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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

Streeterville is a quiet, upscale part of Chicago that encompasses the Magnificent Mile and is just south of the Gold Coast. Northwestern University’s Law School is in Streeterville, as is its hospital. Oprah has an apartment in Streeterville. A close friend of mine once lived in Steeterville, and I spent many a late night walking off jet lag on its streets. After all, if you’re not safe in Streeterville, where are you safe?

As a physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital learned the other night, you’re really not safe in Streeterville.  Accosted by a “flash” mob of black teenagers, the physician was repeatedly hit and beaten.  He wasn’t robbed.  He says the motive wasn’t racial, as he’s Asian.  But typically such mobs are black and their victims are whites, who are abused with racist insults while they’re being injured.

The physician observed that the teenagers had accosted others before they attacked him. The teenagers were simply looking to have fun by hurting someone, and the next someone was him. And, of course, this is not the first instance of such mob behavior flowing out of the deteriorating inner city into the city’s wealthier areas. It isn’t even the first foray into upscale Streeterville. The criminals now have done what any species does when it exhausts the resources of its immediate environment. They have moved on to another habitat.

Don’t expect Reverend Jesse Jackson or the Reverend Al Sharpton to be organizing a march against this brand of racism. After all, black-on-white violence isn’t really good for the kind of media exploitation that fills their coffers. Barack Obama will not find that any of the victims could have been his son, and Eric Holder is too busy looking into the racial motives of George Zimmerman to launch an investigation into black mob violence against whites.

Sure, Chicago, like most major American cities, has its crime-polluted neighborhoods where going out on the street at night is about as safe as going out in Baghdad. We all know how to avoid those, unless our economic circumstances regrettably compel us to live in such neighborhoods. Last week, 53 people were shot in Chicago. Most of us will dismiss this as an irrelevant statistic.  After all, we know without reading the papers where those people live: in the south and west sides. There, the population is largely black or  Latino,  gangs fight turf wars over the drug trade, and getting a gun is not only a rite of passage but also is more common than getting a high school diploma.

We don’t ask if our laws and social system have gone astray in tolerating such violence.  After all, we delude ourselves into believing that people like us are immune to being violated in our own safe neighborhoods. Basically, we know where to go or not go in our cities and don’t question if it’s acceptable for some of our fellow citizens to live under persistently threatening conditions.

We assume that because people who look like the victims are also the perpetrators, it’s not our problem. Our continually reinforced ethnic tribalism really comes down to: we don’t give a damn about black-on-black violence or what happens in the deteriorating parts of our city. We can be smug about gun control because none of our neighbors are shooting each other. We can be self-righteous about microscopic adherence to due process because none of us will have to testify in open court against people who belong to vengeful criminal organizations.

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.

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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