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by Peter Moskos

September 29, 2009

Fight. Don't Kill.

Thinking about the street fight in Chicago makes me think Frank Zimring and Gordon Hawkins' 1997 book, Crime is Not the Problem. They distinguish between crime and violence and argue convincingly that America's problem is not crime but violence.

Other nations have as much if not more crime, they say. They just don't kill each as much. Zimring and Hawkins emphasize guns as part of our violence problem. But I think there's something else. I've see some fights. Europe has their soccer hooligans. And a lot of drinking, too. And in Greece it seem like people are always yelling at each other. And there are even seasonal riots in Athens. But somehow it's all controlled, almost ritualized. Maybe subconsciously. Somehow, in the heat of the moment, when the adrenaline is pumping, people in much of the world know to restrain from issuing that lethal blow. People let off steam, they save face, they vent, they even hurt. But by and large they don't kill.

And here, for no good reason I can understand, some kids pick up giant pieces of wood and wack each other, sucker punching others, and then stomping a man till he's dead.

I don't buy the "it just don't make sense" refrain. I mean, of course it don't. But that's not the answer. Is it something about American exceptionalism? Do we not understand how easy it is to kill someone? Do we not value human life as much as people in other countries? Do we have less self-control? Do we have no other means of having fun? All these may be true. But none of these seem to provide a satisfactory answer.

How do you learn to enjoy stomping a defenseless guy for fun? I don't know. Maybe you learned it from dad. More likely you never learned anything from dad because dad got locked up a long time ago himself. And your mom, who very well may be an idiot, tells you you gotta fight. Better to fight than get punked. That's what you gotta do to be a mom.

Maybe stomping a guy to death actually is fun. It's easy to tsk-tsk others. Maybe there's nothing better than hitting a guy upside the head with a two-by-four. Maybe that's the dirty secret we who pass judgment from afar don't want to consider. I don't know. I've never tried.

Update: Worth quoting T. Coates at some length here:
I am aware of all the socio-economic forces at work they make black communities more subject to violence. I'm in all for trying to ameliorate those forces. In the meantime, I'm all for doing whatever it takes to protect the rest of us--particularly young black kids--from hooliganism.

I can't ever say this enough--there's nothing inconsistent about trying to understand the broad societal forces, and still holding people responsible for individual action. Being black and poor sucks. But most poor black kids aren't out smacking innocent bystanders with 2x4s.

If all is as it appears for these kids who were arrested, then heaven help them, because we can not. Compassion--like all resources--has limits. It's worth spending some time on what makes young boys do these sorts of things. It's worth at least as much time to try and protect young boys who are just trying to live right. I know from personal experience that there are more of the latter than the former. Don't ever forget that.


Anonymous said...


You should check out this interview I stumbled upon at investigativevoice.com. It's titled Back To The Old School. It's an interview with two retired Baltimore detectives. They touch upon the same issues you have: re-emphasizing foot patrol, police discretion, over-emphasis on 911 etc...
They actually began their careers before the widespread use of patrol cars or radios. They were dependent on call boxes.

To provide a sample here is the last question and answer.
I.V.: What do you think could bring about the biggest change now?

Hollingsworth:Simple. I would say: get out of the car. Walk in the neighborhood. They would see a world of difference if they could get out of the car. Get out of the car and you'll learn real fast.

From Canada

PCM said...

Great interview! Thanks.

NewOldSalt said...

I don't buy the "socio-economic forces at work they make black communities more subject to violence," reason. India, China, other places have even more enormous slums with higher population densities, don't they? But do they have these issues?

Blaming it on "black" makes no sense to me. Seems to me I've heard plenty of stories of not-poor white folks beating up homeless people or suspected illegal-immigrants.

I totally agree with the previous commenter, "get out of the car and walk." Most kids are amazingly eager to learn, be friendly, and helpful. Unfortunately once they get past 8 to 10 years old, that fades away a bunch. But even some teens are eager to want to please, even though they put on a tough exterior. However, I think it's important for adults (in authority) to show how to deflect insults than incessantly demand respect, because this is a lesson many (all colors/classes) don't know. They mostly see everyone hung up on trying to not be "dissed."

My thoughts on prevention. Many kids are like me, Ferdinand the Bull. We generally did what we were told and complained we were bored. But there are kids who seem to have a few big needs: adrenaline rush (fight/flight) and controlling others.

The clever parent/guardian sees the latter person, perhaps acting like a bully, and instead of beating the bully down tries to take that energy and turn it into one of responsibility, sometimes it needs the right "spin" though.

Helping the kids who need that adrenaline rush is a tiny bit out of my league in the sense my specialty is birth - age 8. Generally those kids are fine with playground equipment and hide-and-go-seek.

So I'd need a bit of time to come up with some really good suggestions for the teen-aged crowd, but it seems to me that various organizations take teens to nature reserves/forests and do various "trust" exercises, climbing rocks, and other "survival" exercises that not only make them queasy with adrenaline, but also make them kick some of the pack mentality in favor of a fellow-man mentality. How to do this without expensive busses, etc… in the confines of the city, I need time to think. But I'm sure there are ideas out there.

I wish I could figure out a way to make them find excitement with inner-city gardening. Probably one of the easiest way to hook kids initially is with their big name icons they look up to.

Marc S. said...

I think that's a very western-centric opinion that fights don't turn into murders in other countries. There's a lot of countries where fights involve blades as quick as they involve fists here. As the US becomes more and more culturally diverse, you're gonna find less people why fight by Queesberry rules. A lot of european countries where you see the kinda fights you're talking about are far more culturally homogenous.

PCM said...

But our murder is so much higher than so many other countries. Certainly much higher than any country with our resources. Sure you could compare our homicide with Somalia. But isn't England a better fit? And those drunk Brits fight like hell. But they don't kill each other.

And while America might be culturally heterogeneous, a good chuck of the violence and murders happen in areas that are extremely homogeous. I don't think that's it.

And I also don't think America is becoming more culturally diverse (look at immigration in the 1900s!) than at other periods in our past.

I mean, yeah, maybe in some Latino neighborhoods more fights involve blades. But it's not like our violence problem is an immigration problem. Violence is as American as apple pie. I just don't get why.