Black Lives Matter: An Interview With Jill Leovy About Her Book ‘Ghettoside’

Can one murder begin to tell the story of crime in America? In the careful, intelligent hands of Jill Leovy, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America the answer is “yes,” as she brings the horrifying statistics that disproportionately plague African-American men to life. “They were the nation’s number one crime victims,” she writes in the introduction, “just six percent of the population but nearly 40 percent of those murdered… they were murdered every day, in every city, their bodies stacking up by the thousands, year after year.”

ghettosideLeovy explores one such case — a tragedy, the murder of a young man whose fatal mistake was wearing the wrong gang-affiliated baseball cap in the wrong neighborhood — by following Detective John Skaggs, a man whose love and success with work bucks the statistics coming out of police stations. Leovy has been a longtime reporter for The Los Angeles Times, and in her 2006 blog The Homicide Report, she covered every murder in Los Angeles County in a single year. (In that year, for every one white woman murdered that year, one hundred black men were murdered.) She’s able to illustrate the complicated skeins of economics, society, and politics that have all had a hand in this epidemic, and by writing this book — which has already received excellent reviews in The New York Times and BookForum — she’s making a cogent argument for what we need to do better in America, and how we can get to a place where Black Lives Matter. I talked with her on the phone last week.

Flavorwire: What spurred your interest in reporting on homicide?

Jill Leovy: I was a police reporter for a number of years. Why was I interested in it? I guess there are layers and layers to it. When you first encounter it, it is so unbelievable; when you pull away that curtain and see what’s actually happening in these contexts where there are high homicide rates.

I consider writing about violence the ultimate challenge as a writer. It’s very, very hard to convey. There’s many, many heart-wrenching stories I could tell you about the grief, and about people you encounter, and the loss that they’re enduring.

But for me, there was a very important moment when I really started to understand the statistics. Particularly the longevity of them. The way this [violence] goes back, and back, and back. There are statistics that show that the proportional difference between black and white homicide was actually even bigger in the 50s than it is today.That went against a narrative that I had understood of the problem being gangs in the 80s, or crack cocaine.

Are you saying that in the 50s, in L.A. in particular, the rates of black homicide to white homicide was as uneven as it is today?

In L.A. that gap is probably actually greater. I won’t go into this, because it’s very technical, but there’s lots of evidence that it’s national, and it goes back all the way through Reconstruction.

There’s a point in the book where someone says, “How are we going to police an area where we’re not being policed?” and someone talks about the high homicide rates as internal justice, because the police aren’t doing their work.

I think you can argue that. There have been a couple of social scientists who very provocatively have argued that this is an adaptation. I think you don’t know.

You don’t know with, for example, gang structure, would homicide rates be higher? Possibly. But these are efforts to establish a formal control, or at least an individual protection, as some of the Southern social scientists have observed: they have to shift for themselves when it comes to self-protection. That’s a major point of the book: that without law, some people have to make some adaptation to violence and to power, and it results in a fusion of violence.

How did you get involved with Detective John Skaggs?

The book uses the story of a detective who I think stands very well for a principle that we were visiting when we talked about how to police Americans in neighborhoods and cities, and that’s the idea of vigor: vigor in response to actual crimes committed by individuals against other individuals. Vigorous response to victims. And John Skagg fit with that very well in the book, from the first time I met him.

I met him probably ten or twelve years ago now, long before I even contemplated writing the book. I met him in an early immersion project I did for the LA Times, where I had been at 77th, which is the middle part of south LA, and moved slightly to the southeast division, which is known as “Watts” to everybody else. The people in the neighborhood call it the “Watts Station.”

He was working there. He was quite press-shy when I first met him. He rarely spoke to me when I was first down there. I would go out afterwards and talk to the people the detectives had contact with, and find out what they were thinking [about the work]. I relayed to him that a woman had said to me that she had no faith at all that he was going to solve a double homicide. She had lost two sons in a single homicide, I believe, and she said to me, “There’s no way the police will solve it.” I had just mentioned that to Skaggs in passing in the office. He asked my what my interview with her was like, and I remember that moment, in retrospect. He was stopped short by that.

Could you elaborate?

It was really arresting for him. He stopped, he had kind of a look of determination in his eyes. When he did solve that case, which he did solve, he sought me out — which was rare — and said, “I want you to know that I solved that case.” It was a point of professional pride for him.

This was somebody who was tremendously proud of their work in an environment where there wasn’t a lot of reason to be in some ways. It’s not a bad job, but it’s not the highest level post in the LAPD to be a detective in Watts, in the southeast division, working a table. It’s not something that the media is paying attention to, or that other people in the department are paying attention to. It was really a performance in his own mind that he was concerned about. It mattered to him.

I could have told this story about many of the homicides; they are all gripping, they are all incredibly dramatic once you get into them. But I chose this one in part because it was John Skaggs, and he has this way of operating that was such a signature of how it should be, the kind of vigor that needs to be applied. A tremendously energetic person, and very proud, and very determined, and very, very skilled at what he did.

Do you think there’s a world where everyone working for the police could be like a John Skaggs?

It’s interesting. In some ways, I say this in the book. There was a perverse pride they had in their underdog status: the fact that there were few of them, and that they had their backs against the wall, which is how often is in Southeast homicide back in the day, when there were 40-60 homicides a year and eight detectives.

That was part of what made them so good, and as a practical matter, being overloaded all the time and having excessively high case loads gave them a great deal of experience, and also infused them with a way of working on deadline — is what we would say in my business — that I think is lost sometimes when police units have very low case loads. But having said that, Skaggs stands for an idea that we don’t talk about very much, which is that policing is a craft, that it’s a profession.

This is an interesting point about our tradition of policing in America: it actually has always been viewed as a blue collar profession. It’s an interesting way of conceptualizing a job that is not only so important, but also, as Skaggs would say passionately, is a skilled profession.

It takes years, and years, and years to operate at the level that John Skaggs operates. It takes an apprenticeship. The very best, smartest, and most devoted people should be approved for these jobs, and they should be compensated in a reasonable way. I mention in my book about how you have to work after-hours if you’re a homicide detective, and it just really doesn’t work with the idea of highly union-contract-controlled hourly wage scheme, where everything outside the lines is overtime.

Finally, I mention that John Skaggs is a happy person. I think he is. That is generally true. There’s a mythology of the depressed and neurotic homicide detective, a loner, his life is a mess. And it’s not at all true.

Most of the successful homicide detectives have extremely solid families, and are very positive, happy people, because that’s the level of energy it takes. It is an inoculation against mediocre performance and even corruption to be infused with purpose about your work, to believe in what you do, to believe in it as a higher calling, and to know why you’re doing it. Homicide detectives tend to have that because of what they’re arrayed against. I try to show that in my book.

No matter what color your skin is, or what your political background is, or where you come from, when you see these people dying so horribly, and you see the sorrow and agony that emanates from their death, it’s really clear what needs to be done. That clarity is valuable, and it is something that we should think about when we think about what we want our police to be. We have to put them in jobs that have purpose.

How does Ghettoside speak to our current events, with the attention that the country’s paying to violence, with both the police force and violence against the black community?

The population that is mostly frequently affected by violence is low income, black, urban neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The nature of the grievances are a bit different. There’s a lot of anger with the police. I would stand around with a group of men and watch as they’d just get stopped on the hour. The intensity of that attention and the humiliating nature of it, the scariness of it, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t respond to it.

At the same time, according to formulas that are based on the level of crime, those neighborhoods do have higher violent crime at a frequency level to the population, higher violent crime. You can argue that they’re still under policed relative to the proportion of violent crime per population. You have far more police in the population in black neighborhoods of Los Angeles simply because that in itself was correction of an earlier problem where police would just ignore black neighborhoods. They wouldn’t police them at all. They’d drive around them.

It was an earlier reform to say no, it doesn’t matter what color people are or the amount of crime they’re suffering — they need police. There’s far more police in the neighborhood per person, far more stops, far more everything. People in the neighborhoods are often suffering from a double whammy. They’re suffering from crime and they’re angry at the police. It’s become something else, and it’s not solved the homicide problem. I think that’s the point where it becomes politics, and you have to make coalitions with the groups that are doing things to solve the rate and tenor of crimes.

Out of curiosity, have you heard Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City? It’s an album about growing up in Compton, and it speaks to a lot of the anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder that comes out of living in violence. 

I’m not a music person by any grounds, although we have a fabulous local hip hop station there that I listened to all the time. I would hear so much searing genius that described exactly what things are like there. The Geto Boys, “My Mind’s Playing Tricks On Me,” the first time I heard that song I pulled over my car to listen to it. I thought that was just so authentic and true to what I saw, especially with older men who had experienced violence, this lament about what lawlessness does to people. Hip hop is a great folk music for our time. It was affirming sometimes, during the wilder moments of this beat, to know that it would be processed through music.