Street Life…and Death

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy, Spiegel & Grau, 2015

I was raised during the Seventies on a cramped block of rundown tenements in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. Each building on my block was a five-floor walk-up. Each apartment–two to a floor–was a railroad-style flat. And in those apartments lived poor families raising passels of kids. Not only was this pre-gentrification but by modern hipster standards, this was downright prehistoric.

See, back then wasn’t any clear racial delineation between one’s neighbors. Whether you were Latino, White or Black, if you lived on my block you were, at best, considered by society-at-large to be working class. But each resident knew different. Each of us knew the truth. The fact was we were poor. For example, a boy wearing new sneakers–and for street cred they had to be either Converse or Pro-Keds–was an event on my block. All the males would glance down at the pristine footwear then give a thumb’s up or an approving nod. When my family got our first color television–a Zenith!–we joked that we’d finally made it to middle-class poor.

Even purchasing food was an adventure. Our area had two supermarkets but they were so far away that each trip had to be as carefully planned as a military campaign. (Believe me, supermarket shopping becomes a daunting task when one has to push a granny cart full of groceries and drag a couple of kids for nearly a mile along a crowded avenue.) So we relied on the local bodegas to purchase much of our food. There was one in the middle of the block, with two more catty-cornered from each other at the end of the street. The competition between them was fierce and we would repeatedly make the rounds between them to get the best deals possible. And if you didn’t have the money, out would come the ledger with the red pen attached to it by a twine string and the shopkeeper would place the amount owed alongside your name and the day you promised to pay.

Traffic in Brooklyn was different then as well. Although cars–jalopies, my dad always called them–lined both sides of the street, residents knew they could always find a spot on the block. And those same motorists knew to carefully ease in and out of those parking spots. Not to avoid other cars speeding down the street. No, it was because they knew children–their kids–would be playing in the street.

See, these were the pre-PlayStation pre-Nintendo days. (Man, to truly date myself, this was even pre-Atari.) So after school and after completing the day’s homework, parents–at least, those who had gotten home from work–tossed their kids out of the house and into the streets with a single edict: go run your ass ragged until called in for dinner.

And so we young’uns would sit on a three-step stoop outside one of our buildings until enough of us had congregated to play a democratically agreed upon game. Then the festivities would begin. If someone had a new rubber ball–usually the legendarily high-bouncing Spaldeen–out would come a broomstick and into the street we went for a game of stickball. If the ball hadn’t split–always a possibility given the ferocity of our swings–but had lost some of its buoyancy then we’d play stoopball. If the ball was in our parlance “dead” then we’d play running bases which was a type of tag played between two monstrous cracks in the sidewalk.

If there was no ball available–a common occurrence–then we were forced to use our wits. We all knew money was tight so we’d mosey over to the trashcans to see what we could salvage out of them. Discarded chalk was used to draw up a skelly board in the street. A block elder referred to skelly as “ghetto chess.” Instead of ivory-carved rooks and pawns, we used soda bottlecaps filled with gum. If we came across a broken roller skate and a piece of wood, we made a skateboard. Add a milk carton to it and a go-kart was born.

For us, necessity wasn’t only the mother of invention, it was the gateway to joy. A joy we had created for ourselves which not only gave us satisfaction but a feeling that we were all in this shit together. And, in a sense, we were. We were all witnesses to parents–single, married or just co-habiting–struggling mightily to pay the bills, put food on the table, clothes on their families’ backs and impart some wisdom to their children. The recognition of life’s hardships led to a companionable atmosphere among my cohorts. We were part of a common struggle. We were– for better and worse–a community.

Well, that and we all knew someone who had been murdered.

It might have been immediate family–family family as we called it–family friends who were considered family, friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, whatever, we’d all known of someone who’d been shot or stabbed or run over or tossed off a roof or beaten to death. Most times we heard about it. Sometimes we saw the aftermath. Sometimes we actually saw the fatal act.

We’d heard the shots, the screams, the cries, the vows of retribution then the sirens coming to the block and, after the removal of the body, the sirens leaving the block.

We’d attended the funerals and/or the wakes. We saw the red-eyed mourners with their tear-stained blouses and shirts. The strain of their hands gripping the arms of those next to them for support. The absent-minded stroking of the hair of the babies in their laps. The private anguish made public with each halting step.

We knew the significance of a closed casket. It contained a body so messed up, so befouled that it wasn’t fit for public viewing.

We’d been to so many funerals that we actually knew how to behave at them. And at the burials as well. Especially at the burials where inevitably someone would collapse as the casket was oh-so-slowly lowered into the grave. And, every now and then, there would be the distraught mother or spouse who’d actually jump onto the casket. And in between her screams and sobs, one could hear the stillness of the bereaved onlookers.

The lesson we got from them was to take care of oneself. To always be vigilant. To be protective of those you are with. To be ever alert because the consequences could not only be brutal, they could be fatal.

And that was that. After the burial, we never saw any detectives or beat cops coming back to the block for follow-up interviews or to gather information. In fact, the only time we saw the cops–other than the twice-daily patrol car creep down the street that you could set your watch by–was when somebody reported a disturbance or dropped a dime on someone. Or when they came to clean up a violent aftermath.

I guess that’s why I was intrigued by the police shows of the ‘70s. Programs like Baretta, Kojak, Adam-12, Columbo, The Streets of San Francisco, Starsky & Hutch and McCloud. It was oddly fascinating to watch cops that cared about victims. You mean, there were actually policemen who returned to the scene of the crime? Cops who canvassed witnesses? Cops who comforted victims and/or their families? Really?

See, cops, to us, were the people you only called in an ab-so-fucking-lute emergency. Crimestoppers? Maybe. Crimesolvers? Never.

In my neighborhood, if somebody did get caught, the word quickly went around that they’d gotten nabbed out of sheer stupidity or were so afraid of payback they had given themselves up. But to hear about or witness a murderer tracked down like on Kojak? In sixty minutes and six location changes? Yo, that BS was for TV or the movies or for White people. (And I mean the Whites of a way higher income strata then the ones we lived around.) As for us, well, early on you knew that your life mattered to you and your loved ones but not one fucking bit to the world at large.

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America is at its heart about cops that do care. This work of non-fiction by Jill Leovy takes up the case of eighteen year old Bryant Tennelle, fatally gunned down in a drive-by shooting while strolling with a friend on a warm Friday spring evening in South Los Angeles. As Leovy, a reporter for the L.A. Times, painstakingly points out, the slaying of Tennelle could have easily been treated by the investigating police as little more than a prototypical “ghettoside” slaying. (“Ghettoside” being slang for a homicide committed by a young African-American male against another Black man.) But because of several contributing factors, Tennelle’s death was not dismissed as another “Black on Black” murder.

The first factor was that the victim was the son of Wallace Tennelle, an L.A.P.D. detective who worked out of the downtown Robbery-Homicide Division. Tennelle pere was a rarity: a cop who lived and raised his family in a tough urban neighborhood. He enjoyed his house, his block, his family, his neighbors and the idea of providing an alternative role model to the gangbangin’ thug life. And yet, despite his positivity, he and his wife found themselves the parents of yet another dead Black teenager.

The second factor were the detectives assigned to the case: John Skaggs in particular. Skaggs may have fit the stereotype of many White middle-aged detectives–Republican-leaning, suburban-living, two kids, boy and girl, and a blond wife–but he was dedicated to stopping crime in the Watts area he worked in. Unlike many fellow officers, he hadn’t soured on the neighborhoods or the citizens he’d sworn to protect. He wanted to catch criminals and bring a measure of comfort and closure to victims and their families.

Along with Tennelle and Skaggs, Ghettoside upholds the example of other dedicated cops who live by a similar moral code such as Detective Sal La Barbera. A homicide supervisor, La Barbera is a proud professional who “believed in his craft–believed unreservedly in the idea of homicide investigation as a cause. He believed that the state articulated its response to violence by apprehending those who committed it, and that failing to do so sent an unmistakable message the other way–that violence was tolerated, especially when the victims were poor Black men.”

In short, Black Lives Matter.

Leovy underscores the personal and professional costs paid by Ghettoside’s principled policemen. Tennelle is considered an oddball for not joining his compatriots’ suburban flight. Skaggs is thought of as a disappointment by his own uncle, a bureau chief, for not playing the institutional political game and choosing to stay a detective in South Los Angeles. La Barbera has seen so much violence he has bouts of depression and cannot sleep through the night.

Leovy vividly evokes the enormous amount of bloodshed in these neighborhoods. She has the grace to recap the names and fates of denizens who met their demise in the days before and after Bryant Tennelle’s murder. Through her chronicle of carnage, she reminds readers these are lives that were taken and that a human being’s death should resonate louder than a statistic from a politician reading from a compstat board.

Once again: Black Lives Matter.

Like any fine book of reportage, Ghettoside is true to reality’s twists and turns. I won’t be a spoiler here. I will say that the tale’s harrowing journey throughout the criminal justice system encompasses an extraordinary range of frustrations. None of Ghettoside’s principals are immune. The police are frustrated with the folk in the ‘hood. The folk in the ‘hood are frustrated with the police. (Two sides divided by decades of mutual mistrust.) And everyone is frustrated with the system. A broken system where expediency is valued over justice. And both the accused and the victim become disposable figures to be tossed away and forgotten after a rendered verdict.

At the center of Ghettoside is the collateral damage that violence causes. From the violence in our communities to the violent responses of those we as society have chosen to be our first responders as well as our first line of defense. Whether it is the violence perpetuated by gang members battling over faux real estate ownership markings throughout this country or the publically challenged fatalities committed in name of law enforcement in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Ferguson, New York and so on, these extreme acts poison everyone.

See, violence victimizes us all. From the fatality to the family to the friends to the observers to the responders to the reporters to the readers to the viewers. To become inured to violence is to lose a vital part of our humanity. After all, what is a decline in empathy but a slow death in itself?

That emotional exhaustion is woven throughout Ghettoside from the EMTs who show up at the shooting scenes to the police to the neighbors to the onlookers to the attorneys and so on and so on. Leovy is not only imploring folks to wake up to what’s going on around them, she’s also reminding them that desensitization can only lead to more dehumanization. And that will only lead to another generation of kids thinking that outside of their social circle their life doesn’t matter one fucking bit to the world at large. And a police force that agrees with them.