The residue of the past fades with each passing season. Year after year, small and ordinary moments that I used to summon with ease become harder to recall. But May 13, 2009 is different. The day has remained whole, like a blood-stained memory that won’t wash out.
I’m living in small studio apartment in Brentwood. The television is on in the background as I sit working on a paper for a graduate course. A snippet of sound reaches my ears: “A local music teacher shot to death on his daughter’s birthday,” begins ABC 7 news anchor Mark Brown. An image of a young girl crying appears on the screen; a crown of colorful barrettes decorates her hair. She’s hysterical and the few words that manage to escape her mouth are mostly incomprehensible. Her father has been shot and nothing, in the moment, makes sense. It’s just past 6 p.m.
It’s odd, looking back, that the story affected me the way it did. I didn’t know the victim; I’d seen plenty of tragic news reports about young black men shot to death before. I didn’t know his name, or that he was a drum instructor at the school where he received his high school diploma—George Washington Prep. I didn’t know that he felt a certain civic duty and thus wanted to give back to the students and the neighborhood that had given him so much. I didn’t know that he would die just minutes away from the church where, at the time, I attended service regularly. I did not know he would die on the same street he was born. Or that he would die in the arms of his heartbroken mother.
There’s nothing remarkable about the way Robert Rodwell died. He died like most people who’ve been murdered in South Los Angeles, lost to the static of the city. The narrative is familiar: A young-to-middle-aged black man shot to death in an economically fractured neighborhood where liquor stores dot almost every corner. It is the story about the disposability of black life; the story of the moment when, as poet Claudia Rankine puts it, “the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.”
This is death by percentages.
In May 2009, when 28-year-old Rodwell was shot, LAPD statistics highlighted a substantial decrease in homicides citywide when compared to 2008 numbers (there were 95 fewer homicides in 2009, totaling 796 for the year). But despite the dip in killings, a disproportionate number still stemmed from the southwest and southeast districts—which include neighborhoods like South Los Angeles, Inglewood, Compton, and Watts.
According to the Los Angeles Times, since 2007, Latinos—who total nearly five million across LA County—make up almost half of all homicide victims. Blacks, who account for only eight percent of the county’s residents, make up 32 percent of all homicides.
This is death by disgrace.
Police reported that Rodwell was “shot several times” while “pulling out of his driveway in the 1400 block of 105th Street in Westmont.” The shooter, who is still at large, fired “without provocation, then ran off.”
Los Angeles was, and in many ways remains, a war zone for black men. In 1993—fifteen years before Rodwell was gunned down in the driveway of his home—black men in LA County “died by a homicide rate of 368 per 100,000 population: similar to the per capita rate of death for U.S. soldiers deployed to Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.” There were 9.1 million residents in LA County in 1993, which would amount to over 330 homicides among black men.
That was during the apex of the Big Years, a period in Los Angeles when crime and homicides were at an all-time high and disproportionately ravaged the lives of South LA residents. Crime and homicide have declined significantly in Southern California since these bad days, yet “no matter how much crime dropped, the American homicide problem remained maddeningly, mystifyingly, disproportionately black.”
Leovy is a seasoned reporter for the Los Angeles Times who has covered crime and urban policing since 2001. Her book, released in late January, takes us inside the walls of the Los Angeles Police Department and onto the streets of South LA where we meet the detectives and grieving families that orbit this disparaged world. Early on Leovy makes it clear that Ghettoside—a term coined by a Watts gang member to describe his hood and those similar to it (“It was both a place and a predicament...”)—is about a “very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.” And because black men are at the center of this systemic failure, Leovy says this is the “reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides.”
“Society’s efforts to combat this mostly black-on-black murder epidemic were inept, fragmented, underfunded, contorted by a variety of idealogical, political, and racial sensitivities. When homicide did get attention, the focus seemed to be on spectacles—mass shootings, celebrity murders—a step removed from the people who were doing most of the dying: black men.”
Blacks make up 14 percent of the country’s population but account for 40 percent of homicide victims nationwide. And, according to a 2010 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide remains the leading cause of death for young black men ages 15-34. It is from this cultural malaise that Leovy unravels how “our fragmented and underfunded police forces have historically preoccupied themselves with control, prevention, and nuisance abatement rather than responding to victims of violence.”
To do this, Leovy shadowed Detective John Skaggs as he went about solving the murder of Bryant Tennelle (the son of veteran LAPD cop Wally Tennelle). Skaggs—a smart, no-nonsense kind of guy—has devoted his career to making “black lives expensive” and “worth answering for.” He applies a very simple set of rules when faced with a new homicide, regardless of the victim’s color: utilize every resource possible, approach the case from every angle, and treat each investigation like the biggest celebrity murder in Hollywood. These weren’t just names destined to be forgotten, each body deserved to tell its story. Over time, Skaggs’ unconventional approach earned him trust within South LA homes, where residents are often, if not completely, distrustful of law enforcement (especially white men like Skaggs). It was because of this continual lack of accountability fellow officers, and the larger system, had towards black-on-black crimes that motivated Skaggs to operate the way he did.
“Forty years after the civil rights movement, impunity for the murder of black men remained America’s great, though mostly invisible, race problem. The institutions of criminal justice, so remorseless in other ways in an era of get-tough sentencing and “preventive” policing, remained feeble when it came to answering for the lives of black murder victims. Few experts examined what was evident every day of John Skaggs working life: that the state’s inability to catch and punish even a bare majority of murderers in black enclaves such as Watts was itself a root cause of the violence, and that this was a terrible problem—perhaps the most terrible thing in contemporary American life. The system’s failure to catch killers effectively made black lives cheap.”
Ghettoside has many successes: its complicated portrait of the LAPD, the humanity it lends to the families of murder victims, and its ability to engage readers from a historical and current-day context (the sundry facts Leovy provides throughout the book never overwhelm).
Still, anybody who reads Leovy’s work as a case for hyper-policing in communities of color has missed the point. A bigger police presence in areas like Compton or Inglewood doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. The solution, perhaps, is the ways in which law enforcement police (Leovy refers to this as finding “the balance between preventive and responsive measures”). For officers, it should be about extending judicious compassion to victims and families, building stronger ties to the community, and believing that all lives—men, women, gay, transgender, Asian, Latino, black, etc—have equal value, and should be accounted for (in the end, Skaggs tracks down the men behind Tennelle’s shooting). This might seem obvious—you’re probably thinking, Duh!—but as Leovy shows, this is rarely the case.
I went searching for Robert Rodwell on The Homicide Report. It’s been five years since his murder, but I wanted to see if any updates were available regarding his case [note: I inquired with LA’s homicide bureau but have yet to hear anything back; the detective over the case has since retired]. THR is an online database that records homicides throughout LA County, including killings of civilians by law enforcement. What began as a small blog in 2007 by Leovy and the Los Angeles Times to help balance crime coverage (high profile cases typically only make it into the paper), THR has grown over the years, and has evolved into a hauntingly immersive experience for users.
I was flooded with the names and stories of murder victims. There was Jose Celeridad, 42, shot in the early tints of a January afternoon on West Olive Street in 2011. And Nathan A. Morgan, 25, who came from Portland to LA only to be viciously beaten to death and left to rot on Venice Beach in 2008. Anita Henderson, 51, was struck in the head by a force greater than herself and found lying in her driveway. That was November 2012. Taalib Pecantte, 7, was gunned down on South Corning Street in 2013 while walking with his mother. Elsy Molina, 36, was found with her throat cut open in South LA, clothes smeared in blood. She was discovered in the stillness and solitude of her truck.
In Los Angeles, in the alleyways of Downtown and across the grand avenues of Westmont, unseen bodies litter the streets. The memories of people who once were hang in the air, thick as smog. 2Pac named it in 1996. “It’s the city of angels and constant danger,” he warned on “To Live and Die in LA,” just months before his legend was cemented in a haze of gun fire on the Las Vegas strip. In the American subconscious, and for as long as I can remember, Los Angeles has served as a fantastical dream city for many. All that glitters. And yet the city has also served as a terrain marked by constant violence: in the last 12 months more than 540 people have been killed across LA County. Despite Leovy’s mention in Ghettoside’s final chapters that we are much safer “on the whole,” she reminds us that we must still operate with great urgency. Though today it is slow moving, the “plague of black homicides” continues to spread.
The last comment on Rodwell’s profile, written in December 2013, was left by a person identified as Peace. “This was mistaken identity. Hoovas went into ug crips hood and shot a guy they thought was slangin but only had dvd’s. Sad but its the world we live in today in Los Angeles.”
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]