Patillo’s take on URBAN CRIME Editorial by Robert Patillo

Another week goes by, and it’s another round of violence in the ongoing Civil War in Syria.  Over the weekend dozens were shot, and many killed, by roving gangs of ISIS fighters. They are financed by the drug trade, and unpoliced by the government. This lawlessness has destroyed a semblance of normalcy in the region, and the futures of a generation of Syrian youth. The most shocking thing about this violence is that it is not taking place in Syria. It is happening in Chicago. The gangs are not ISIS rebels, but rather Bloods, Crips, and Vice Lords. The generation that is being destroyed isn’t in some far flung desert, but rather in cities and suburbs around the U.S. That is to say, the failure of President Obama and elected officials around the country to address crime and violence will go down as the greatest letdown of the Obama Era.

Don’t get me wrong, overall crime statistics are down, although those statistics are not reflective of the reality on the ground in many major cities. Places where gentrification has moved poorer communities further from jobs, educational opportunities, and transportation. While steadily increasing the gap between the rich and poor. This has created a powder keg in many cities, where black and Latino youth see no other means of elevating their financial positions than joining gangs and taking part in criminal activity. This has resulted in a barbarian culture not seen since the Middle Ages, where the rich city dwellers built walls and defenses to protect themselves from the raiding hoards from the outlands.  In Atlanta there are the “Buckhead burglaries” and “Midtown robberies.” In Chicago there are “smash and grabs,” along the Magnificent Mile. In other major cities the narrative is the same; where frankly white people no longer feel safe to walk the streets, out of fear that some black kid will stick them up at gun point.

The traditional solution to issues of this nature is “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”  We hear this mantra again and again. Tough on crime, harsh sentences, three strikes and you are out. Is this really the best way though? Nationally, in the last several weeks, we have had a discussion on the Clinton Crime Bill, and what it did to communities of color. The bill did reduce crime, cut back on gangs, and reduced violence in our inner cities. In fact, the gentrification revolution of the last 20 years would have not occurred without the bill. The bill also locked up a generation of men of color. Men who got out in the 2000s with no education, job skills, and a criminal record that prevented them from advancement in our society.  The bill also robbed a generation of young boys of color of their fathers, of two parent households, and of the stability that comes from duel incomes. Thus, the bill created the conditions for the current spike in crime nationally. Those guys locked up in the 1990s got out and recruited those kids that were left orphaned by mass incarceration. Putting them right back into the cycle of crime.

When you decide to be “tough on crime” with young people what you are really giving them is a death sentence, while concurrently not solving the problem. You create the conditions for a generation game of whack-a-mole as you arrest kid after kid, but never get to the root of the problem. When a 17 year old gets arrested rarely do law enforcement officers bother to ask where they got the gun, who gave them the stolen vehicle, or what is the common denominator in the string of crimes. Standard police work is subsumed into the desire for increased conviction rates, and show trials on the evening news. By prosecuting the kids who are on the street, not focusing on the older individuals who are recruiting, and organizing these crimes, law enforcement is simply filling jails and destroying lives. All while not solving the problem. The reason is simply because there will always be another kid to fill that kid’s spot.

So what is the smarter approach? How can we save these kids, while at the same time reducing crime, and making our streets safe? The best way is to treat these criminal organizations the same way that we treat terrorist organizations.  Young men join the Bloods and Crips, and ISIS and Al Qaeda, for all the same reasons. These are generally disaffected young men who see no social or economic opportunity within their governmental system.  They are looking for structure, honor, prestige, opportunity, and a way to fight back against a system which they blame for their station in life. In America these young people were robbed of their fathers by the wars on crime and drugs. While in the Middle East they were taken away by the Gulf Wars and War on Terror. For these reasons, and many more, if we do not address the root causes of both we will continue to be terrorized by the symptoms of each.

So, the first step to fighting crime in our cities is the same as fighting terror, we have to win the hearts and minds of the people. We have to make our young people believe in America again. Believe that the system wants to do something besides just lock them up. Believe that hard work and education will lead to prosperity. Believe that there is something to live for. We have to bring jobs back. Right now young folks cannot get minimum wages jobs because there are grown people filling them, trying to support their families. That’s because we have raided the middle class in America. We have to put a focus on jobs that can support a living wage, and do not require a higher education. Which is economically out of reach for many. Jobs that provide stability, and give our young people a reasonable alternative to selling drugs or committing crimes.

If we just took the $400,000,000,000 that we spent on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program and invested it into repairing our nation’s infrastructure, while including a directive that brought in millions of workers under 25 years old, we would be on the right path. If we cut into the NSA’s budget for spying on us and used it to pay for technical and vocational education, we would be so much better.  If our criminal justice system concentrated on reform, instead of retribution, and prepared offenders for reentry into society instead of returning to prison, then we would begin the process of restoring the faith of a generation.  If we reformed our social services to reward families that stay together, instead of incentivizing single parent households, and stop pushing this “tough on crime” mantra, we can bring these disaffected young folks back into our society.

What we know is what has not worked, and will not work. The draconian approach has shown itself to be only a temporary fix. Until we take a holistic tactic to fighting crime this will continue to be the greatest failure of America, and greatest failure of the Era of Obama. We have failed this generation, but with that knowledge we can be better. This opportunity is before us, and we as a people have to decide that these lives are worth saving.  

Robert Patillo

Producer Newsmakers Live, Radio Host at CBS Radio