who is in charge of the civil rights division of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Levy began her presentation by talking about the first time she came to what used to be the Detroit Police Department's 3rd Precinct — a building that now serves as the home of the 555, a nonprofit art gallery and studio.

Levy's initial visit was back in 2001, when the Justice Department was beginning its investigation into alleged civil rights abuses on the part of the DPD. That investigation resulted in a pair of consent decrees being issued in an attempt to correct a wide range of problems, from the mistreatment of prisoners being held in city lockups to the illegal roundups of suspects to the excessive use of force.

People were dying behind bars because they were not being given needed medical treatment, and they were dying in the streets because cops were shooting them down.

The DPD, by the way, is still not in full compliance with the terms of those decrees a decade after the city agreed that it needed to make fundamental changes in the way it operated.

As we pointed out at the forum, the problems with the Detroit Police Department also illustrate that it's not just a black-and-white issue. After all, when the DPD's abuses started to come under scrutiny in the late 1990s, the city had already been under African-American control for more than two decades, with a black mayor, black police chief, a black majority on the City Council.

So, obviously, its not just a matter of whites oppressing blacks. Part of the issue, we believe, is that power can — and often will — be abused, no matter who is in charge. And it's up to citizens — the collective "we"  — to keep those in authority in check.

The example of Detroit, however, doesn't mitigate the fact that people of color are disproportionately singled out by cops. Levy citied statistics from the New York Police Department's controversial "stop and frisk" program to drive home that point.

Based on the department's own records, at least 6 percent of the 2.8 million searches conducted between 2004 and 2009 were unconstitutional. Moreover, according to one report, "while young black and Latino men account for only 4.7 percent of New York City's population, they accounted for more than 40 percent of all stops in the city."

So, clearly, racial discrimination on the part of law enforcement, as much as many of us would like to believe that we live in a "colorblind" society, is beyond any doubt still a major problem.

There are other problems as well, ranging from what's been described as the "school-to-prison pipeline," which has to do with the increasing criminalization of wrongdoing by students, to the lack of proportionate racial representation on juries.

In regard to the latter, U.S. Judge Denise Page Hood (who came to the event with her husband, former Detroit City Council member the Rev. Nicholas Hood III), one of the many "heavy hitters" attending the forum, talked about efforts under way to determine why juries hearing cases at the federal courthouse in Detroit are, as Levy pointed out, are about 98 percent white.

It is a serious problem, both Hood and Levy agreed.

"Why is that?" asked a white audience member, saying that he was merely playing "devil's advocate."

Part of it, replied Levy, is a sense of fairness. We have different shared experiences based on race. That point was highlighted during the forum, as people talked about experiencing the kind of racial profiling evident in New York City's "stop and frisk" program, and the concern among minorities in this region that they're going to be singled out by cops when traveling through predominantly white suburbs.

"There are so many profound differences in experience along racial lines," Levy said. And those experiences affect whom jurors will tend to believe.

Also important to keep in mind, one of the forum attendees pointed out, is the issue of class. "The economic realities of this country drive everything," he observed.

Like we said, it's complicated stuff.

Certainly much more complex than Bing's simplistic "we've lost respect" analysis of Detroit's murder problem.

Acknowledging that complexity — and talking with each other, across the racial and economic barriers that separate us in order to increase understanding and awareness by broadening our perspective — is the first step toward finding a solution. Which, as Roundtable President and CEO Tom Costello indicated, is why his group is holding these monthly forums. 

But that's only the first step. 

As another forum attendee declared, when it comes to addressing abuses of power: "These kinds of problems we are trying to deal with don't happen in communities that are organized. Nothing will change until people organize and mobilize."

News Hits is written by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com.

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