Crime & Punishment

Entertaining Reality On Urban Streets

Sheriff's deputies scuffle with members of the Black Riders Liberation Front

Sheriff's deputies scuffle with members of the Black Riders Liberation Front outside the Los Angeles Superior Court before the sentencing of the former Bay Area Rapid Transit officer Johannes Mehserle on November 5. Mehserle, who is white, was convicted in July involuntary manslaughter related to the 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man. He was sentenced Friday to two years behind bars. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Wednesday on NPR’s Tell Me More, host Michel Martin discussed the recent controversies surrounding the shooting of black suspects by white police officers. She mentioned last month’s sentencing of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle in the 2009 New Years shooting death of Oscar Grant II.

While the story of Grant’s death and Mehserle’s sentence was widely reported, outside of the Bay Area there continues to be collective apathy in the American public towards urban violence.

In America, violence in urban, ethnic minority communities has become so expected and common-place, that it rarely raises an eyebrow. Charlie LeDuff outlines this perfectly in his most recent piece for Mother Jones, about the decline of Detroit. He describes how the death of this city has affected residents who live in virtual war zones and whose plight has become poverty porn-style entertainment for curious outsiders.

But the apathy, corruption and cronyism that LeDuff tackles did not just appear overnight. It is as old as industrialized America; older than Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle that detailed the everyday tragedies unfolding in the shadow of the American Dream.

Bad things are just supposed to happen to the other. The Italian immigrant. The coal-mining West Virginian. The Mexican day laborer. The urban black male. If a 15-year-old Black boy is shot dead on the streets of Detroit or St. Louis or Los Angeles, it is rare for an outcry to be heard, other than the cry of the mother who will mourn him. But if a former student from the privileged halls of one of our nation’s finest private institutions produces a comical list, ranking partners she might see worthy of recreational fornication, it is worthy of the 24-hour-news cycle. Or if the pretty, blonde daughter of an upper middle class family goes missing. These crimes are examined and fretted over in a way that the death of seven-year-old Aiyana Stanely-Jones will never be. That’s because Aiyana had the misfortune of being born to a poor mother and a father with questionable background in a crime-ridden part of Detroit. She was shot dead by an over-zealous police officer who wanted to impress the TV cameras that had come to Detroit to document the decay.

What became her murder was set up as a scene for the entertainment of the same middle class that enjoys Law & Order SVU and sees crime as something of a fantasy, something that happens to “those people.” Not something that is newsworthy or upsetting or could ever happen to them.

It is this disconnect that makes it disturbing. Detroit’s high crime rate may make compelling entertainment for The First 48 but for most people, that’s all it ever is – entertainment compounded with an indifference that says, “Well, if they don’t like it, they should move” – as if it were the fault of seven-year-olds for being born in America’s urban war zone.

Writer Danielle Belton is editor and creator The Black Snob blog.



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