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Shining a Light on Ghettoside

America’s criminal justice system is most challenged – and most ineffective – in African-American communities in high-crime, high-poverty areas. Once a culture of violence begetting violence takes hold in these neighborhoods, crimes go unpunished and justice become an abstraction. The costs for those who live and die in these areas is horrific. Sadly, broader society often turns a blind eye – and often has for centuries.Ghettoside

Jill Leovy, a Los Angeles Times reporter, investigates this and more in Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. Its focus is one murder, the shooting of Bryant Tennelle, a sweet 18 year old African-American male with a future ahead of him. From that crime, though, a window opens on another world – a world that needs our collective attention. The victim’s father is Wallace Tennelle, an African-American detective with LAPD who lived with his family in South Central LA. A well-respected cop and father, Tennelle brought up his children in a way that we can all connect with: good children, good values, and high hopes. You want these people to succeed. You root for them, even though we know that the odds are not positive.

Leovy maps the neighborhood, its history, its residents, and the police who try to bring some sense of order and justice to what is, in essence a war zone. She writes with patience, understanding and compassion. She is deeply interested in understanding why the cycle of crime is happening and what it means to those around it. The killing is senseless, like almost all murders. In a culture of honor, poverty, no real order and easy violence, however, it becomes easier to understand why it happened.

We hear the voices of the community: the people who live in city and the police who patrol it. It is an unforgiving environment. Leovy does not romanticize. However, Ghettoside has a protagonist detective, John Skaggs, who is outstanding at his job. He represents order, or the possibility of an ordered society. Skaggs is tireless and very much believes in the pursuit of justice. Brilliant at what he does – and Leovy shows us how he thinks and operates – Skaggs unearths the killers and what led to the crime. There is justice, in the sense that the murderers were convicted, but the lessons learned are neither cathartic nor transformational.

The argument Leovy makes is that areas like South Central need a criminal justice system that stops the crime and provides reliable and prompt justice. She is aware that our current system is racist and that far too many people of color are caught up in it. She references The New Jim Crow and related works. That said, Leovy believes that what the community is hungry for is real justice and stability. People have to be able to believe that a successful life untouched by violence is possible. For the residents in her study, it is not.

Leovy thinks that a robust effort aimed at preventing violence, rooting out the causes of violence, and providing economic opportunity could break the dysfunctional cycle of crime. It is not glamorous and it does not demonize. Her argument is compelling – and one that few political leaders seem willing to take up.

David Potash

When Running Away Makes Sense

Carissa Phelps’ memoir, Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand At A Time, recounts a horrific childhood and adolescence. Born into poverty and growing up in central California, Carissa was sexually exploited by the age of twelve. She was living on and off the streets of Fresno by the time she was thirteen. Raped repeatedly, sold for sex and trapped in a culture of drugs, violence and abuse, Carissa repeatedly ran away. She ran from home, from the juvenile detention centers she was sent, and from the men and women who hurt and used her.

Always smart, always good with numbers, Carissa did not stay in school, either, until her mid-teens. With the ongoing support of a teacher and a counselor, Carissa slowly started putting her life together. She graduated from Cal State Fresno, and then later a JD and an MBA from UCLA. It was never an easy journey. Even as she began to succeed educationally and professionally, difficult choices and decisions troubled her. Steady relationships, trust and “normal” relationships with others challenged her. It is understandable, too. How does one reconcile such a life and move on?

Now an advocate, attorney and speaker, Carissa Phelps tells her story and works to help young men and women. She is a vocal presence warning of the horrors of human trafficking and childhood abuse. She is using her story to give help and hope to others.

I would like to say that the book is uplifting or optimistic, but it is not. Written in a flat, matter-of-fact tone, Runaway Girl has the bluntness of a police report. It is difficult to see how it could be otherwise. Phelps’ uses language and the narrative to both share and hide. She cannot explain. It is impossible to do so. All that she can do for most of the book is describe. The cumulative effect is one of great sorrow.

Ms. Phelps’ strength is that of a survivor. Like a boxer who is able who is beaten round after round but remains standing, Ms. Phelps’ determination is admirable. But there is no joy in taking the beating.

Though not a feminist text, the book is a primer in misogyny. Carissa is a recurring site of exploitation and hatred. The moments in the text when she describes others treating her humanely, valuing her as a person, stand out.

At a larger level, the book makes clear the dystopian culture of poverty, drugs, abuse and indifference in our culture. The streets for many of our young are Hobbesian camps of power and exploitation. With sex and drugs are the prime economic drivers, other values stand little chance of gaining a toe-hold. The memoir also demonstrates the colossal ineffectiveness of our “system” to address adolescents who get into trouble. Happenstance is what helped Phelps survive, not planning, not thoughtful care, and most definitely not a system.

A story of success on one level, the book is also a story of many failures, many lives lost and ruined. It is, in many ways, a nightmare, a vision of what many young people must see as a life without hope or love.

Pussy Riot and Brittni Colleps – women in trouble/troubling women

A week ago Friday in Moscow, Russia, three women in their 20s were convicted of “hooliganism” and sentenced to two years in a penal colony. The all-girl members of the impromptu punk band “Pussy Riot” received world-wide attention after being arrested for an anti-Putin performance on the steps of an Orthodox church. Pussy Riot’s supposed primary victim, the Russian Orthodox Church, approved the prosecution of the women but asked the state for leniency. The female sentencing judge ignored the plea, calling the women a danger to society.

On the other side of the world in Fort Worth, Texas, another young woman was found guilty Friday of a serious crime. Brittni Nicole Colleps, a married 28-year-old mother of three and former high school English teacher, will be serving five years in jail for having “improper relationships” with five of her former students. She had sex with some of her students. Colleps’ defense did not contest that sexual activity took place between the teacher and the young men. Instead, her attorneys argued that the students, each of whom was 18 or older at the time of the encounters, were willing participants. Ms. Colleps’ sexual partners tried to keep their activity quiet because they “didn’t want her to get in trouble.” Discretion was unavoidable as Texas prosecutors never even considered a plea bargain. They wanted a jury to serve as “the moral conscience of the community.”

Brittni Colleps should not be teaching. Pussy Riot – now often called a punk art collective – are not good musicians. The consistency in jail time and the inconsistency in responses to those sentences is telling.

Pussy Riot’s ordeal has been a world-wide cause célèbre, with civil rights organizations, politicians and pop stars rising to the band’s defense. The paper of record, The New York Times, considered Pussy Riot’s sentencing front-page news. Those that support the prosecution assert that the women committed a premeditated crime against the church and Russian morality. The state, championing this view, has pursued justice by aligned itself every more closely with the Russian national church. Those who oppose the trial and conviction see it as a case of free speech being muzzled. Pussy Riot are media darlings, even in the tabloids.

Ms. Colleps ordeal is also a global media event with salacious details feeding the frenzy. She had sex with multiple men and one escapade was captured on a cell phone. The video was shown to her jury, adding to the scandal. The Texas prosecutors’ arguments are a defense of the community’s values. District Attorney Elizabeth Beach described Ms. Colleps’ actions as “completely disgusting.” Ms. Colleps’ lawyers, however, described the charges as an unconstitutional intrusion of the state into the sex lives of adults. The students, they argued, were of the age of consent. The jury convicted quickly. Ms. Colleps’ sexual behavior is her crime. Do not expect, however, for Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch to rush to Brittni Colleps’ aid. They and other organizations have been mute, as has the non-tabloid press. The New York Times has published nothing about her.

It is relatively easy for Americans to scoff at Russia’s ham-handed attempts at controlling speech and behavior. The female punk band, whose members look like and act like rebels, fit a recognizable stereotype. Further, Pussy Riot needed to be convicted in order to fulfill that role. Any number of musicians – female or not – can perform protest songs and never be noticed. After all, most musical protests are harmless. Pussy Riot’s conviction affirms a convenient way of understanding human rights, that freedoms are hard to come by outside of our shores. We are able to judge from afar while affirming our own sense of righteousness.

On the other hand, Colleps will gather little sympathy, even though the proportionality of crime to punishment may strike many as dubious. Her sin is more serious than breaking a law that was passed to protect children because her sexual behavior is incompatible with acceptable norms for teacher, mother and wife. In fact, Colleps’ transgression dishonored multiple communities – her home, her school, and, by proxy through her husband who is in the service, the military. Her sexual partners may have thought leniency proper, but framing that defense demands a radical re-casting of her sins into something different. “Free sexuality” does not carry the same currency as “free speech.” She will be punished severely.

Deeply held concerns about changing values and mores are more often than not played through our responses to the crimes of women and their perceived status as criminals. While the actions of Pussy Riot – playing music – and Brittni Colleps – having sex with adult men – may not in and of themselves be characterized as criminal, the context of their actions were judged to be dangerous to their communities. Pussy Riot’s music was a public affront to state and church; Brittni Colleps sexual behavior was an affront to community values for teachers. But in both situations, it is less about who has been put at risk and more about the political gains that are accrued from their prosecutions.

Pussy Riot helps to explain Russia – and it also helps to explain the way that many in the west rush to support a particular concept of free speech. Brittni Colleps can tell us a great deal about America’s concern about sexuality, public schools, and the fascination with the prurient. And both situations are extremely informative about the power of the prosecution to indict, convict and define.