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Crime, Punishment and Black Politics

Crime, Punishment and Black Politics
Katti Gray, Colorlines, May 28, 2010

The day bullies dared to gang up on a lone teenager smack atop Jimmy Smith’s meticulously kept lawn, his reflexes kicked in. “Sanctuary over here!” he hollered, dashing out of his Chicago home and firing his Beretta revolver skyward. “Ain’t nobody dying up in my yard today. Let that boy go.”

The attack ended, the attackers high-tailing it off Smith’s property. “I was determined to stop what was going down,” he says of that assault 30 years ago.

Then—as now—his corner of the North Avalon section of the Windy City’s mostly Black South Side was a study in contrasts. Strivers like him, a retired community college administrator, and his wife, who works in banking, live there. So do some of the city’s chronically poor. They hail from families set further adrift when the government, decades ago, dynamited Chicago’s worn housing projects. Displaced families used their reconfigured government subsidies to rent houses alongside people like the Smiths—people unabashedly tough-on-crime and certain that the poor commit a disproportionate share of it.

Just the other day, Smith says, someone in a house across from his place was smoking crack in plain view. It makes you angry, he says, and breaks your heart. And it can make even a community-minded, pro-Black kind of Black American ambivalent about how severely criminality should be adjudicated, who should be locked up and the extent to which Black people should care.

That ambivalence was revealed dramatically last week, when Detroit police shot and killed 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones. While many people raged against the police, many others roared just as loudly about the family’s alleged relation to a murder case cops were investigating. The sentiment complicates the goals of an increasingly mainstream set of voices, who are arguing that criminal justice reform is a defining political issue for Black Americans. (Read the full article)