In 2020, homicides increased by 35 percent from 2019 across the 50 largest urban areas, reaching levels in many cities not seen for more than 20 years. Some in the media suggest the spike is simply another downside of the pandemic. But this would appear to gloss over the likely link to unintended consequences of the nationwide demonstrations after George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police.
Conservatives have offered two explanations. First, they contend that, across many cities, police departments reacted after Floyd’s death by pulling back from proactive initiatives. Analyzing past crime data, Tanaya Devi and Roland Fryer identified cities that had a viral episode of lethal police force. They estimated that, as a result of the reduction of proactive policing, there were over 900 excess deaths. Second, conservatives claim that many violent felons quickly return to the streets because of recent decriminalization and bail-reform initiatives. In Philadelphia, first-time offenders caught with an illegal gun are charged with a misdemeanor, and even a second offense can be pleaded down to another misdemeanor.
This past year’s homicide data seem consistent with these claims. The three cities with particularly high increases were Milwaukee (96 percent), Louisville (78 percent), and Minneapolis (72 percent). These were the sites of the three most publicized cases of police misconduct. Another group — Seattle (68 percent), Memphis (58 percent), and Atlanta (55 percent) — also had viral incidents. Aggressive criminal-justice-reform initiatives in Chicago (55 percent), New York (41 percent), and Philadelphia (41 percent) may explain their above-average increases.
In some of these cities, it’s important to note the role of the sustained nationwide urban demonstrations after Floyd’s death. Nightly demonstrations went on for weeks. And these demonstrations were re-energized by the subsequent shooting of Jacob Blake and the emergence of evidence concerning the Breonna Taylor killing.
Protesters were motivated by a deep concern for social justice. However, the length and severity of the demonstrations went beyond what was politically warranted because of the personal needs of their participants: namely, a search for community for many white youth. The persistence of their actions fueled an environment that intensified black anger, particularly among young men. After witnessing the video that showed Jacob Blake being killed in front of his three youngest children, LeBron James gave an emotional interview. “And I know people get tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified,” he said. His explanation for police actions was telling:
You have no idea how that cop that day left the house. You don’t know if he woke up on this side of the bed, you don’t know if he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, you don’t know if he had an argument at home with his significant other, you don’t know if one of his kids said something to him and he left the house steaming.
If James believes that these everyday experiences can cause police officers to act violently, how would you expect disconnected, disillusioned young black men to respond to the daily demonstrations, or to the media dwelling on white supremacy? How do you think their increased anger played out on the streets?
In 2010, more than 70 percent of the black residents of America’s poorest neighborhoods were the children and grandchildren of people who lived in similar neighborhoods 40 years earlier. Cornel West has argued that anti-social behaviors under the weight of this intergenerational deprivation reflect “the monumental eclipse of hope, the unprecedented collapse of meaning, the incredible disregard for human (especially black) life and property in much of black America.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates has highlighted violent reactions to even trivial conflicts. In the first pages of his memoir The Beautiful Struggle, he described such violence as being as meaningless as it was terrifying. Coates noted, “Conflicts bloomed from a minor remark or misstep, and once in motion everyone stayed cocked and on alert.” In Between the World and Me, Coates presents a riveting account of the time “a boy with small eyes” pointed a gun at him for no apparent reason: “I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like the fog.” Considered in the context of such observations, it is reasonable to conclude that the current homicide spike was not simply a response to policing and criminal-justice-reform policies but also substantially fueled by the pent-up anger unleashed by the persistent demonstrations.
So what can be done about this seething anger, this sense of hopelessness among black youth who are separated from family, religious institutions, and steady employment? The dominant approach has been to shy away from holding them responsible for their actions, lest we blame the victims. Instead, social-justice advocates fill them with victimization rhetoric that, however well intended, just feeds into their despair and anger.
Cornel West has condemned those who consider personal responsibility an important component of black advancement. He has written, for example:
What is particularly naive and peculiarly vicious about the conservative behavioral outlook is that it tends to deny the lingering effect of black history. . . . In this way, crucial and indispensable themes of self-help and personal responsibility are wrenched out of historical context and contemporary circumstances—as if it is all a matter of personal will.
But this attitude denies the possibility that the system or individuals are capable of self-correction. In fact, there are policies that can make a difference. President-elect Joe Biden should demand, for example, that cities reinstitute meaningful penalties for illegal gun possession. Increased leniency has only worsened the situation. Why should residents inform on those who commit crimes or possess illegal guns when they will be released without bail and face only misdemeanors, for which they will receive suspended sentences? Such leniency can only breed arrogance and invincibility in some offenders. Reinstating effective judicial measures would more accurately balance compassion with the rule of law. It would also be more consistent with the majority of black Americans who desire the same or more policing in their neighborhoods, not less. Only then can communities overcome senseless violence.