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‘Flash’ Mob Violence, Poverty, and Reclaiming the Streets

Is poverty the root cause of crime or is it the other way around?

by
Abraham H. Miller

Bio

June 21, 2012 - 12:00 am
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Such delusions are part of what makes us not only smug but also hypocrites. We invoke the notion that poverty causes crime.  If only we’d have greater redistribution of income and wealth, all this would go away. We take comfort in the idea that there is a solution to the problem. Why not? It’s ingrained in our psyches, pontificated as one of the few real “laws” of social science, and comes to us as strongly from the classrooms as it does from the bar stools. We can, thus, avoid the thought of 53 white people being gunned down on our streets over a few days.

But as the late James Q. Wilson so artfully pointed out decades ago, it might be that poverty causing crime is just another logical fallacy. Wilson challenged us to think that maybe it’s the other way around: crime causes poverty.

My brother drove a chemical tanker in Chicago. He was a big, powerful man who had been an amateur boxer. One day, while he was setting up his hoses on the south side to pump chemicals into a factory’s tanks, a group of teenagers surrounded him and demanded his money. He carried a spiked billy club for such purposes and instead of producing his wallet produced a lesson in night stick justice. When he returned to his yard, he told his dispatcher that he’d never deliver to that business again. Next time, he said, the kids might have guns and a shot would explode the flammable chemical truck and take out a city block.

Eventually, no driver would deliver to the business. The business moved to the northern suburbs and with it went the neighborhood jobs. Repeat this by tens of thousands of times encompassing all types of crimes, and you get a snapshot of an environment where few are eager to invest capital or write insurance. Add to that a demographic of low education and criminal conviction, and you have a labor force no one is eager to hire.

As gangs of black teenagers roam the streets of places like Streeterville looking for nothing else but to hurt people, we need to realize that the social order has changed. More important, we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that if we just pump more money into the inner city, the problems of teenage violence will be solved.

I don’t know what the root causes of mindless violence are any more than I know what the root causes of a British soccer riot are. I don’t care if these teenage “flash” mobs have a need to experience the equivalent of what the soccer rioters call “an agro,” the emotional high from being in a riot.

At some point, all of us — no matter where we live — have to deal with the effects of such violent behavior. We have to defend ourselves and leave justifications for violence masquerading as explanations to the social scientists. We have to scream, “Enough.” And we have to add our voices to those in the inner city that are compelled to live daily with violence. We have ignored their plight for far too long.

The police can’t be everywhere. It’s time for all neighborhoods to organize, to patrol their own streets, and to have plans to counter street violence. As women have appropriately and courageously sought to take back the night, we have to emulate their example and organize to take back the streets.

The Guardian Angels and neighborhood-watch patrols working with police are the beginnings of such policies. Beyond that, there is a need for an armed citizenry exercising a constitutional right to carry a weapon. When the social order has been violated by mobs seeking to inflict harm on innocents, the people themselves need to re-establish conditions where they are not defenseless against those who can choose at random to make them victims.

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Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science and a former head of the Intelligence Studies Section of the International Studies Association.
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