Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy

There's a place called Ghettoside.  It has a culture and geography all its own.  People who live south of the Ten in L.A. know their world is different from the rest of America.  Here, black men murder black men, at a rate astronomically higher than the rest of the country.  Here, the law is the the law of the street; the LAPD has a herculean task to enforce the laws the rest of the country follows.  Into this mix journalist Jill Leovy embedded herself.  Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America is her account.

Leovy gives a fly-on-the-wall look into the LAPD's investigative unit in South Los Angeles.  She introduces the detectives, recounts their office politics and personal struggles, takes the reader into the interrogation room and the court room, and rides along on the city streets.  Her focus is the LAPD, but in the course of her telling, she gives insights into gang culture and street life.  For most readers, this alone will be enlightening.

Her story centers around the murder investigation of a detective's son.  While many LAPD cops in South Los Angeles chose to commute from the suburbs, Wally Tennelle lived right in the neighborhood he patrolled.  After years of investigating gangs, his work hit home when his own son was killed in a gang shooting.  Due to the dogged determination of his colleagues, the killers were found and sentenced.

Leovy tells personal stories, putting names and faces to statistics and stereotypes.  Reading something like this should be myth-dispelling.  But I found it to reinforce much of what is popularly believed about South L.A. and the monster of black-on-black violence.  Black men kill black men indiscriminately.  There's no way around it.  Their gangs are idiotic.  Murderous feuds get started over the most petty offenses: walking down the street with the wrong color bandanna hanging out of your pocket.  Wearing another team's baseball cap.  And they don't quit; conflicts escalate way out of proportion to the original offense.  It's incredibly stupid.  I fail to understand why these gang members fail to understand that the retaliatory way of life comes back to them.  They cause mourning; they will mourn.  Innocent victims get killed.

The strength of Leovy's book is that she focuses on the detectives who work amid this reality.  Tennelle's perspective was shaped by one detective's comment about a murdered prostitute: "She ain't a whore no more.  She some daddy's baby."  That became his philosophy.  "The homicide detective's call was to treat each victim, no matter how deep their criminal involvement, as the purest angel.  The murdered were inviolate."

Leovy reports instances of racism and indifference to residents of South LA among the LAPD.  But the main players in Ghettoside display a remarkable commitment to their jobs and, more importantly, to justice.  They share Tennelle's philosophy and express a desire for people who live Ghettoside to have the best police and best investigators as possible.  Just because a black man kills a black man doesn't mean the victim's family doesn't deserve compassion and a dogged determination to find the killer.

Ghettoside is eye-opening to readers who don't live in Ghettoside.  Leovy's attention to detail and sharp journalistic skills, not to mention her compassion and sense of justice, put the issue of black-on-black violence on the front burner.  Like the dedicated detectives of LAPD, we must not ignore the monster.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about a current issue

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