As I’ve mentioned several times, most crime is committed by a small number of very prolific offenders. Remove these people from the streets, impose real consequences, and crime rates will drop.
But so long as the courts continue to let people off for their first offense, whatever it may be, and then for their second and their third and their fourth offenses, with a slap on the wrist and time served or probation, then the streets will remain dangerous.
A little more dangerous here, a little less dangerous there, which is the main thing the FBI statistics tell us. But always most dangerous for the most vulnerable, those who cannot afford video camera surveillance for their doorways and who lack the ability to organize neighborhood patrols or pay off-duty cops to do it for them.
Mind you, I’m in no way being critical of those who have the resources to protect themselves. Ultimately, they are helping everyone by holding the city to higher standards.
But in the short term, the people the Mayor and Chief Pennington are throwing most directly under the bus by denying the problem of crime are the poorest citizens of the city.
Some dozen years ago, I was sitting with my husband in our house in southeast Atlanta. The neighborhood was still mostly empty lots back then: none of the new houses had been built, and there were overgrown fields across the street and to the right of us. Around 10:00 p.m., we heard a car door slam and angry male and female voices. The car screeched away. Then we heard keening, like an injured animal.
It was an injured child. When I found her kneeling in the grass, I thought I would be sick. She was not badly injured, but she was terrified. She was hiding in the grass, in the dark, from whoever had just dumped her out of a car, and she did not look relieved to be found by two strange adults in a strange neighborhood.
The girl looked about thirteen or fourteen, and she was in shock, which I recognized from working at a rape crisis center and from my own experience of a violent assault. After police rescued me, I could not stop laughing and crying for some time, and I have known other people who have experienced either hysteria, or laughing, or numbness, in the wake of a physical attack. Adrenaline is strange: you either shut down or ramp up after you have escaped something. This girl had clearly shut down.
I sent my husband back into the house because his presence was scaring her. I coaxed the girl up to the house as he locked up our dogs. The whole time I was urging her to come inside, she was looking up and down the street, and I began to worry that whoever had dropped her off would come back. I wanted to get us inside and lock the door, but I did not want to frighten her any more, and I did not want her to run away.
All the while, I was flashing back to ten years before that, when I was the one scrambling around on the floor trying to find the telephone, terrified that the man who had just raped me would come back in, as he had been doing in order to ramp up my fear, I believe. He would pretend to be leaving, then reappear.
When I got the girl up under my porch light, I looked at her clothes, and I thought, “Good, her pants are still in one piece.”
An awful thought, but there you have it: the mind tries to impose order on uncontrollable events. We all minimize crime, in a way, because otherwise we would not be able to sleep.
It must have been terrifying for the girl to come into our house. We might have been the next chapter of whatever terrible thing was happening to her, instead of people who were offering her safety. But she did not want to be outside any more than I did, so she finally walked through the door, flinching away from me.
It didn’t help that we were white and she was black, or that you could hear our large dogs whimpering behind the bedroom door, or that I was renovating the house, and it was seedy-looking. The girl did not want my husband anywhere near her, even though he exudes gentleness. So he sat with the dogs and I cleaned up the cuts on her arms and knees and tried to get her to breathe through her hysteria.
In the light, I could see that the girl was beginning to mature, but she was still dressed like a child, not a teen. She was a little chubby. She looked like the type of kid who would be shy even under ordinary circumstances. There was nothing rebellious or streetwise about her, which was surprising because most of the children in our neighborhood were sadly streetwise.
Somebody obviously cared about her. They cared enough that she still seemed like a child. She lived with her grandmother, she finally said, and she had sneaked out of the house and gotten into a car with some dangerous kids from her school, hoping to fit in or hoping for an adventure. Instead, they beat her up and threw her out of the car in a strange neighborhood. Both the boys and the girls had attacked her in some kind of imitation of a gang ritual. Then they dumped her out of the car.
I was relieved that she had not been snatched up by some stranger, but the fact that she knew her attackers created another problem: I wanted to call the police, but she begged us not to do so.
The girl was still shaking, saying something like “I’ll never do it again, I’ll never go out again,” so I had to consider the consequences of calling the police. If they arrested her attackers, she would probably fare far worse as soon as they got released, which would happen in hours, or days. The youths’ mothers (I did not think about fathers existing) might also retaliate. Even if the police simply came and drove the girl home, somebody in her neighborhood might see the police car. Her grandmother was asleep, she told us; she just wanted to go home. My husband and I decided the best thing to do was to take her there.
This was not the decision I wanted to make. But we did not have any illusions that we were taking the girl back to the type of community where her offenders would be punished, or even sufficiently restrained by their parents from harming her again. Childhood is not the only thing that disappears in fractured communities: adulthood disappears, as well. My neighbor D., she of the 14 children, would tear down the street screaming at anybody who dared to call the police when her children got caught pawing through somebody’s car or breaking into a house, as if calling the police was the thing that had violated community standards.
D. was wrong about a lot of things, but she wasn’t particularly wrong about that, at least not in the world where her children went to school, near the housing projects surrounding the federal prison a few blocks south of us.
That was where we were driving the girl, down to Thomasville Heights, a plot directly east of the penitentiary where Cuban criminals from the Mariel boatlift had rioted in 1987. In Thomasville Heights, cars pulled up to the housing projects all night long to purchase crack; grass didn’t grow; children turned up dead, not only during the famous Atlanta child murders, which claimed children from that neighborhood, but also before, and after those notorious crimes.
The girl didn’t live in the projects but in one of those sturdy ranch houses that radiate out for miles from Atlanta’s downtown. Brick house, brick mailbox, painted concrete, raised flowerbeds, marigolds planted in rows in a perfectly manicured yard: I knew when we pulled up that creating such order two blocks from the gunfire and sex-and-drugs market of the projects was an act of defiance. But not too defiant: every window had burglar bars. The door had a burglar gate so that it could not be kicked in.
No politician should ever be allowed to declare victory over crime so long as people have to cover their front doors with metal bars in order to keep criminals from kicking the door down. But they do, of course, not only in Atlanta, but also in Baltimore, where Peter Hermann wrote this week about the pressures on cops to keep crime numbers down, and Detroit, where 100+ homicides disappeared from the record books last year in order to make somebody look good at City Hall.
We dropped the child off and waited until her grandmother unlocked the door and unbolted the burglar bars and let the girl inside, then bolted the burglar bars and locked the door behind them. And then we drove away, leaving an adolescent girl and her grandmother to the gunfire and crack whores and drug dealers of Thomasville Heights, which is precisely what Mayor Franklin is doing whenever she downplays the seriousness of crime.
Politicians “using the numbers to climb into office or sabotage opponents,” as Peter Hermann puts it.
Last month, when I was in Atlanta, I drove past Thomasville Heights on my way out of town. I don’t know if the official crime rate there has gone down, or by how much, but unlike many other parts of the city, it does not appear to have changed. It still looks blighted; people still walk aimlessly from one empty lot to another, and the few convenience stores are shrouded beneath burglar bars. I still would not stop for gas or a newspaper there.
Even if the crime rate has gone down, you have to wonder if this happened because everybody on a certain corner finally managed to kill each other: statistical victory through depopulation. Not a nice way to think about other humans, but there it is.
That is what we left that child in: she must be 25 or 26 by now. The crime committed against her doesn’t exist in any file at the APD, nor in the FBI Uniform Crime Reports. But it happened, one of the millions of offenses that go unreported, in addition to the millions that do get reported and still get denied by the politicians.