I heard Jill Leovy on NPR’s Fresh Air back in January talking about this book and the newspaper blog that started it, The Homicide Report, and was intrigued. The book does not disappoint. Leovy, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, developed this text after years of reporting on homicides in LA and actually “embedding” herself at the LAPD’s Seventy-Seventh Street division and it attempts as she puts it in the author’s note, “to penetrate the mystery of disproportionate black homicide”(323).
She uses the murder of one young man, Bryant Tennelle, the son of a black homicide detective, to both frame and expand on the issue of black on black homicide in LA and elsewhere. Though she brings in historical and sociological perspectives, Leovy focuses on the people involved—the victims, the family and friends they leave behind and the detectives who try to work the cases. Amidst a wide cast of characters, each with their own interesting and sometimes heartbreaking story, Leovy returns to two people again and again—Wallace Tennelle, Bryant’s father, and John Skaggs, the tireless detective who is assigned to Tennelle’s case.
Leovy’s argument here is that the inner city violence experienced in Los Angeles at the beginning of the new millennium has a lot to do with the lack of consistent justice for these crimes. The police have trouble clearing these cases—for a complex set of reasons—one being because witnesses won’t come forward. Potential witnesses fear retaliation against themselves or their families. In the absence of official justice, unofficial justice takes over and more murders are committed to avenge the initial crime. Add to this the fact that these murders are not reported in the news media and you have a community that believes that the outside world doesn’t care about black lives (and most of this book was written long before Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown). Leovy explores this dynamic not only in terms of the specific murders in Los Angeles but also in other places and times, like the pre-Civil-Rights south, where the legal system worked differently for blacks than whites, and black-on-black murder rates also spiked.
There’s a lot to think about and grapple with in this book, but Loevy also repeatedly punches you in the gut. There’s a chapter where she simply describes all the murders that go on in a short period of time, maybe a few weeks, and the list goes on and on and on but it feels important that Loevy names each person and gives them each a moment. Reading this book felt like watching a season of The Wire. You feel angry, you feel inspired, you feel helpless, but mostly you just feel.