Tales of the City
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ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: The streets of New York: What a pleasure they are again. There is no question that in the last half dozen years, the city has felt safer– like a sea change, a fundamental shift. I have always loved these streets, ever since I was here as a first-time tourist at age ten. A native of Los Angeles, I was stunned then by the noisy pageantry of them, the spill of people, the well-to-do and the dispossessed elbowing around together in an intense, energetic, ambitious dance. But in the ’70s and ’80s, the city got scary. You felt menaced — stopped going places at night. The subways looked and felt spooky, marked by gangs and graffiti. As the crack-cocaine epidemic raged, angry young men with drug addictions and automatic weapons became a staple of the urban night. Who could ignore 2,000 murders a year — the morning streets littered with the broken glass of shattered car windows? The city became Martin Scorsese’s New York, not Woody Allen’s.
The same was true of my hometown during those years. Gang killings were prevalent — the weekends a homicidal spree. Mostly they killed each other but it spilled into other neighborhoods, went uptown into Westwood and Bel Air. People put it in security systems and moved into gated communities and swapped stories about car-jackings and muggings. Fear became the dominant, metropolitan emotion — here in sunny L.A. just as in New York City.
But then something happened. With the ’90s crime started a dramatic downturn across America, and nobody knows exactly why. Theories and reasons abound: Lower unemployment, the crack epidemic that petered out, a temporary downturn in the number of young males of prime crime-committing age. But there is something else under here: A tougher, take no prisoners or take a lot of prisoners attitude towards crime, even nonviolent drug violations. We’re locking people up in record numbers; one out of every 150 Americans is now in jail or in prison. And in record numbers policemen around the country are coming under scrutiny for abusive behavior. It is one of if not the trickiest balancing act for any democracy: How to police a free people and, for that matter, how to police the police. We are apt to accord them far-reaching powers for feeling safer as we do now. And we don’t want to look at that gorgon unless we have to, unless we’re really forced.
Increasingly that’s precisely what we are being forced to do. In New York famously, we’ve had Abner Louima, brutally tortured by NYPD cops. And Diallo, shot dead in a rein of 41 bullets. Both were unarmed. On our coast, of course, there was Rodney King caught in the unforgettable chance video that put the spotlight on police brutality and racism in our sunny city. And now daily in Los Angeles, there is an unfolding scandal in the rampart division, at least a dozen cops facing allegations of unwarranted shootings, dealing drugs, making false arrests, and planting evidence. Verdicts are being overturned, as many as 3,000 cases might be affected. And in both cities, the police are accused of mishandling the mentally ill. The LAPD has shot and killed a dozen mentally ill or unstable people over the past six years. In New York there was the late summer shooting of Giddeon Bush, a mentally disturbed 31-year-old.
It’s not just New York and L.A. In cities and states all across the country the Justice Department is looking into charges of systemic police brutality and civil rights violations like racial profiling. So how much do we tolerate in the name of our own security? How much should we? Have we in fact become tolerant of excess in authority? You can’t help but ask yourself those questions as you walk these sweetly safer streets, mindful of the complicated bargains we make on any given day, not just with those who police us, but with ourselves.
I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.