Chain-snatching. When was the last time anyone bemoaned the nightmare of chain-snatching?* It was a huge crime issue in the 1970s and early 1980s, when crime was “rampant” because of junkies needing their next fix. Of course, it seems almost quaint today, when discussion centers on killing people with bullets. Much like the 1950s obsession with World War II gravity knives in a world where guns are ubiquitous.
In a New York Times op-ed, NYU urban studies professor Michael Fortner proffers the “real” roots of the 70s drug laws, starting with the dreaded Rockefeller Drug Laws, based on the theory that if draconian penalties are applied to possession and sale of drugs, people will stop using and selling them. The theory seemed reasonable. It failed miserably, unless you were looking for a job as a screw, in which case it was a huge success.
Fortner dredges up a modern view of history as a justification for the antidote to the Black Lives Matter movement.
THE number of black males killed by police officers continues to rise: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Ezell Ford, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice. But many more still die at the hands of black neighbors instead of the police. Yet today we rarely ask politicians to speak their names or recognize their dignity and worth.
That’s because some consider talk of black-on-black violence a distraction.
No doubt “some” do, but most don’t. This strawman ignores a hard distinction that cop-defenders fail to grasp. The Black Lives Matter agenda addresses a specific problem, the killing of young black men by police officers. It’s not acceptance of black-on-black crime as being okey-dokey, or unimportant, but criminals will commit crimes, and that sometimes means criminals will kill or harm people. That’s what criminals do. That’s why we call them criminals.
Cops, on the other hand, are supposed to be public servants who serve and protect. They are not supposed to be criminals. They are not judges by the bar of the worst criminals in society. Black-on-black violence is not acceptable, but its also a very different issue, and has no bearing on needless killings by police.
To bolster his blame-shifting, Fortner uses historical quotes from black leaders in the 60s and 70s about the prevalence of drug-induced crime in the black community, and how it must be stopped. Back then, it was viewed as a plague, but it was a different plague from what would follow in the late 1980s and 90s. The problem was chain-snatching, burglaries and other property crimes, which were blamed on the junkies.
The blight was coming from drug users who needed money to feed their habits. Sure, they knew that someone was selling the drugs going in the junkies’ veins, but that was a separate problem. Back then, drug dealers were businesslike, keeping their blocks peaceful and quiet, befriending the locals and helping out in their most civic minded ways. It was good for business. It kept the cops away. No smart businessman wanted to draw attention to his criminal activity. They wanted to make money, not trouble.
If you really want to take a long walk down memory lane, think uptown pimps in purple velvet suits with broad brim hats, driving fantastical pimpmobiles. If anything drew a young man’s eye toward the benefits of crime, it was the glory of pimpiosity. It even made it to mainstream, primetime TV when Starsky and Hutch hung with their uptown snitch, Huggy Bear.
From far away, all of these influences may appear alike, blended into some amorphous evil world of drugs that have undermined the black community for a decades. And perhaps, it’s fair to say so, provided the details don’t really matter. The chain-snatching of the 1970s were drug-related, as were the crack wars of the 1980s.
But they were by no means the same problem, as the latter involved drug gangs going to war with each other over turf, shooting each other down in the streets. The quotes and references Fortner uses refer to an earlier, vastly different problem, of junkies and chain-snatching. The days when drug dealers were able to keep their blocks clean and peaceful were gone. No one worried about chain-snatching when a dozen guys were lying dead in the street night after night.
Fortner uses this confused view of history to dismiss current concerns:
This is a natural outgrowth of the view that the over-policing of urban neighborhoods and the scourge of mass incarceration are all the result of a white-supremacist social order, the “New Jim Crow,” born of white backlash against the civil rights movement. But this is too convenient a narrative. It erases the crucial role that African-Americans themselves played in the development of the current criminal justice system.
Fortner grossly overstates history and argument on both fronts. The perpetuation of racial assumptions, that blacks are inherently prone to crime, need not be pinned to any backlash. Racism is pedestrian. It needs no excuse. Nor is uptown crime “erased” by the fact of unarmed black men being needlessly killed by police.
If, and this isn’t at all the case, chain-snatching was the blight on society that it once was, it by no means provides any rational basis for cops to shoot unarmed black men first and last. Crime ebbs and flows, and the issues conflated by Fortner came and went. But the army sent in to win the war never left, and as the war failed, grew increasingly violent in its belief that just one more dead body might change things. All this at a time when crime and violence are at an all-time low. Somehow, this details appears nowhere in Fortner’s historical folly.
Yet, Fortner offers a solution:
But, as the Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson notes, “Physical infrastructure and housing are crucial, but so, too, is the social infrastructure.” We need to bolster religious and civic organizations that cultivate stronger social ties, mitigate disorder and fight crime.
If this sounds incredibly familiar, it should. Not only does Fortner absolve the police of blame, but applauds their aggressiveness with the usual gertruding:
In the short run, we need the police. We need aggressive law enforcement methods that do not harass or brutalize the innocent.
History, however, teaches that it doesn’t work that way. Recent history shows that the detritus of “aggressive law enforcement” is dead black bodies. White ones too. And still no mention of the “real” root cause, chain-snatching, which wouldn’t be a good reason for cops to go around killing people anyway.
*Yes, someone will inform me that they were just discussing chain-snatching in Iowa the other day. You’re excepted.