There is no greater pain for a parent than to have a child die, except perhaps watching that child gunned down in the streets in cold blood. In one breath you could be looking into the eyes of the life you have sworn to protect; in the next, you’re wailing over an innocent, lifeless body. On November 17, the parents of eight-year-old Deasean Hill felt that agony when their little boy was shot dead on the streets of East New York as he walked home with his stepfather and siblings. Though devastating in its own right, the murder of Deasean is just one of many, as rampant violence continues to plague Black communities throughout this city—despite assurances by the NYPD, the mayor’s office, and the headlines that New York is safer than it’s ever been, for everyone.
Just look at the bulletins flashing on the police department’s website, boasting of a hard-earned victory in the “war on crime”:
“Homicides are at a 40-Year Low”
“Overall Crime is Down Another 6% this Year; 11% Over the last 2 Years”
“NYC Leads the Nation in Crime Fighting”
The messages offer no consolation to mothers like Deasean’s, who suffer the reality of the streets. “I was afraid something like this would happen,” Kimberly Hill told UPN 9 News the day after her son got caught in the crossfire of drug dealers.
She was afraid, and she was right to be. Overall crime—break-ins, auto theft, loitering—may be down, but several city precincts, from the Bronx to Queens, are experiencing significant increases this year in murder, shootings, and other forms of violence. Last weekend alone, four people died in a wave of six shootings, 10 knifings, and one attack with a baseball bat.
If you live in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York, no one has to tell you what’s going on. In the 73rd Precinct, part of Brownsville, overall crime through the end of September was down 8.94 percent—but murder was up 50. In the 81st Precinct, in Brownsville/Bed-Stuy, that same period saw total crime fall by 7.23 percent—but murder rose 62.5.
Meanwhile, in the 77th Precinct, Crown Heights, crime dropped 6 percent—but murder in September alone spiked 400 percent over the same period last year.
The situation has gotten so bad that the city opened a special court this year to handle felony gun cases from the five Brooklyn neighborhoods that account for a quarter of the city’s shootings, from Crown Heights to Flatbush.
“How you look at crime depends on which spin you accept,” says one African American cop who lives in my Bed-Stuy neighborhood. “You can say that crime is down in New York City and be absolutely right—the statistics back that up.
“But there’s another side to the story,” he continues, willing to talk but not comfortable being identified. “Crime in minority neighborhoods is not accurately reflected by those stats. There are still too many serious crimes endangering the lives of those residents. So that if you live in Park Slope and your biggest fear is having your car stolen, then you can feel safe because car theft is down, but if you live in a place like Bed-Stuy, where shootings are up, then there is cause for concern.”
The scene after a shooting is always the same: The blaring of what sounds like a hundred sirens saturates the area, shocking all senses into alert. Within seconds, a stampede of NYPD officers stops you in your tracks. Neighbors surface from behind dumpsters and cars, or file out from their homes, asking “What happened this time?” and “Where my kids at?” Within an hour, officers secure the area with yellow tape, keeping bystanders from peeking at the victims lying in the street. At night, the flashing lights from the parked patrol cars and the smoking flares used for lighting cast a soothing red glow, as residents quietly watch the paramedics tend to the wounded. Body heat from the crowd traps a nauseating aroma of fresh blood.
That stench was waiting for me the night of October 6, around the corner at the Gates Avenue housing project. Like most parents who roll up after a shooting in the ‘hood, my first instinct was to make sure it wasn’t my daughter. As I made my way through the crowd, the story unfolded: A foot was lying perfectly still on the pavement—the shoe didn’t look familiar, so I knew my kid was safe. The rest of the body was hidden by cops and ambulance workers and onlookers, but voices from the crowd filled in the blanks. “That girl’s in bad shape, son. You see all that blood pouring from her head?” said a man behind me. “Word, she mad young—she can’t be no more than 15. She shoulda been in the house,” replied another.
Eventually, the victim was removed and people went back to their routines—five little girls jumped double Dutch a few feet from the pool of blood, though it was after 10 p.m. Adolescent males held court in front of the corner bodega, replaying the events as if they’d just watched a bloody Tarantino flick: “Yo, that nigga came out from nowhere and just started blasting, son,” one of them said. He pointed to the bloody spot. “One minute love was standing up right there. The next minute she on the ground, shot the fuck up.”
Another guy joked about the need for bulletproof vests customized for the head, and they all broke down in laughter—a testament to the way violence becomes normal when ingested over a lifetime. Across the street, where older residents gathered, that normalcy showed its toll. “I’m tired, tired, tired of this bullshit,” yelled a woman who appeared to be in her forties. “I been living in this stinking-ass ghetto all my life and it’s always the same shit, day in and day out, shootings, stabbings, fighting, all kinds of unnecessary violence. We always talking about how much other people like to kill us, but we don’t never talk about how we love to kill each other. It’s like a damn hobby with y’all.”
This was the third shooting I’ve come home to since July. It is clear that some streets, mine included, are just not as safe we’ve been told. “I’ve been noticing an alarming rise in gunshots around here lately,” says Al Martin, assistant principal of a Brooklyn high school and a 15-year resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant. “These kids are acting up again, I don’t know why. It could be lack of jobs or no supervision; it could be turf wars, drugs, gangs. Who knows, but there is definitely a rise in gun violence.”
Despite the radical policing strategies implemented over the last few years, many Blacks are still living in war zones—in my neighborhood and around the nation. In 1997, this country saw 783 people murdered by juvenile gang members. At the time it was hard to envision an end to the violence. The following year, zero-tolerance strategies designed to tackle young thugs dropped that number to 628. In 1999, when the killings bottomed out at 580, people breathed a sigh of relief as it seemed that the crisis had subsided. But a new upswing in violence suggests yet another change for the community; in 2000, another 653 people were killed by thugs with guns, and by 2001 that count had ballooned to 865, breaking the 1997 record.
Relatively unnoticed by society at large, the violence crept back into the lives of Black folks.
Recognizing the ease with which the killing could again reach epic proportions, some leaders have taken to the streets with an urgent message for the youth. “Black-on-Black violence, stopping the violence, let’s be real about it. The Ku Klux Klan don’t have a damn thing on us,” Malik Shabazz, leader of the New Black Panther Party, told hundreds of inner-city youth gathered on Fulton Street in September for the Million Youth March.
“As much as we talk about police brutality, we get right back at it. We’re killing each other at a rapid rate,” he scolded. “You quick to pull a gat from your pocket and say, Nigga, I’ll kill you. We’re quick to gangbang on each other, quick to kill each other. It has to end.”
The inability to stop the bloodshed is mind-boggling, as everyone from Shabazz and Louis Farrakhan to Russell Simmons and Chuck D have spoken out against it. The conversation is never-ending among Blacks, but talk is as far as it goes until a little kid like Deasean dies and all of society is forced to look at Black violence. Then elected officials promise to work diligently until the problem is solved—or until the television cameras go away.
The right to safety should be a national issue. But getting the public to feel patriotic about this latest attempt to end bloodshed in the Black community comes at a time when most city residents couldn’t feel safer. Images of Blacks gunned down in the streets no longer dominate the nightly news—out of sight, out of mind. Those thugs who survived the height of the old violence were swept into prison—one in three Black males between the ages of 20 and 39 is under supervision by the criminal justice system in some fashion. Reinforcing the comfort level, headlines claim that the social conditions responsible for the worst of the ’80s and ’90s—crack, gangs, and the economic hardships of the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations—have improved enough that Blacks aren’t as angry as before. For many outside these neighborhoods, the only threat to society as we know it are Osama bin Laden and his network of terror.
About the only time we hear of Americans gunned down in the streets, other than in Iraq, is in the resurrected theme of threats, gunshots, and dead bodies in rap music. Far too often those lyrics have jumped off wax and into the streets—the last year has seen the attempted murders of rappers Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, and Joe Budden and the murder of Jam Master Jay. Media images of young Blacks dying in the streets have been replaced with those of young Blacks dying in hip-hop.
The hype has eclipsed the community’s cry for peace in the streets, and in some cases reduced the issue of Black-on-Black violence to one big moneymaking hoax. Last June, in an article entitled “Keepin’ It Unreal,” the Voice used artist 50 Cent, who lives in a hail of bullets, as a prime example of gangsta rap in its fakest form. The paper urged readers not to be taken in by the twisted tales of the ‘hood as portrayed by the money-hungry rapper and his PR geniuses: “The sobering fact is that the streets as 50 presents them, brimming with shoot-outs and crack fiends, do not exist.”
But what appears “unreal” to some is often brutally real for others, and while the Voice was stroking the sensibilities of those who actually live in a safer New York, residents of 50’s Jamaica, Queens, neighborhood were drowning in the reality of his lyrics. “It is the worst killing streak in the 103rd since 1994,” announced a four-page Newsday spread on September 28. The article laid out a compelling story, complete with photos of residents killed (none white), in one of the smallest yet most dangerous precincts in the city. Murder was up 178 percent there and shootings up 18.
Anyone still confused about what is really going on in the streets need only look at the actions of the NYPD for clarity. In January, Mayor Bloomberg announced that police would “flood” 61 “violent hot spots” throughout the city—neighborhoods, subway stops, and housing projects in predominantly Black and Hispanic communities like Brooklyn’s East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Brownsville; Morris Heights in the Bronx; and Jamaica with 1,400 rookies fresh out of the academy. The initiative would be called Operation Impact. At the time, the mayor explained that while there was a 5.3 percent drop in crime overall, a 1.3 percent hike in shootings commanded swift attention. The program was slated to cost up to $10 million and last for three months, but has since been extended, twice, to the tune of $20 million in police overtime.
If, as the Voice professed, “gangsta rap today is as about as reflective of reality as, well, a reality show,” why, in a time of economic duress, are taxpayers kicking out so much money for this?
For many residents, the rosy statistics and headlines just don’t add up to their reality. “The last time I saw a dead body in the street was ’97” says 36-year-old Trevor Moore, an electrician from Bushwick. “But in the last month or so I’ve seen two and heard about plenty more. Two dead bodies in one month is enough to tell me that something isn’t right around here. The police vans that cruise around here every night are always full of criminals, and yet people are still dropping like flies. How you figure that?”
The relationship between crime, its decline, and the rising incarceration of Blacks has always been fuzzy. In the late 1980s, Benjamin Ward, an African American police commissioner, addressed a group of 150 journalists: “Our dirty little secret is out of the box. Most crime in this city is Black-on-Black crime. . . . Most crime in this city is committed by young Blacks under 30 years of age. . . . We are the victims and the perpetrators. . . . We should not try to hide it. We have to speak out about it.”
But it’s never been a secret that Blacks have been singled out as the main perpetrators of most of the city’s crime. No period in history confirmed that more than the era famously dubbed “Giuliani Time.” The mayor’s notorious Street Crime Unit, unleashed throughout city ghettos in 1997, engaged in what courts have since deemed the illegal stop and frisk of thousands of Blacks. Strong-arm tactics led to a wave of police shootings, severe brutality, and endemic misconduct under the guise of fighting crime. Instead of getting better policing, the neighborhoods got worse—and more oppressive—policing. Crime dropped, but the neighborhoods became police states.
The question remains: How do you protect the people you target? Bloomberg dismantled the Street Crime Unit. Crime came back. Bloomberg created Operation Impact. This year, the Civilian Complaint Review Board says citizen reports are up again, by 21.6 percent. Blacks account for 51.1 percent of the substantiated complaints, compared to 20.4 percent for white residents.
And still, in the safest big city in the country, young Black males are 10 times more likely to be gunned down than white ones. “Shots go off, mothers cry./Death rate rise, homicide, Black-on-Black crime needs to stop./Y’all can’t blame it on hip-hop,” urges Wyclef Jean on his recently released album The Preacher’s Son. ” ‘Cause what we say is what we see, what we see is reality./The ghetto’s the ghetto, you got them living in sorrow,/Soon they won’t live to see tomorrow.”
Tomorrow has never come cheap for Black folks, and some say the price is growing. “I have no doubt that we are heading back to a time when violence was a fixture in our lives,” says Bakari Kitwana, former executive editor of The Source and author of The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture.
“The tension on the street, in the ‘hood, is very much like it was in the early ’80s and ’90s, and that is largely due not to rap music but to the changing economics—close to 3 million jobs have been lost in the last two years,” he adds. “As usual we make up the bulk of the people unemployed. I think that now you have this growing intensification of these conditions. I mean, people are ready to explode. It seems like we’re going back down that road, almost with a certain blindness, like people can’t see it coming.”
But it is predictable, relentlessly predictable. “Unfortunately violence is a part of Black inner-city culture,” says S. Eric Blackwell, a professor of urban studies at Long Island University in Downtown Brooklyn. “I hate to say this, but we are almost like trained animals, bred to be volatile; our poverty, our morality, our circumstance—several things collide and it makes for combustible volatile situations at any given moment, and that part of us is expressed through rap music.”
And that’s where the crowd turns, to the poetry of the streets.
At the crime scene on my block, another shift of officers arrived to guard the scene until daylight. Exhausted, the older residents retired for the night, leaving the young males by the bodega rapping freestyle. The little girls still jumping double Dutch caught hold of the beat and jumped in rhythm—”They call me Superman, cause no other nigga can outrun bullets like I can./Girly over there was chillin’ on the block when all of a sudden bullets started to rock./I ain’t dumb, a nigga started to run./That’s why her mama grieving now and I’m still breathing.” The rest of the group made gunshot noises indicating that his lyrics had won the battle—life goes on in the ‘hood.
Forty-eight hours later, blood would stain the entrance to another building, two blocks up on the corner of Gates and Nostrand avenues. The crime scene is always the same.