Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The gratuitous violence associated with street robberies seems to be a matter of "reputation", not just class warfare


Since about 2007 I’ve noticed an increase of brazenness of street crime that the media reports as occurring in the Washington DC area (especially in some areas like around Capitol Hill).  Maybe it’s always been like this and happens in most large cities with poor urban populations (like Atlanta, Los Angeles, and of course Detroit).  But the reports (especially on local television stations like WJLA and NBC4 with Pat Collins)  about gratuitous violence in addition to “mere” robberies suggest that something more than just money and getting quick cash (like for drug fixes) is going on.

I checked on this and found an older paper from the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, dating from 2003, by Dan Silverman, “Street Crime and Street Culture”, link) . This may come from a “conservative” research group, but the point about reputation in street gangs is well taken.  In urban street culture (including but not limited to gangs) physical self-preservation implores having a reputation of being physically tough and combative.  A person who beats up a victim in a street gang may be demonstration his physical “toughness” to other urban thugs or gang members, in order not to be turned on himself.  I had not thought about this before.  Street criminals live in a different world from ours, don’t see ours as legitimate to them but see us as enemies, and think about “street reputation” the way organized crime does, not the way we think about “online reputation” (at least, an analogy).

Some, such as Noam Chomsky, have suggested that gratuitous violence is part of “class war”; people are attacked because, in the view of the ghetto, they did not “earn” the advantages they have.  I certainly heard this viewpoint vocalized earlier in my life, from the extreme Left (like the Peoples Party of New Jersey, back around 1972), and when in Army Basic. 

Street criminals believe or “know” that they have control of the “reality” of the “victim” when committing their acts.  Often, they do not grasp the likelihood that they will indeed be apprehended and go to prison for years or decades. 

None of this is quite the same thing as psychopathy.  This morning I did watch about six minutes of Elliot Rodger’s “retribution” on Vimeo (no, I won’t embed it or even give the link, which will probably get taken down anyway).  One aspect of the rant was particularly striking.  He referred to apparently uncouth (from a visual appearance) men as “undeserving”, as if he were a god or dictator (like Hitler) and thought he could set up a world that decided who could live (again, like Adolf Hitler and then the entire Nazi establishment).  If this weren’t real, I might have thought this was a parody of fascism. I do recall, from my days in dorms in college and even in graduate school back in the 1960s, hearing the phrase uttered by a couple young men when drunk, “No girl does that to me.”  Yes, that sense of entitlement  (to heterosexual “male power”) rings some old rusty bells. I did wonder, when I was coming of age, why others made so much of my physical "iuadequacies" when these same others often had stable marital relationships while not being especially commanding or attractive physically.  

Picture: near the meteor crater at Wetumpka, AL (NE of Montgomery, recent trip). 

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