by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
“Every generation makes mistakes. Sometimes these errors are relatively harmless or easily fixed. But every so often, a misstep is so damaging that future generations are left shaking their heads in disbelief. ‘What were they thinking?’ we ask each other.”
|Gov. Mike Parson (center), Mayor Lyda Krewson (right)|
In his book, “Locking Up Our Own,” author James Forman, Jr. examines the role African Americans played in instituting the “War on Drugs” in the 1970s.
Black lawmakers, Forman writes, including “California Congresswoman Maxine Waters and former United States Attorney General Eric Holder—pushed for tough-on-crime penalties not only for drug crimes, but also for gun possession.”
The sentiments of Waters and Holder were shared by black politicians on almost every political level. Black citizens also demanded more police action, tougher drug laws and stricter sentencing. They were legitimately angry, frustrated and felt terrorized by the crime and violence associated with the growing crack epidemic.
These weren’t bad or malicious people. As Forman wrote, what black leaders “didn't—couldn't—know, was what tragic collateral consequences would come to a head in later years.” He further added, “It is now widely recognized that the drug war has caused tremendous damage—especially in the low-income African American communities that have been its primary target.”
Forman’s book validates my growing fear in the wake of a surge in violence in our city. I’ve read about or heard from local black political leaders and ordinary citizens who are fed up with gun violence, especially the tragic loss of young lives. I maintain that these are good people with no desire to punish non-violent blacks. Yet, I fear that in this hyperventilating climate of fear and anger, we are poised to repeat the mistakes of the past.
I fear that in this hyperventilating climate of fear and anger, we are poised to repeat the mistakes of the past.
After a recent crime summit with political and law enforcement officials, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced that he’s dedicating state funds, sending highway patrolmen and other state workers to St. Louis to address our crime surge.
I don’t think black leaders who reached out to the governor asking that he send in the national guard or supply more money and resources have nefarious intentions. I just think they’re participating in an approach that’s short-sighted, publicity-oriented and, most of all, dangerous.
To date, the turn-to solution for crime and violence has been increased police forces and mass incarceration. In the conclusion of my book, “When We Listen…” I write about this and other mostly ignored models aimed at reducing crime.
For example, I highlight the work of Patrick Sharkey, professor and chair of sociology at New York University and author of “Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence. In 2018, Sharkey wrote an excellent Los Angeles Times article that stressed how community investment, not increased police forces or extreme punishment, is key to reducing violence.
|Uneasy Peace by Patrick Sharkey|
Sharkey details how “police forces have grown larger and more militant, how prosecutors have become more aggressive, and criminal justice policies have become increasingly harsher.” He explores the punishment model which “expanded and intensified in the 1990s and has become increasingly militarized after the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.
My concern is that politically expedient, quick fix remedies like what we’re pushing in St. Louis will simply guarantee that more young people, more poor people of color will be incarcerated for most of their lives. Prisons, especially private prisons, will continue making billions from cheap, slave-like labor and communities of color will remain stagnant bastions of replicated poverty, crime and hopelessness.
My concern is that politically expedient, quick fix remedies like what we’re pushing in St. Louis will simply guarantee that more young people, more poor people of color will be incarcerated for most of their lives.
To truly reform our criminal justice system, I agree with Sharkey who suggests we move away from the “punishment” mind-set and turn to a new model based on “sufficient evidence” aimed at countering violence. The professor suggests we look to the “community investment model.” He provides data that illustrates how community organizations can play key roles in bringing crime rates down. In fact, his research found that “in a typical city with 100,000 residents, every ten additional organizations formed to address violence and build stronger communities led to a 9% drop in the murder rate.”
St. Louis is like Chicago, Detroit, Memphis or any other city with disproportionately high crime, murder or poverty rates. I have spent decades writing, researching and explaining the socio/economic factors that lead to or fuel crime in poor, black neighborhoods. After all these years, I’ve come to one simple conclusion: We must empower people, especially young people, to make and sustain the change we all desire.
The problem with this approach is that it’s not a quick fix. It can’t be boiled down to a promising headline that makes people feel it’s safe to move into the city or attend sporting or entertainment events downtown. Not only will it take real monetary investment, like the kind city leaders dole out to already rich developers, it will take time, strategy and “buy-in” from politicians, police, businesses and the community at large.
I don’t think it’s necessary to discuss the bad, disrespectful or deadly behavior of police. Nor will I delve into the consequences of bringing more militarized officers into low-income areas where they don’t relate or-based on some of their social media comments-literally loathe the people living in poor neighborhoods. Not now, anyway. Here, I want to proceed under the theory that there are good cops who want to do good in the communities they are supposed to serve.
But, here, too, we must invest in models that will help police better interact with poor people and poor neighborhoods. The long-range approach should focus on investing in nonprofits working to provide affordable homes and small businesses in troubled neighborhoods. If people, especially young people, own homes and businesses in their own neighborhoods, they will have a vested interest in protecting what’s theirs. If they are vested, they can become the eyes, ears and hearts of the community. Their businesses can provide economic opportunities and hope for young folk who may believe that illegal drug activity is their only money-making option. Empowered homeowners can then set up neighborhood watch groups that work in tangent with police to control crime. Heck, with a little vision and resources, people from poor neighborhoods can be hired for private security companies in majority black North St. Louis like they have in the Central West End and other predominantly white neighborhoods.
I want to proceed under the theory that there are good cops who want to do good in the communities they are supposed to serve.
Although I totally understand and share the frustrations of black people who want to do something, anything, to reduce crime in our city, I stress caution. We must always remember that there is a history of a criminal justice system backed by politicians who are anxious to use our pain and passion to legitimize mass incarceration.
My wish is that we don’t repeat patterns of the past to semi-address today’s problems. I’m not suggesting that Gov. Parson’s attempt to deal with our crime problem is a bad thing. To me, it’s just short-sighted and a possible repeat of what has never worked to combat crime or address the factors that contribute to crime.
I’m stressing the idea that “good people” have the capacity to learn from their mistakes. As we move forward in this effort to combat crime, my hope is that we do so not in a narrow-minded, dangerous way but a multifaceted, proactive way that addresses the issue not only today but in decades to come.
Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an entrepreneurial program for urban youth and the author of the newly released book “When We Listen: Recognizing the Potential of Urban Youth.”