Crime as Politics

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In the last few days, the local Fresno community was outraged -- or at least was reportedly to be so -- at the vandalism of a local Islamic cultural center.

The police authorities almost immediately, and without waiting for the full evidence to be collected, declared the minor burglary and damage the apparent dividend of illiberal dark forces. The chief of police, without compelling evidence, and without explaining why a secular medical building was also trashed in the spree, rushed to hold a press conference. He declared the broken window and moderate trashing of the center’s interior, not just a “hate crime,” but in fact a “brazen hate crime.”

What next followed was Fresno’s comic version of what now is normal race and gender news. Almost immediately it was learned that there was a video of the suspected perpetrator in mediis rebus. Mr. Asif Mohammad Khan was a Muslim, with a record of mental disturbances, and had attended the center. He claimed that he had vandalized the buildings as part of payback to other center attendees who, he claimed, had bullied him -- and reportedly was known to be an admirer of Osama bin Laden. The “brazen” hate crime and the atmosphere of intolerance vanished with the local morning fog. The FBI, of course, is still “investigating” a possible “hate crime.” But they too will quietly go away in short order.

But just a few days earlier, there was another Fresno crime captured on video, both violent and in theory fueled by racial animus, or at least more deserving of a FBI second look at such a possible catalyst. At a local municipal bus stop an elderly man with a walker bravely protested that a large youth was bullying a smaller teen. The video captures the thug in response yelling at the defender, then striking the man to the pavement. The latter hit his head on his walker and momentarily lost consciousness.

The attacker was a large, rather young African-American; the victim a 62-year-old white man. What followed was no police hectoring. No lectures about the safety of the city’s bus stops. No police chief warnings about interracial tensions. No brazen hate crime sermons about the hale and young attacking the elderly or disabled. Indeed the police initially did not even consider the attack a crime, but rather a “fall.” Only a chance bystander’s video of the incident led to a reinvestigation and the suspected perpetrator’s arrest.

Unlike the city’s failed effort to turn the Islamic center vandalism into a teachable moment, this really was a teachable moment, perhaps in two unfortunate regards. One, heroism is rendered foolish. So far no one in the city has stepped forward to congratulate a disabled senior’s heroic (and apparently successful) efforts to divert the bullying of teenager onto his own person. His only reward was to have been knocked out by the attacker, and the crime initially not considered a crime, but his injuries due supposedly to his own clumsiness.  Second, the disabled victim is lucky he was not armed. Had he pulled out a legal, concealed weapon when the bully approached him to attack, and fired in self-defense, we would have another Trayvon Martin hate crime, and charges that a climate of racial intolerance had led to the death of another unarmed African-American. In comparison to all that, a head injury is apparently preferable.

In some cynical fashion I sympathize with local officials and the police. To rush to judgment on the pseudo-“brazen” hate crime at the Islamic center is to win laurels and careerist points; to deplore the truly brazen beating of a solitary old white guy trying to protect the weaker from a much larger African-American thug who fled the scene is to court social ostracism and career implosion. Note well that there is no downside for the police chief in feebly retracting his shoot-from-the-hip damnation of supposedly local hatred that fueled the vandalism. He just shrugged, made inoperative his prior false news release, and went on.

I don’t doubt that there are occasional hate crimes against various ethnic and religious groups. After all, the United States is still a great experiment that seeks to unite the world’s tribes into a coherent whole. And never has that gambit been more problematic in the age of hyphenation and the salad bowl in lieu of the melting pot.

But right now, discussion of crime is too often constructed as an ideological tool to serve larger political agendas. We see that cycle with the unproven feminist assertion that 20% of coeds will be raped on campus during their undergraduate tenures -- when the government’s own statistics show that women on and off the campus have less than a 1% chance of being sexually assaulted in any given year. If the former myth is true, then the engine of feminist studies, counselors, and therapeutic curricula is fueled; if the latter fact is canonized, then society can in part be thankful that such violent sexual assault has declined from far higher percentages during past decades.

Surely most neither believe nor act as if the Stanford campus is a more dangerous place than is East Palo Alto, or the Columbia dorms more perilous than a nearby Harlem public housing project. The Duke lacrosse case, the Rolling Stone fiasco, the mythographies of Lena Dunham all teach us that it is far more dangerous to be falsely accused as a sexual predator than to falsely accuse the innocent as a sexual predator. People are human and therefore make the necessary adjustments.

In the age of Ferguson, the tragedy of Eric Garner, and a host of other politicized crime incidents, is there any resolution in sight? None that I can see given the nature of the fuel that feeds such fires. Had the police chief of Fresno been publicly shamed for such false allegations, he might not be so eager to rush to judgment next time. Had the bus stop thug been charged with a hate crime -- and I do not count out that the victim’s race, age, and feeble health encouraged the attack -- perhaps a larger message might be sent about such altercations.

My pessimism is not ideological but empirical. The stuff of the recent protests are weary police of the inner city confronting hundreds of thousands of times a week a small subset of the population (perhaps African-American males between ages 15 and 50 constitute no more than 2-3% of the population) who account for nearly 50% of violent crime. For such a formula for disaster to dissipate, either one of two things would have to occur. One, the police will silently avoid such confrontations, to the degree that they can mask their noncompliance without career repercussions. That is, when a call comes in that an African-American young man is walking down the middle of the street and is a suspect in a recent strong-arm robbery, they will simply avoid him, or when complaints are voiced that a large African-American vendor is illegally selling cigarettes, with a history of 30 prior arrests, they will not answer the call. Unfortunately I think such the repercussions of that adjustment will be higher crime rates, especially in the inner city.

Two, the nation would have to have the Eric Holder-coveted national dialogue of race, rather than a name-calling sessions about "cowards." The purpose would be to address the foundations of young black criminality -- the break-up of the family, the pernicious role of federal subsidies, a value system that deprecates academic learning and idolizes sports and acts of supposed masculinity, the misogyny and racism of popular rap and other cultural expression, the neglect of the inner city by the rest of America, the legacy of racism on the individual psyche, and on and on. Yet to have such a discussion, not to mention their remedies, would put the Al Sharptons and others out of business. Moreover, the entire Obama electoral strategy was to galvanize the black community to register, turn out at the polls, and vote in monolithic fashion for Obama, as the emblematic black candidate. Because there was no margin of error in such calculus (given that racial chauvinism turns off one voter for every voter it attracts), if the cases of Skip Gates, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and the Eric Garner were not politicized, others would have to be invented to create the needed outrage and solidarity that translates into political clout.

There are tragic self-corrections in politics. For the next few years, police will weigh the dangers of intervening in incidents in which African-American youths confront authorities, and too often abdicate -- until crime rates inch back up, cities like New York revert to their 1970s status or present-day Chicago, the public demands recalibration, and we go back to proactive policing. Similarly, bloc ethnic voting will create backlashes or counter-movements in kind (will there be a day when conservative black Congress people outnumber those in the Black Caucus?)  and we will see ethnic candidates run as individuals, in fear that appeals to the color of our skins rather than our character spell suicide.