“The alternate ghettoside “law” in Watts was … a vague and sinister force transcending any body of definite rules … At the same time, some Watts residents appeared to long for freedom from the oppressive menace of informal law … Residents would still holler ‘One time!’ at the cops. The term derived from the memory of police touring black neighborhoods once a day, making no real effort to address crime. ‘One time’ was a stock anticop insult, just like ‘po-po’ and ‘blue-eyed devil.’ Yet it contained a plaintive note–a paradoxical suggestion that more times might be better.”
As the Los Angeles Time reporter who created the newspaper’s blog, The Homicide Report, Jill Leovy understands all too well the numbing cycle of violence that typifies most poor minority neighborhoods in America. The Homicide Report was simple in concept but gargantuan in practice: Cover every murder in Los Angeles. That meant finding out who was killed, who they were, how it happened, and if possible why. By the time the blog started in 2007, the country’s early-’90s homicide peak had passed, but the murders kept coming. Each one was a story; another human life gone, and a space that couldn’t be filled left behind.
By dint of incessant digging in this seam of news, Leovy looks to have received the perfect training for her chilling new book, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. The book’s subtitle implies it will follow a single crime as a way of explaining the city. This is not an uncommon tactic. Richard Price once said that “when you circle around a murder long enough you get to know a city.” To some extent that is true here: Leovy wants to zero in on one murder to help snap her book’s broad panorama into focus. But she also knows the impossibility of a neatly packaging a tale like this that so swiftly overflows into wider regions of history, race, and politics.
The murder case at the center of Ghettoside is that of Bryant Tennelle. The 18-year-old son of LAPD homicide detective Wallace Tennelle, Bryant was shot in the head not far from his parent’s house in South LA. Like most of the killings covered by The Homicide Report, the statistics for this one read as follows: Gender: Male; Cause: Gunshot; Race/Ethnicity: Black. It’s the familiarity in particular of that final statistic which occupies much of Leovy’s most anger-darkened and thought-provoking sections of the book; more on that below.
Also almost all of the homicides Leovy writes about, the drama behind the Bryant Tennelle killing is not overly concerned with the whodunit aspect. As most witnesses in the neighborhood so often say, “Everybody know.” Her interest has more to do with the mechanics of actually bringing the known killers to justice, and the personalities pursuing it. Her chief protagonist in this case is Detective John Skaggs. From outward signifiers, Skaggs would read as stereotypically LAPD: blond and fit suburban-dwelling Republican.
But Leovy uncovers a surprise: Like many detectives who work homicide long enough, Skaggs’s empathy for the people stuck in the city’s murder-strafed neighborhoods didn’t wane, it grew. Instead of the cynicism exhibited by many uniformed police (who the detectives separated themselves from by terming them “cops”, with no little derision), Skaggs focused his working life “to one end: making black lives expensive.” Skaggs’s devotion to fighting that fight dovetails with Leovy’s thesis:
This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.
To Leovy, the fall-off in homicide rates from the early ’90s (what the overworked detectives still remember in exhausted awe as “The Big Years”) is nothing to be excited about. One stubborn statistical anomaly has refused to change. Whatever the raw numbers of homicides was, the rate at which black people, and black men in particular, were killed remained up to six times higher than the general population. Even by 2013 when the city recorded a remarkably low 251 homicides, just three high-crime areas accounted for almost half, and nearly all of those victims were black.
To the author’s credit, she doesn’t simply run out those statistics and move on. Instead, she draws from history and sociology to argue that the stain of homicide has been baked into the African-American experience nearly from the nation’s start. She references data showing that murder rates in various black communities from decades back were markedly higher than the average.
But Leovy avoids blaming the victim, as so many commentators are eager to do whether it’s a gangland killing in South Central or a police shooting in Ferguson. She also refuses to chalk it up to the legacy of Jim Crow. Instead, she writes about how, in under-policed communities in any country where killers are rarely caught, a sense of vigilantism easily takes root. Men in those high-homicide environments tend to be similar, she says. They’re “touchy” and fixated on honor and respect, which she notes is “a result of lawlessness, not a cause.” Murder, ignored by the wider society, becomes less aberrant and more commonplace. When it takes place in neighborhoods with such tightly wound social networks as South LA (Leroy writes movingly about the intimate feel of these black towns-within-the-city), the daily wash of violence becomes even more devastating and numbing.
Readers might want Leovy to keep circling back to the Tennelle case. When she does, it’s inevitably gripping. Like David Simon, she can draw an investigative map with the clear lines and clipped procedural tone of the daily reporter while not abandoning a certain novelistic flair. The portraits of the Tennelle family themselves are lucid and fresh; these are people who spring from the page. It’s hard not to thrill as Leovy recounts the crisp manner Skaggs has of maneuvering through bureaucratic traps in his pursuit of justice, but maintaining his surprising empathy for the victims and in particular the skittish witnesses who have very good reason to believe may end up being killed themselves.
But whenever Leovy veers back into her larger investigation of cause and effect, it’s always worth it. Ghettoside is a messy book that doesn’t land every argument as well as it might. But it’s written with such a sinewy force that the text bruises. Skaggs and his cohorts fight to make black lives matter by first bringing their killers to justice, but almost more importantly showing their neighbors and family that they are doing so, that society cares.
Leovy’s book has a similar desire. It wants the dead to matter to somebody. To everybody.