Make It Stop: Reflections on Ghettoside and Citizen

The morning started off with a gloomy chill off the North Shore. A few chickens pecking in the yard interrupted the early morning silence. My husband and I have a newly adopted Saturday morning routine. We sink into our side-by-side wicker chairs on the lanai, share a pot of coffee, and read until noon.

It sounds idyllic, and I’d be lying if I said mornings like these feel like they somehow belong to me. Like I should be forty years older and in a film adapted from the next Nicolas Sparks novel: elderly white woman sits next to her equally elderly white husband, facing the ocean while quietly reading from a book that ends up being story-of-her-life.

I admit, this is not a movie I want to watch. Nor is the book I’m holding anything close to the story of my life.

This weekend’s goal was to finish the heart-achingly necessarily and difficult-to-stomach nonfiction book Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America written by Jill Leovy, a reporter for the L.A. Times. The true story Leovy tells couldn’t be further from my experience as a white woman in America.

Ghettoside is an extremely well written true crime account largely about the murder of a black cop’s son, 18 year-old Bryant Tennelle, which took place in 2010 in Watts, a small neighborhood in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, Tennelle’s case isn’t unique in that it’s indicative of the large number of young black men murdered every year in L.A.’s South Bureau.

Leovy’s poetic and precise prose floats above its harrowing subject matter—the law’s failure to stand up for black men in America. Weaved throughout the murder and court case of Bryant Tennelle are interviews, stories, and statistics that shed an unflattering light on how the criminal justice system fails to police the neighborhoods that, out of necessity, end up policing themselves.

When it comes to the neighborhoods of South L.A., the city’s poorest divisions infiltrated by gangs, revenge becomes retaliation for the street murders of friends, family, and neighbors. Leovy calls this a village mentality, where citizens take the law into their own hands. The question is, why?

The answer isn’t easily stated. It’s messy. Black Americans don’t trust the cops because cops don’t solve the murders of their husbands and sons. But homicides go unsolved because cops assigned to the area termed “Ghettoside” don’t have the resources. On top of that, witnesses don’t speak up because they are terrified they’ll be next in line to be killed (an unfortunate yet plausible fear).

Some cops think young black males are so often murdered because they lack the “values” and “morals” that then drive them to gangs. Leovy quotes one Hispanic cop who says that blacks “could better their lives, but they don’t” because “They love selling drugs.” Then, there are other cops, like John Skaggs, an enthusiastic homicide detective Leovy describes as “a sports enthusiast, a surfer, sunny and optimistic, a happily married family man,” who, at his core, believes that the murders of the South Bureau are not only solvable, but worth the effort and “persistence.”

The argument that Leovy constructs in the book, as she herself points out, is difficult to make. She writes, “So to assert that black Americans suffer from too little application of the law, not too much, seems at odds with common perception.”

I tend to side with those who share this perception: cops target young black men, treat their bodies differently than young white men. We see it in the numbers that show how often these men and boys are injured, gunned down, and incarcerated. According to the NAACP, African Americans are imprisioned nearly six times more than whites and make up almost half of the nation’s incarcerated population.

But after reading Ghettoside, Leovy’s argument becomes convincing, to say the least.

The book isn’t just about policing the neighborhoods that need the law the most. It’s about how the injured bodies of young black men become marked by absence: their deaths are hidden from view, the law neglects black crime, preventing justice for black families, and violence becomes normalized in communities where the focus is on “cheap” and “preventative” strategies and “police forces [that] have historically preoccupied themselves with control, prevention, and nuisance abatement rather than responding to victims of violence.”

It’s important to point out that Leovy began writing this book in 2010, years before Michael Brown made headlines. But since Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the epidemic of police violence in the black community has been picked up by mainstream media, ultimately giving visibility to excessive force and police brutality fueld by what has been called “unconscious” racial bias.

Ghettoside gives us something else to think about besides cops killing innocent black men. We should obviously be upset by the state’s violent treatment of black and brown bodies, but we should also be deeply disturbed by the state’s determination, though the erasure of black men, of whose bodies are actionable. Black men who murder other black men aren’t held accountable. Both bodies—the victim and the responsible party—are erased.

When I was reading Ghettoside I couldn’t help but think of Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric, a finalist for the National Book AwardGhettoside, while nonfiction, could be a compelling companion text to Rankine’s equally timely book of poetry, which illustrates— through prose poems, unexpected turns of the lyric, and the incorporation of documents— the everyday racism and injustices black Americans endure.

Ghettoside and Citizen are two very different books that are furiously important in understanding how the law performs various erasures of black and brown bodies.

In Citizen, the lyric “I” transforms the narrative of citizenship–defined by a status of belonging–by inviting the elusive “you” to participate in the painful truth and experience that is the invisibility of black existence. In Ghettoside, Leovy points to how the law performs various erasures of black and brown bodies; “you” are never invited–the distance offers a bit of safety where Citizen cannot.

Or, at least, it’s me–white lady on the porch–that can feel safe, has the privilege of feeling safe because my whiteness is so visible, so accountable.

I admit that talking about race as a white woman is uncomfortable. You have to recognize your privilege, which seems to be more difficult for some than for others. But I think if something makes you uncomfortable, you should ask yourself why, make every effort to listen and understand, and have the difficult conversations.

It didn’t occur to me until my husband brought it up over dinner: when we were both discussing Ghettoside, I had mistakenly mispronounced the book as “genocide.” This was my accident, but I don’t think the connection is so far fetched.

I can see how black genocide is implicit in Leovy’s title. Historically, black men and women have been erased by the legal system’s failure to recognize them as citizens. Lynchings, voting, incarceration, murder.

While we call the systemic killing of people based on race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality “genocide,” “ghettoside” was named as a result of the same systemic discrimination that has lead to the murder of innocent black men like Bryant Tennelle.

It’s an understatement to say that this makes me uncomfortable. I am terrified by this. I am angry, upset, and sad.

I can’t help but think of the section of Citizen where Rankine writes about a black boy who is pushed to the ground in the subway. The mother of this boy approaches the stranger and tells him to “look at the boy” and apologize. Rankine writes,

And yes, you want it to stop, you want the black child pushed to the ground to be seen, to be helped to his feet and be brushed off, not brushed off  by the person that did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.

Rankine is showing the you who is seen, the you who doesn’t worry about how you will disappear, the you who will look at the boy and finally says yes, I see you and yes, make it stop.