Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America

Jill Leovy writes in this 2015 book:

* [John] Skaggs had been a homicide detective for twenty years. In that time, he had been in a thousand living rooms like this one—each with its large TV, Afrocentric knickknacks, and imponderable grief.

* Skaggs, like most LAPD cops, was a Republican.

* She lived in a federally subsidized rental apartment, and she was a Democrat who would weep in front of CNN later that fall when Barack Obama won the presidential election, wishing her mother were still alive to see it.

* Homicide had ravaged the country’s black population for a century or more. But it was at best a curiosity to the mainstream.

* They [black men] were the nation’s number one crime victims. They were the people hurt most badly and most often, just 6 percent of the country’s population but nearly 40 percent of those murdered. People talked a lot about crime in America, but they tended to gloss over this aspect—that a plurality of those killed were not women, children, infants, elders, nor victims of workplace or school shootings. Rather, they were legions of America’s black men, many of them unemployed and criminally involved. They were murdered every day, in every city, their bodies stacking up by the thousands, year after year.

* According to the old unwritten code of the Los Angeles Police Department, Dovon’s was a nothing murder. “NHI—No Human Involved,” the cops used to say. It was only the newest shorthand for the idea that murders of blacks somehow didn’t count. “ Nigger life’s cheap now,” a white Tennessean offered during Reconstruction, when asked to explain why black-on-black killing drew so little notice.
A congressional witness a few years later reported that when black men in Louisiana were killed, “ a simple mention is made of it, perhaps orally or in print, and nothing is done. There is no investigation made.” A late-nineteenth-century Louisiana newspaper editorial said, “If negroes continue to slaughter each other, we will have to conclude that Providence has chosen to exterminate them in this way.” In 1915, a South Carolina official explained the pardon of a black man who had killed another black: “ This is a case of one negro killing another—the old familiar song.” In 1930s Mississippi, the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker examined the workings of criminal justice and concluded that “the attitude of the Whites and of the courts … is one of complaisance toward violence among the Negroes.” Studying Natchez, Mississippi, in the same period, a racially mixed team of social anthropologists observed that “the injury or death of a Negro is not considered by the whites to be a serious matter.” An Alabama sheriff of the era was more concise: “ One less nigger,” he said. In 1968, a New York journalist testifying as part of the Kerner Commission’s investigation of riots across the country said that “for decades, little if any law enforcement enforcement has prevailed among Negroes in America.… If a black man kills a black man, the law is generally enforced at its minimum.”
Carter Spikes, once a member of the black Businessman Gang in South Central Los Angeles, recalled that through the seventies police “didn’t care what black people did to each other. A nigger killing another nigger was no big deal.”

* John Skaggs stood in opposition to this inheritance. His whole working life was devoted to one end: making black lives expensive. Expensive, and worth answering for, with all the force and persistence the state could muster. Skaggs had treated the murder of Dovon Harris like the hottest celebrity crime in town. He had applied every resource he possessed, worked every angle of the system, and solved it swiftly, unequivocally.

* America has long been more violent than other developed nations, and black-on-black homicide is much of the reason. This is not new. Measurements are problematic, since few official efforts were made to track black homicide before 1950. But historians have traced disproportionately high black homicide rates all the way back to the late nineteenth century, and in the early twentieth, “nonwhite” homicide rates exceeded those of whites in all cities that reported federal data. In the 1920s, a scholar concluded that black death rates from homicide nationwide were about seven times white rates. In the 1930s, Southern observers also noticed startling rates of black violence, and in the 1940s, a Philadelphia study found that black men died from homicide at twelve times the white rate. When the U.S. government began publishing data specific to blacks in 1950, it revealed that same gap nationwide. The black homicide death rate remained as much as ten times higher than the white rate in 1960 and 1970, and has been five to seven times higher for most of the past thirty years.
Mysteriously, in modern-day Los Angeles, young black men are murdered two to four times more frequently than young Hispanic men, though blacks and Hispanics live in the same neighborhoods. This stands out because L.A., unlike well-known murder centers such as Detroit, has a relatively small black population, and it is in decline. By Skaggs’s time, there were few solidly black neighborhoods left; most black residents of South Los Angeles lived in majority-Hispanic neighborhoods. Yet black men died here as they died in cities with large and concentrated black populations, like New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Chicago—more often than anyone else, and nearly always at the hands of black assailants. In L.A., it was strange how all those bullets seemed to find their black targets in such an ethnically jumbled place; it was, as one young man put it, as if black men had bull’s-eyes on their backs.
Violent crime was plummeting in Los Angeles County, as it was across the country, by the spring of 2007, when Dovon Harris was murdered. But the disparity between black male death rates and those of everybody else remained nearly as large as ever. No matter how much crime dropped, the American homicide problem remained maddeningly, mystifyingly, disproportionately black.

* Despite so much evidence of a particularly black homicide problem, however, there was relatively little research or activism specific to black-on-black murder. That gruesome history of Southern racism made the topic an uncomfortable one for many Americans. One of the enduring tropes of racist lore had been the “black beast,” the inferior black man who could not control his impulses and was prone to violence. By the early twenty-first century, popular consensus held that any emphasis on high rates of black criminality risked invoking the stigma of white racism. So people were careful about how they spoke of it.
Researchers describe skirting the subject for fear of being labeled racist. Activists have sought to minimize it. “When the discussion turns to violent crime,” legal scholar James Forman, Jr., has pointed out, “ progressives tend to avoid or change the subject.” Privately, some black civil-rights advocates describe feeling embarrassed and baffled by the stubborn persistence of the problem. “Like incest,” is how one L.A. street activist, Najee Ali, put it, talking of the shame and secrecy the issue evokes. Other concerned blacks cite their fear of inflaming white racism: Why emphasize what seems sure to be used against them?
Yet the statistical truth was undeniable, and most Americans understood it intuitively even if they didn’t talk about it in polite company.

* Randall Kennedy: “It does no good to pretend that blacks and whites are similarly situated with respect to either rates of perpetration or rates of victimization. They are not,” Kennedy wrote. “The familiar dismal statistics and the countless tragedies behind them are not figments of some Negrophobe’s imagination.”

* Black humor helped. But it still got to him—the him—the attitude of black residents down here. They were shooting each other but still seemed to think the police were the problem. “Po-Po , ” they sneered. Once, De La Rosa had to stand guard over the body of a black man until paramedics arrived. An angry crowd closed in on him, accusing him of disrespecting the murdered man’s body. Some of them tried to drag the corpse away. The police used an official term for this occasional hazard: “lynching.” Some felt uncomfortable saying it. They associated the word with the noose, not the mobs that once yanked people from police to kill or rescue them. De La Rosa held back the crowd. “You don’t care because he’s a black man!” someone yelled. De La Rosa was stunned. Why did they think race was a part of this? Sometimes, in the Seventy-seventh, De La Rosa had the sense that he was no longer in America. As if he had pulled off the freeway into another world.

* To other cops, ghettoside was where patrol cars were dinged, computer keyboards sticky, workdays long, and staph infections antibiotic-resistant. To work down there was to feel a sense of futility, forgo promotions, and deal with all those stressful, dreary, depressing problems poor black people had. But to Skaggs, ghettoside was the place to be, the place where there was real work to be done. He radiated contentment as he worked its streets. He wheeled down filthy alleys in his crisp shirts and expensive ties, always rested, his sedan always freshly washed and vacuumed.

* The qualities that make great homicide detectives are different from the qualities that make great patrol cops. But they are related. Wally Tennelle had a baseline of attributes that steer many young people toward police work. Although he was not college-educated, he was smart and energetic. Police work can be a haven for brainy, action-oriented people who do not, for some reason, gravitate toward formal education—the type afflicted with what DeeDee Tennelle diagnosed in her whole family as “a touch of ADD.”
It made them uniquely suited for a job that was carried out almost entirely out of doors and involved sleepless nights, relentless bursts of activity, and the ability to move from one situation to the next quickly without leaving too much behind. A great cop—or a great detective—needed to be smart and quick, but not necessarily bookish or terribly analytical. A good memory, a talent for improvisation, a keen interest in people, and a buoyancy of spirit—one had to like “capering”—ensured that the hyperactive flourished in a job that left others wilting with stress.

* “Nobody cares” was a universal lament south of the Ten during the Big Years, and for many years after.

[LF: Were the accomplishments of those who died sufficient for wider society to mourn them? You can’t expect out-groups to care about you just because you once breathed.]

* Very few murders were covered in the media. Television stations covered more than the papers, but without any particular consistency, and many, many deaths received no mention by any media outlet, especially if the victims were black. It rankled deeply. The lack of media coverage seemed to convey that black-on-black homicide was “small potatoes” in the eyes of the world, said a father who lost a daughter. “Nothing on the news!” a mother cried, weeping, at the sight of a journalist the day after her son was murdered. “ Please write about it! Please!”

* “I remember a banner headline in the Los Angeles Times one weekend,” recalled a detective named Paul Mize. “A bomb in Beirut had killed six people. We had nine murders that weekend, and not a one of them made the paper. Not one.”

* But to brass, detective work was “strictly reactive,” as one high-ranking officer called it, dismissing the whole function. Crime prevention was seen as more progressive, and so competing priorities always seemed to win out over investigations: preventive patrol projects, gang sweeps. “Just all upside down,” said a Newton homicide detective named Johnny Villa.
Law, of course, isn’t like hygiene, and crime “prevention” inevitably leads to stereotyping people as potential threats. But “proactive” patrol work sounded better. Prevention carried an added bonus, as legal scholar Carol Steiker has noted: it gave police wide latitude, since the Constitution places many constraints on legal procedure after a crime, far fewer before it.

* The smallest ghettoside spat seemed to escalate to violence, as if absent law, people were left with no other means of bringing a dispute to a close. Debts and competition over goods and women—especially women—drove many killings. But insults, snitching, drunken antics, and the classic—unwanted party guests—also were common homicide motives. Small conflicts divided people into hostile camps and triggered lasting feuds. Every grudge seemed to harbor explosive potential. It would ignite when antagonists met by chance, gunfire erupting in streets or liquor stores. Vengeance was a staple motive. In some circles, retaliation for murder was considered all but mandatory. It was striking how openly people discussed it, even debating the merits from the pulpit at funerals.

* When the Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal studied the black South in the 1940s, he found that, despite rampant complaints about law enforcement, black Southerners everywhere also said they wanted more policing—to protect them from other black people.

* Wally Tennelle was idiosyncratic, even a little radical. He lived in the Seventy-seventh Division.
Among LAPD officers, the proscription against living in the city of Los Angeles went without saying. It was something that had long annoyed various liberal critics of the department. For years, most officers in the department had refused to live in the city they policed and instead commuted into the city from distant suburbs. They formed little red-state bastions sprinkled around the five-county area of Southern California—Santa Clarita and Simi Valley to the north, Chino and as far as Temecula to the east, and Orange County to the south. But with a few exceptions, such as San Pedro, a historic enclave of ethnic whites, Los Angeles was considered off-limits, the length and breadth of this beautiful city disdained by its police.

* Watts claimed an equal share of the city’s best attributes. It was Mediterranean and golden, with air that was soft in summer and crisp in winter. Gardens there burst with bird-of-paradise flowers and purple-blooming jacarandas. Palm trees lined streets, their glossy fronds flashing in the sun. There were still paddocks in Compton and a stable in Athens, and people rode horses up the grassy median of Broadway. They sat on couches on front porches, barbecued in their driveways on summer evenings as their children played.
The setting made much of the literature about the urban “underclass” based on observations in places such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, and the Bronx seem like some dark fantasy. A foreign visitor in 2008 said she was surprised by the pleasant surroundings; referencing George Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s famous essay, she noted that there were no broken windows at all.

* Only people who weren’t familiar with this kind of “inner-city” environment would attribute its problems to alienation or lack of community solidarity. The truth was that “community spirit” in the sense of both local pride and connections among neighbors was far more in evidence in Watts than elsewhere. It was one of the defining aspects of the ghettoside setting: a substantial portion of the area’s residents were related to each other through extended family ties, marriage, or other intimate connections. Relatives who were only nominally related by blood often saw each other daily, ate together, celebrated together, quarreled and comforted each other. They shared food, money, and living quarters.
They raised each other’s children. They traded off transportation and housework… In contrast to wealthier neighborhoods, where most people worked at day jobs and neighbors knew each other in passing or not at all, the unemployed people of these places were home all day, hanging out together, confined to a few blocks.

* Among officers in the division, the company line was that most of South Bureau’s population were “good people.” But a minority—some cops put it at 1 percent, some as high as 15 percent—were “knuckleheads.” This term referred to unemployed, criminally involved men, and gang members, especially black ones.
Blacks “could better their lives, but they don’t,” said one officer of Hispanic ethnicity. “They love it. They love selling drugs. They love forcing old people out of their homes so they can sell drugs there.” Said a white officer: “The true victims are Hispanic. Black suspects prey on Hispanic victims.” There was plenty of Hispanic crime and “gang activity,” too. But the hard-core underclass in Watts was black, and it was impossible for patrol cops not to see that. All day long, their radios buzzed with familiar suspect descriptions. “Male black, five-six to six-two, eighteen to thirty-five, white shirt, black pants,” a gang officer intoned drily, reading aloud from a report in the Watts station one day. All the cops present laughed, for they all sought the same suspect. But even as officers laughed, some cops also searched their souls, trying to figure out how to accommodate their experiences at work with the antiracism they shared with most of their countrymen.
They sometimes wrestled with race in disarming ways. No one in the wider world seemed to want to talk about it, but black residents, to many officers, appeared more violent than Hispanics. Their own eyes told them so. Statistics backed them up. Few officers wanted to believe that black people were somehow intrinsically wired for violence.

* Nearly every official who dealt closely with crime in Watts felt the same way. “ They have their own businesses … their own law!” prosecutor Joe Porras said of the participants in the gang cases he tried in Compton Courthouse. “It’s a parallel world, and you are trying to bring your law into it.” Cops and prosecutors felt like door-to-door salesmen, trying to peddle a legal system no one wanted anything to do with.

* Compassionate by nature, Barling was unafraid to air his distress over the bloodshed in Watts. He was appalled by the Monster, tormented by what he perceived as the public’s indifference and political neglect, baffled by the black tilt to the stats. “It’s either society’s racism, or something is wrong with them—something wrong just with black people. And I don’t believe that!” Barling said, his voice rising in distress. “I believe we are all created equally, men, women, all races! That’s why I cannot buy that.”

* By the late twentieth century, the criminal justice system was no longer very corrupt. Many police and prosecutors were sincere and professional, and legal outcomes were relatively color-blind. But because the reach of the system was so limited, the results were similar to those produced by masquerade justice. Even when criminal justice procedures were clean and fair, violent-crime investigations remained too ineffective and threadbare to counter the scale of black-on-black murder.

* If you don’t incapacitate violent actors, they keep pushing people around until someone makes them stop. When violent people are permitted to operate with impunity, they get their way . Advantage tilts to them. Others are forced to do their bidding.
No amount of “community” feeling or activism can eclipse this dynamic. People often assert that the solution to homicide is for the so-called community to “step up.” It is a pernicious distortion. People like Jessica Midkiff cannot be expected to stand up to killers. They need safety, not stronger moral conviction. They need some powerful outside force to sweep in and take their tormentors away.

* Her parents had split while Jessica was young, and she said that an abusive stepfather had raped her repeatedly. By the time she was eleven, she was performing oral sex for cash, food, and clothes. She was turning tricks in cars by fourteen.
Prostitutes such as Midkiff are effectively slaves. But they tend to spin a narrative about their own lives that suggests more agency. Midkiff referred to various pimps over the years as “boyfriends.” Some were pimpier than others. In her mind, there existed the possibility of a man being “kind of like a pimp.” She had straight pimps who kept her with a stable of other prostitutes and appropriated all her earnings. She also had boyfriends like Derrick Starks, with whom she was paired as a couple but who also asked her to turn tricks now and then.
Her daughter’s father, who had gotten Jessica pregnant while she was a student at Washington High, had been one of the few men in her life who was not abusive and didn’t try to pimp her. But after his brother was murdered, he joined a gang and ended up in prison, she said.
While still an adolescent, Midkiff traveled as a prostitute. She worked in Los Angeles, Riverside, Las Vegas, and parts of Arizona. She worked Sunset Boulevard, peddling ten-minute intervals in cars: oral sex for $50, intercourse for $100, both for $150. She was hired by a professional football player and for pricey all-night parties, once earning $850 for a single trick. She’d also worked Figueroa Street—that dangerous bargain basement for prostitutes. You were down-and-out when you found yourself working the long murderous stretch that plunged southward along the Harbor Freeway. Years later, the thought of it still caused her to shudder. “I hate Figueroa,” she said.

* Prostitutes tended to be among the most dysfunctional people in the street environment, their problems intractable, their unreliability profound.

* Brent Josephson, the old ghettoside hand from the previous generation, had a memorable story from the peak years. It involved a scoop-and-carry homicide case in a park. Assigned after the fact, with the evidence cleared away and no witnesses, Josephson was standing helplessly at the scene, thinking he didn’t have a prayer of solving the case, when he noticed a skinny Hispanic youth in the distance. Josephson called out to him, thinking the kid might have some pointers. Thunderstruck, the young man hung his head and shuffled over. “You got me,” he told Josephson, and proceeded to confess. The specter of an LAPD detective beckoning from across the park had apparently been too much for him. It was like a summons from God.

* “As homicide creeps up, witness cooperation drops off,” he said. A feedback loop exists between murder rates and ambient fear;

* For the city of L.A., it is clear that demographic change is an important driver. The city’s black population is fast disappearing: black Angelenos were once nearly a fifth of the city’s population, but they made up a scant 9 percent in the 2010 census. Their numbers have been dropping steadily each year as the city’s black residents scatter to the exurbs. To some extent, their high homicide rates travel with them.

* enrollment of working-age African Americans in SSI in 2009 was nearly twice their representation in the population, and African American children made up nearly one-third of SSI recipients age fifteen to seventeen.

* Money translates to autonomy. Economic autonomy is like legal autonomy. It helps break apart homicidal enclaves by reducing interdependence and lowering the stakes of conflicts. The many indigent black men who now report themselves to be “on disability”—many of them with mental disabilities, such as ADD and bipolar disorder—signal an unprecedented income stream for a population that once suffered near-absolute economic marginalization. An eight-hundred-dollar-a-month check for an unemployed black ex-felon makes a big difference in his life. The risks and benefits of various hustles surely appear different to him. He can move, ditch his homeys, commit fewer crimes, walk away from more fights. Doubtless many people will criticize this trend and decry the expense of SSI. But this author can’t condemn a program that appears to have saved so many from being murdered or maimed.

* Another factor reducing murder rates is a bleak one—large numbers of black men in prison. Imprisonment brings down homicide rates because it keeps black men safe, and they are far less likely to become victims in prison than outside it. California’s rate of imprisonment increased fivefold between 1972 and 2000. Homicide deaths among this largely black and Latino population of tens of thousands number just a handful per year. But this is, it need hardly be said, a rotten—and expensive—way to combat the problem. Other factors, such as the shift to cellphone sales of drugs, the abuse of legal pharmaceuticals, computer games that keep adolescents indoors, and the improved conduct of police (former chief Bernard Parks deserves much credit for the latter in L.A.), probably count, too.
People are much safer, on the whole, in America than they used to be, and this is good. But anyone who tracks homicide in L.A. County and elsewhere still can’t escape the obvious: black men remain disproportionately victimized.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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