Written by Jill Leovy
Audiobook read by Rebecca Lowman
Published by Random House Publishing Group on January 27th 2015
Genres: True Crime, Nonfiction, Social Science
Source: public library via Overdrive
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, USA TODAY, AND CHICAGO TRIBUNE • A masterly work of literary journalism about a senseless murder, a relentless detective, and the great plague of homicide in AmericaNATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • The Washington Post • The Boston Globe • The Economist • The Globe and Mail • BookPage • Kirkus Reviews
On a warm spring evening in South Los Angeles, a young man is shot and killed on a sidewalk minutes away from his home, one of the thousands of black Americans murdered that year. His assailant runs down the street, jumps into an SUV, and vanishes, hoping to join the scores of killers in American cities who are never arrested for their crimes.
But as soon as the case is assigned to Detective John Skaggs, the odds shift.
Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential, but mostly ignored, American murder—a “ghettoside” killing, one young black man slaying another—and a brilliant and driven cadre of detectives whose creed is to pursue justice for forgotten victims at all costs. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of why murder happens in our cities—and how the epidemic of killings might yet be stopped.
Praise for Ghettoside
“A serious and kaleidoscopic achievement . . . [Jill Leovy is] a crisp writer with a crisp mind and the ability to boil entire skies of information into hard journalistic rain.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Masterful . . . gritty reporting that matches the police work behind it.”—Los Angeles Times
“Moving and engrossing.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Penetrating and heartbreaking . . . Ghettoside points out how relatively little America has cared even as recently as the last decade about the value of young black men’s lives.”—USA Today
“Functions both as a snappy police procedural and—more significantly—as a searing indictment of legal neglect . . . Leovy’s powerful testimony demands respectful attention.”—The Boston Globe
“Gritty, heart-wrenching . . . Everyone needs to read this book.”—Michael Connelly
“Ghettoside is remarkable: a deep anatomy of lawlessness.”—Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal“[Leovy writes] with grace and artistry, and controlled—but bone-deep—outrage in her new book. . . . The most important book about urban violence in a generation.”—The Washington Post
“Riveting . . . This timely book could not be more important.”—Associated Press“Leovy’s relentless reporting has produced a book packed with valuable, hard-won insights—and it serves as a crucial, 366-page reminder that ‘black lives matter.’ ”—The New York Times Book Review
“A compelling analysis of the factors behind the epidemic of black-on-black homicide . . . an important book, which deserves a wide audience.”—Hari Kunzru, The Guardian
From the Hardcover edition.
Unlike so many of my fellow book bloggers, I don’t regularly set long-term reading agendas, or even plan my reading all that much when deadlines aren’t involved. That said, I do like themed reading, and sometimes one book will send me scrambling for others that might connect with it. This is by way of saying I didn’t set out with a Black History Month reading list, but having my library hold on Between the World and Me come through in early February definitely set a tone for my next few reads, and Ti’s discussion of Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside led me to check that out.
The narrative spine of Ghettoside follows the police investigation into the street killing of a young Black man in South-Central Los Angeles. It sounds like the plot of a thousand cop dramas, especially once you add in the wrinkle that the victim’s father is a member of the LAPD. But Ghettoside is subtitled “A True Story of Murder in America,” and while elements of it may feel familiar, this is probably not a story you’re heard before–not like this.
Jill Leovy founded the Los Angeles Times‘ online Homicide Report as “as a way to balance crime coverage in the Los Angeles Times, where both tradition and the constraints of print space meant the focus of homicide reporting was on high-profile cases. The Homicide Report’s aim from the start was to provide readers both a personal and a statistical story of who dies in violence.” The blog–which now includes maps and a searchable database–may provide the only media coverage the majority of Los Angeles County homicides ever receive.
The murder of Bryant Tennelle occurred on a residential street on a spring evening in South-Central. The neighborhood’s crime rates are infamously among the highest in the city, and policing has been just as infamously inconsistent and disrespected. But Det. Wally Tennelle had chosen to keep his family in the neighborhood even when his work moved him to downtown L.A.’s elite Robbery Homicide Division. When his youngest son was killed there, he wanted the case to be handled not by his colleagues in RHD, but by the cops who knew the area best and who might actually make solving the murder a priority. The investigation was assigned to John Skaggs, a white detective who had spent most of his career in Watts and South-Central.
Leovy’s account of the investigation, the arrests, and the trial that followed is great procedural reporting, but what makes Ghettoside remarkable reading is the context it frames around that story, and the insights into the operations and bureaucracy of the LAPD and how they impact front-line police work are just a small part of that. Leovy also reveals the long roots of troubled relationships between police forces and black communities and their migration from the rural South to urban areas in the Northern and Western United States. Particularly in congested urban areas, most violent crimes are intraracial, and Leovy presents some of the economic factors behind those statistics.
Signature summed up some of the key points of Ghettoside:
It’s not too much application of the law, it’s too little.
This is the central argument of Ghettoside from which all others germinate. Leovy writes, “The perceived harshness of American criminal justice and its fundamental weakness are in reality two sides of a coin, the former a kind of poor compensation for the latter.”
The modern murder problem originated in slavery, codified during Jim Crow, and has only seen moderate improvement since the Civil Rights Era.
Homicide has ravaged the black community for more than a century.
It’s the black market economy, stupid.
As Leovy explains, the inner-city interconnectedness goes beyond the drug game. The vast underground economy is a “complex system of etiquette, backed by the threat of violence.” It’s like in “Goodfellas” when Henry Hill says the mafia’s main gig is providing protection for those who can’t go to the police.
Chaos reigns in a vacuum.
Leovy notes, “When people are stripped of legal protection and placed in desperate straits, they are more, not less, likely to turn on each other.” Imagine if someone you knew was murdered. Odds are, what, 100% you’d trust the cops to solve the case? Well, if you live in a neighborhood where killings are actually common and less than half of murders are solved, trust in the police plummets and guess what takes its place? Vigilante justice didn’t die with the Old West
Nature v. nurture matters way less than putting murderers in jail.
Neither the left-leaning leniency toward criminals in the 1960s-70s, nor the “get tough” right-wing approach in the 1980s made a damn thing change. Violent criminals shouldn’t be on the streets, low-level nuisances shouldn’t be crowding the prisons.
The Black Lives Matter movement has arisen over the last few years in response to the killings of young Blacks–mostly by whites, and particularly whites in law enforcement. Ghettoside advances the premise that there’s a long history of Black Lives Not Mattering, and that a large part of that lies in law enforcement’s neglect of the black community rather than over-attentiveness to it, leading to violence as the response of a community forced to police itself.
I checked out Ghettoside in audiobook from the library because the narrator is one of my favorites, Rebecca Lowman, but I will probably be buying a copy of this in either paperback or ebook to read again. I rarely dub a book “My Most Important Read of the Year” so early, but Ghettoside has set the bar very, very high.
“Sea breezes rattle the dry palm trees in this part of town. It was about 6:15 p.m., a time when homeowners turn on sprinklers, filling the air with a watery hiss. The springtime sun had not yet set; it hovered about 30 degrees above the horizon, a white dime-sized disk in a blinding sky.
“Two young black men walked down West Eightieth Street at the western edge of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Seventy-seventh Street precinct area, a few miles away from where Dovon Harris lived. One was tall with light brown skin, the other shorter, slight and dark.
“The shorter of the two young men, Walter Lee Bridges, was in his late teens. He was wiry and fit. His neck was tattooed and his face wore the mournful, jumpy look common to young men in South Central who have known danger. His low walk and light build suggested he could move like lightning if he had to.
“His companion, wearing a baseball cap and pushing a bicycle, appeared more relaxed, more oblivious. Bryant Tennelle was eighteen years old. He was tall and slim, with a smooth caramel complexion and what was called “good hair,” smooth and wavy. His eyes tilted down a little at the corners, giving his face a gentle puppy look. The two young men were neighbors who whiled away hours together tinkering with bicycles.
“They were strolling on the south side of Eightieth. Bryant carried in one hand an unopened A&W root beer he had just bought. Thirties-era Spanish-style houses—updated with vinyl windows—lined the street, set back a few feet from the sidewalk. Each had a tiny lawn mowed so short it seemed to blend with the pavement. Buses roared by on Western Avenue. Crows squawked and planes whistled overhead as they descended into Los Angeles International Airport, so close you could read the logos on their tails. Groups of teenagers loitered at each end of the street. An elegant magnolia loomed near the end of the block, and across the street hunched a thick overgrown Modesto ash.
“Walter and Bryant were taking their time walking down Eightieth, chatting, their long shadows stretching behind them. They walked in sunshine, though dusk engulfed the other side of the street. Three friends emerged from a house at the end of the block behind them and called out a greeting. Walter stopped and turned to yell something back. Bryant kept walking toward the ash. A black Chevrolet Suburban pulled up to the curb around the corner, on the cross street, St. Andrews. A door opened and a young man jumped out. He pulled on gloves, ran a few steps, and halted under the tree, holding a gloved hand straight out gripping a firearm. Pap. Pap-pap.”