When a local crime story explodes into the nation’s attention, it is worth asking why it has done so. According to the FBI, a murder occurs every 35.6 minutes in the United States, yet few of these killings garner any notice at all beyond the neighborhoods where they occur. So when any one of America’s roughly 15,000 annual homicides attracts what would seem an inordinate level of interest, we are left to wonder why. Are the people involved emblematic of some larger trend? Do the details of the crime offer instruction on how similar crimes might somehow be averted in the future? Or is there some other explanation, one that reflects the choices made by those who decide what stories they see fit to present to their audiences?
Surely the shooting death of Trayvon Martin is no exemplar of some national trend. Though his alleged killer, George Zimmerman, has claimed he shot Martin in self-defense, such “justifiable” killings totaled only 326 in 2010, nearly twice the number reported in 2000 but still a tiny sliver of the total number of homicides reported to police. And even if Zimmerman is shown to have acted illegally in shooting Martin, would this crime reflect some national outbreak of vigilante violence among neighborhood watch volunteers?
No, there has been no such outbreak.
So how to explain the fascination with Trayvon Martin’s death? In dispatching swarms of reporters to Sanford, Florida, where Martin was killed, our sophisticated betters in the media have sought to cloak themselves with cheap grace. They focus on one victim whom they perceive to be — and whom they present to be — an innocent victim of an unprovoked shooting, while ignoring the incalculably larger problem of violent crime in America’s black communities.
I have spent most of my police career working in South and South Central Los Angeles, where the largest concentration of the city’s black population resides. When I was a young cop in the early 1980s, I was dispatched to countless crime scenes where one young black man had been killed by another. In my youthful naiveté, I would look for the arrival of the news vans in the thought that those victims were deserving of the public’s attention, if not necessarily its sympathy. Only when some unlucky child or other innocent victim was hit by a stray bullet did these killings attract any attention from the media.
The media’s nonchalance about black-on-black crime was perfectly illustrated for me years later, serving as a watch commander at a police station in South Los Angeles, when I answered a phone call from someone at a local television station. “Anything going on tonight?” the man asked. There had been a double murder that night, with two gang members shot to death in a drive-by, and I began to tell the caller about it.
“Is it a gang thing?” asked the caller, interrupting me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Anything else to it?”
“That’s okay,” he said, and hung up. And that was that. Two young lives extinguished but unworthy of a mention on the evening news.
In one sense it was hard to blame that caller or anyone else in the media for their lack of interest in black-on-black crime in Los Angeles at that time. From 1980 to 1993, Los Angeles averaged 895 murders per year, with the number topping 1,000 in four of those years. There are only so many minutes on a news program and so many pages in a newspaper; if reporters had devoted even a single sentence to each of those murders they would have had time or space for little else. By contrast, there were 298 murders in Los Angeles last year, still a disturbing figure but a far cry from the horrific days of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. But, as was the case in those troubled times, a disproportionate number of those murders occurred in the four police divisions that make up South and South-Central Los Angeles. Those four divisions are home to about 16 percent of the city’s population, but accounted for 45 percent of its murders. And that, of course, we are not allowed to talk about, lest we perpetuate a negative stereotype.