Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, never one to shirk at the job of preserving her reputation, wrote recently in the AJC that people should not complain about things like violent home invasions because crime used to be worse in Atlanta.
It’s an interesting argument. And in many ways, she is right, if you think back to the early 1990’s, for example, when virtually nobody lived in downtown Atlanta. Back then, the city’s business district cleared out so fast after 5 p.m. you’d think it was vampires renting all those abandoned lofts.
I worked at the Georgia World Congress Center at the time, installing convention booths. Sometimes we had to work overnight for one of the bigger trade shows, which meant leaving our cars in unattended lots. On those nights, before we went to work, we’d take everything of value out of our truck cabs, pop our hoods, and remove our car batteries. We’d bungee cord the batteries to our toolboxes and bring them into the building with us so that nobody would steal the batteries, or, even worse, damage the hood or break the car windows trying to steal them. It costs more to replace a window or repair a jimmied hood than to replace a battery or some factory-installed radio. So, in essence, we proactively stripped own cars before clocking in for a night of unloading trucks and laying carpet.
Still, cars got messed up or stolen. And the only reason more of us weren’t victimized was because a lot of my co-workers were tough construction workers: the crack-heads knew that not a few of them carried both guns and short fuses about people messing with their work trucks.
I didn’t carry a gun. So if I got off late from a shift and had to take the train after the people in suits had fled the city center, I would take my hammer out of my tool-bag and swing it around while I waited in the station. I found that swinging a hammer worked a whole lot better at deterring unwanted attention than flashing a box-cutter or one of those keychain-sized, feminine-looking little cans of mace. Who, after all, wants to approach a pissed-off looking, exhausted-looking woman covered in sawdust and carpet lint who is twiddling a hammer in her hands?
This was my version of stripping my own truck, as it were: I stripped away the normal parts of my appearance and imitated the crazies and criminals around me so they would think twice about stealing my tools or flashing their privates. And it worked, to a degree: I only had tools stolen when I laid them down at work, and I got flashed mostly in the downtown library, where, of course, I wasn’t wielding a hammer.
The one time I did get flashed on the train, I was carrying my law school books instead of my tools, which taught me a great deal, in retrospect.
So when Shirley Franklin says that Atlanta is safer now than it used to be, she is partially correct: with the huge influx of non-gun toting, non-hammer-wielding residents, and the leveling of many of the city’s toxic housing projects (hey, let’s send ‘em to Clayton!), and the rental of at least some downtown lofts to non-vampire tenants, Atlanta can say that (at least temporarily) it has finally ceased to be the frontier town it has, more or less, been since 1837.
Only, that isn’t really true, either. What is true is that crime was really out of control then, and crime is really out of control now, but now there are many, many more residents who have the resources to demand that their lives not resemble some episode of Deadwood or The Wire. [In a later post, I will talk more about crime statistics, but suffice to say that all statistics can be fiddled with; all crime is bad, and there’s lots of bad crime happening every day.]
No wonder the Mayor and the Chief of Police and the court bureaucracies and judges are reeling at the sight of this new activism. Used to be, the only organized activism they ever dealt with was endless lawsuits by prisoner’s rights advocates who knew they could bankrupt the justice system and free prisoners by suing over every last little thing. The media loved this, and even many elected and appointed officials loved this, because after the lawsuits (paid by taxpayers) were over, they could all hold press conferences together and announce that they were working to “improve conditions” in the jails, and line up to collect human rights awards they’d stack up on the windowsills of their offices.
Which had the added benefit of blocking their view of the scores of felons they were (and are) releasing out the back doors of our courthouses every single day.
So What’s Different About the Public’s Response to Crime Now?
Two things have changed.
One of them is the Internet. The Internet is affecting citizen activism in all sorts of ways. It is literally creating a new type of activist: somebody who can go to work all day and then get involved on their own time, in their own homes, rather than having to decide to choose between working in the ordinary world or descending full-time into the weird, corrupting, consumptive netherworld of politics and professional activism.
This professionalizing of part-time activism is an extremely healthy development, because the old model of activism practically guaranteed that activists either lived in poverty or succumbed to the temptations of “professional activism” of the ACORN mold, where political favoritism and political power eventually ate away at even those with the best of intentions.
The Internet allows this new generation of activists to be ACTUALLY un-bossed and un-bought. And as I keep saying, watch out for us old-timers. Even many of us who started out meaning well have been bossed and bought to death. Not that activism doesn’t take money, or that the government and elected officials can’t solve problems – but when there’s a wider range of people involved in fighting crime, they can only provide more checks and balances on each other. The Internet really is democratizing anti-crime activism.
The Internet is like CompStat for citizens. It allows ordinary citizens from all over the city see what is going on in other neighborhoods. It allows them to compile records of crime in entirely new ways. Now, when neighborhood activists approach elected officials and police bureaucrats, they are not completely at the mercy of statistics that have been intentionally manipulated to downplay crime. I think some of precinct commanders actually appreciate this, and I know that many cops on the street are welcoming these new activists. For a long time, in Atlanta, and in many other cities, both the beat cops and the public have been at the mercy of bureaucrats who are motivated only to deny and ignore crime.
The other thing that has changed about the public’s response to crime is that people have simply stopped listening to the old excuses about criminals being mere victims of circumstance. These excuses are made endlessly by academicians and mainstream journalists, and the politicians and police bureaucrats in cahoots with them. But people are tired of hearing the same old excuses when their neighbors get roughed up and they can’t sleep at night.
This has to do with the Internet, too, because now ordinary citizens can share information, rather than opening up the morning paper and reading one story after another written by somebody whose mission in life is to humanize predators, hide the failings of the criminal justice system to put predators away, and accuse anti-crime activists of being “vigilantes.”
On a recent trip to Atlanta, I met several of the new anti-crime activists, and they are the farthest things from hothead vigilantes that anyone could imagine. These new activists, many of them also new residents of Atlanta, are simply refusing to accept the type of lifestyle that used to mean taking your car battery out of your car when you went to work or sitting in an empty train car swinging a hammer, or trying not to be “insensitive” while the fifteen kids in your neighbor’s household grow up without parenting until they age out of the juvenile system into the adult one – the only graduation they’ll ever know.
These new activists are changing Atlanta, and they’re doing it while refusing to behave as if their flat-screen TVs and personal safety and peace of mind are the normal price to pay for living in a city. It’s time for the Chief of Police and the Mayor to stop fighting them and start listening.
Next: Recommendations for the Courts