by Steve Bellow, resident of California
Both of my parents were raised in the South during Jim Crow segregation during the 1930’s and 40’s. Both grew up poor. Not so poor that they did without food or clothes, but their living conditions were not middle class by any means. My mother moved to California after high school and got a job as an office worker in the early 1950’s. She was introduced to my father who was stationed in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. After my father served his time in the Marines, a year or so later he became a janitor and then machinist at a major aerospace company. They married in the late 1950’s, saved money and eventually bought a home in 1960 in the South Central area of Los Angeles.
Our neighborhood was predominately middle- and working-class Black people. Most homes were two parent families with children, proud homeowners raising their families. Lawns and homes were well kept. Schools were good. We weren’t worried about crime, and I’d say it was a pretty good quality of life. My relatives who also moved to the same area lived either nearby or within five or ten miles.
When I was around five or six years old, after the 1965 Watts rioting started, I remember my father talking to the next-door neighbor. The rioting was farther away from where we lived, but they were concerned about a few of my relatives who were closer to the chaos, and they were worried the riots would spread to our neighborhood. Fortunately, they didn’t. But a few years later, my parents and neighbors noticed a change. Crime seemed to be creeping up.
There were more burglaries and other crimes that previously had been rare. Around 1967, there were more gang-related crimes. The father of one of my school classmates was murdered by gang members during a street robbery. The quality of life was worse, and people started moving out the neighborhood. In 1968, my parents, because of crime and violence, moved from our small two-bedroom home and purchased a three-bedroom house about 10 miles south in a suburb that borders Los Angeles.
Our new neighborhood was essentially an all-white working-class neighborhood. It took a bit of getting used to, culturally, and I faced some racism at school, but for the most part we enjoyed the safe streets, the cleanliness of the city, the park where I played flag football or baseball, and the ability to walk to and from school without fear. We got along with the neighbors, but when a few more Black families moved in in the mid 1970s, White Flight started. Almost overnight, the neighborhood changed and became predominately Black. That wasn’t a bad thing. The new homeowners were also decent and hardworking people, and culturally we had more in common.
Then, a family moved in two doors down from us on the block and everything went to hell.
The Washingtons (not their real name) were a large family. Most of the children were older teenagers and gang members. People in the neighborhood noticed the change immediately. Bicycles were now being stolen. The garages people once kept open during the day were burglarized. The Washingtons invited a lot of other unsavory people and gang members, people who didn’t live in our neighborhood but liked to hang out in front of their house and on the corners.
Occasionally, we would see a police car in front at their home, or some of the Washingtons might be stopped on the corner, but for the most part they and their associates owned the street or the park or wherever they chose to congregate. The vast majority of decent people in the neighborhood ceded public space. One day a neighbor called the police because the Washingtons were playing their radio too loud. The next week a few of the caller’s windows were smashed during the night. The Washingtons and their gang member associates were sending a message. They owned the street and there would be consequences if you called police.
The tax on civil life in the neighborhood was psychological, financial, and physical. Inside, our minds couldn’t relax. Outside, our heads turned on a swivel. The area became riddled with graffiti. Homeowners installing bars and security doors on their homes. My brother was harassed and beaten up one day for the crime of walking on the same side of the sidewalk where a group of gangsters was loitering. The gangsters took over a section of our local park less than a mile away. To decent people, public space became off limits.
You didn’t walk past their house or areas they “claimed.” Crime went up. We took a different route to go to the market, and going for walks or the park was out of the question. Things got progressively worse for another seven or eight years. Of course it wasn’t just our block. Gang members took over other areas of the city.
For some reason, in the early to mid 1980s, things started to change. I don’t exactly know why, but we noticed the police started stopping gang members. Stopping them in the park and on street corners. We noticed more patrolling by cops in our neighborhood. It was a welcome relief. Later, we heard the oldest Washington was murdered in a gang shooting somewhere and another had been arrested and sent to prison.
I don’t know if there was pressure at City Hall or the police department just decided to do something about the crime. But we and the overwhelming majority of decent people in our neighborhood didn’t care “why.” We didn’t really care about “mass incarceration.” We applauded the incarceration of the people who had been victimizing and terrorizing us.
The neighborhood slowly transformed back to the “good” quality of life we had once taken for granted. People started walking their dogs again. Older retired people started coming out of their homes. The graffiti was removed. For the most part the area has remained relatively safe. My mother and sister still live there.
People sometimes ask me why good people in the neighborhood didn’t march en masse down to city hall or the police department to complain. We didn’t fear the police. We didn’t question their legitimacy. But neither did the gang members. People were afraid to speak up. The police weren’t 24-hour personal security guards. The Washingtons would get arrested and cycle in and out of jail. When enough were in jail, there would be a brief respite. But after their release it returned to business as usual. Safety was achieved by policing, and when the worst of the Washingtons were incapacitated by incarceration.
A friend of mine, Keith (also not his real name), lives in Baldwin Hills. It’s a relatively nice community within South Los Angeles. It was known as The Black Beverly Hills because many entertainers, doctors, and other upper-middle class and wealthy Blacks, people who were not allowed to live in Beverly Hills, moved to Baldwin Hills. I visited Keith a few years ago and while we were both talking outside his home, a car drove up with several Black teenagers inside playing their music a little loud. Not blistering loud but just a little too loud.
They stayed momentarily but left a few minutes later. Then they returned and parked again a few doors away. I suspect they stopped there to smoke marijuana on the quiet street off the nearby major Boulevard to avoid detection. Keith did not recognize them and he immediately took out his cell phone and said, “I’m going to call the police. We don’t put up with that around here.”
Keith made the call but the teenagers left prior to the arrival of the police. Admittedly, I thought Keith was a little quick on the draw with his cell phone. I’m somewhat conservative, and Keith is philosophically very liberal, so I teased him about calling the police on the young Black men. But he immediately said, “Listen, I live in a nice area. All of my neighbors are the same. Our parents worked hard and we worked hard to live here we don’t want our neighborhood turned into the same as the rest of South L.A.”
Had Keith been white, some would call him a privileged and racist “Karen,” but I know what he means. Keith and his neighbors understand the Broken Windows concept, even if they’ve never heard of the term. They know that certain undesirable behavior, when left unchecked, will get worse. The only people who seem to doubt this live in neighborhoods where no windows are broken. I’ve lived in on a block where criminal gangs and other anti-social behavior was tolerated. It ruined my neighborhood.
Now, since Ferguson in 2014, we see experts in academia, politicians, professional athletes, folks in police reform, civil rights “leaders,” and the media advocating for less proactive policing. This goes beyond holding bad cops accountable. It’s the actual demonizing of the police. For some reason “law and order” has become a curse word, and enforcing quality-of-life offenses is seen as racial oppression. Progressives say Black communities need more police legitimacy, and they mistakenly think legitimacy is gained by non-enforcement rather than law enforcement and public order.
I can’t think of a better way of tanking police legitimacy than to tell the public that bad behavior isn’t criminal and that police action can always be questioned and even actively resisted. When police shoot someone, and I’m talking even about some of the criminally bad shootings, there’s almost always a common thread: the person shot first committed a crime and then was non-compliant with police. This is the “root cause.” This is the behavior we need to condemn. Honestly, it’s the behavior most people do condemn, at last for their own families and in their own neighborhoods. But when it comes to such criminal behavior in other people’s neighborhoods, in Black neighborhoods, in my neighborhood, those who don’t live there have no problem siding with and even idolizing the criminal as a victim and martyr.
There’s study after study and articles ad nauseum telling us that Black folks are disproportionately stopped by police, disproportionately searched, disproportionately on the receiving end of police force, and disproportionately imprisoned. But disproportionate to what? To the entire city? To America? Crime is local, but politics, despite what Tip O’Neal said, seems to be regional.
The same articles don’t mention racial disparity in behavior. People advocate plenty for the civil rights of Black and Brown people stopped by police, nobody seems to care about the civil rights of the overwhelming majority of decent Black and Brown folks who simply want to live without fear, or thumping base and public drinking.
I’m no expert, but I do have common sense and the internet. I’ve noticed something. The “experts” in reform who want less proactive policing in my neighborhood? The college-educated journalists, law professors, civil rights “leaders,” and attorneys who want to decriminalize low-level crimes so as to not “stigmatize” the criminal? Those people, both white and Black, almost always grew up in what they call “privilege.” They rarely lived or raised their families anywhere near a high crime or gang infested area. They didn’t go to urban public schools. Do they have skin in the game? Do they really speak for the majority of Black and Brown people?
I’m not in academia. I attended a state university in the late 70’s for three years before I dropped out and became a police officer. I am well aware of the negative history of policing. I have experienced racism. I know racism still exists. That’s not in doubt. What is in doubt is the role of police in society and in my neighborhood. I’m sick of white people telling me I’m oppressed. I’m sick white and black people who don’t come to my neighborhood telling me about my problems.
I’m sure that had my upbringing been different I might not have wanted to be a police officer. I suspect that had I been inundated with today’s constant negativity about policing, I would have disliked the police and policing. That would not have made policing better.
We all want better policing. Better policing is respectful policing. Better policing follows the law and constitution. Better policing is not de-policing. Black and Brown neighborhoods, more than white neighborhoods, need more policing. This is what most Black people want, if only white people would hear us, we who they claim to so want to help.
“The talk” I received from my father if I was stopped by the police was pretty brief: “Don’t be disrespectful and behave the same way with police as I expect you to behave with your teacher.” That was it. I took his advice. I wasn’t taught to hate or mistrust the police. Not by my parents nor by the somewhat unrealistic TV shows like Adam-12 or Dragnet I watched as a kid. My parents certainly were oppressed, and they didn’t have the opportunities I had, opportunities that comes from civil rights, good parents, and a safe neighborhood.
To reduce violence we need standards of acceptable behavior. I don’t mean to disregard or ignore instances where people have experienced rudeness, unnecessary force, brutality or other unprofessional behavior by the police. We know this happens. We need to hold cops to a higher standard and discipline or fire those who misbehave. But we still need police to hold the public accountable and enforce community standards of basic civil decency. Defining deviance down doesn’t help those who live near deviance. It doesn’t even help the deviant. Non-enforcement has a direct impact on the quality-of-life for the majority of people in at-risk communities of color. This isn’t a culture thing. It’s not about race. Black people aren’t different. It’s about all of us, as Americans, living with equal opportunity and in peace.
Steve Bellow is a former police officer and reserve police officer with 40 years of law enforcement related experience. He’s also a semi-retired entrepreneur and consultant in the Consumer Electronics Industry.