Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Cities, Crime, Detente: Sudhir Venkatesh

More on Cities, Crime, and Economics:

Colombia University's School of Social Studies gave a Conference on "Cities and New Wars" which is definitely a timely topic Sudhir Venkatesh spoke, (and so did Claire Cutler of Victoria, Canada).  With only two panelists, and two divergent sets of concerns, I don't think it was the best panel ever. However, each speaker was interesting in their own way. And I'm actually going to take them both, one post at a time.

But never mind Cutler now. Here is the link to the video, 55 minutes long. Professor Venkatesh spoke starting at minute two, and ended at minute 30 or so. That's plenty to start with.

The examples are set in Chicago. Nobody needs to think this is limited to Chicago, by any means.

Policing, or Not, in the Urban Ghetto
Venkatesh's topic was ostensibly "Policing in the U.S. Ghetto." However, it took a sharp turn into urban economic violence from the start. His contention was that the ghetto has a "city government within a city government." It is unofficial, shady, what we call extortion, gang wars, and the crack economy. The police are not the main security providers in these areas.

He describes drive-by shootings--that they have a definite sound sequence, a noise associated with "incoming". One of the things I noted was that children were growing up in the Robert Taylor homes with the same expectations of violence that we consider a feature of Beirut or Baghdad. That a mother's care includes an admonition to "get your ass down now."

He then describes the park/turf that was the proximal cause of this violence: a three-way gang war for the economic benefits of the park. This included sales territory for drug or weapons sales, but also "taxation authority" for the other activities around the park: food vendors, clothing vendors, prostitutes, car repair.
Before they were torn down, the Robert Taylor Project was truly ruled by an alternate authority than the City of Chicago. It's interesting to note that under-the-table businesses do have a huge tax bill, in the government that makes the place work (dysfunctionally or functionally, take your pick) and that with this alternate government, they also try to evade or avoid taxation through under-reporting of receipts.

The gangs have pride of place. Like a nation, they control specific territory. When two gangs contest turf, the sets of diplomats include community leaders such as pastors and activists. A summit meeting is called, several diplomatic activities through different intermediaries take place. The gangs eventually agreed to a division of the park for commerce and taxation. They also agreed to avoid certain hours for their activities, such as when children were out of school.

Mr. Venkatesh does note that the police came but did not get out of the car on several occasions when drive-bys or other violent/war-like events occurred. I don't think he was making a judgement, just underlining his theory that the City does not have primary authority in this area, even in security.

More Recent Data
The Robert Taylor Homes are long gone. This second video is from last year. Hat/Tip Second City Cop's "A Riot? Not Quite" post of August 16, 2009. And this one is perhaps more to the point.

1. You can see that the police car is the first presence, and that the police disperse the crowd--by getting out of their cars at great risk--only when the second police car shows up.
2. You can also see that the fighters don't disperse right away. They're defiant.
3. You can also see that if they were totally defiant, things could have taken a totally different turn. But two police officers in two cars cannot change a neighborhood in the middle of the night. They can only impose order for that time, that place, that minute.

It remains a question about how controlled the "rioters" were. I think not so very. .

What a riot! from Joe Gray on Vimeo.

But let's look at the other city, state, and national authorities. Their first job is to provide security, and they have, in some fashion. Governments also have tax authority--this goes hand in hand with having the "standing armies" that maintain the state. Yet this is equally compromised. No IRS or other local authority shows up to collect taxes--they send a letter once a year. The evasion or avoidance of taxes to the local authority--the gang--is even more prevalent for the government--because the first tax becomes "business overhead".

The place where (what we call) the legitimate state makes the most impact is in a kind of internal "foreign aid". This aid is a tied aid--to certain behaviors (live here, for instance). Like much foreign diplomacy, it does not succeed in changing many internal cultural values. It may not even seek to. Mostly it stops war from breaking out along the border. In the end, looking at the shadow economy, you almost begin to wonder: just who runs this territory? At what point does legitimate rule go to who claims it?

The U.S. claimed a lot of land by sending people to sit on it that were sympathetic to their government, their culture, and their folkways. Other parcels they bought: from Mexico (the Gadsden Purchase), from France (the Louisiana Purchase). Other parts were wrested away (e.g. the Republic of Texas fighting against the government of Mexico). At the time we brought all this territory under one aegis, we also allowed people to barter, make local arrangements, and didn't tax so much. Many customary activities then are now considered shadow economy by our own nation, state, and city. And yet we won't pay for increased security without increased taxation.

If we want the inner city claimed by the government we know, then the city has to have a presence in that area that can contend with the de facto government that really seems to run it. That means increased security, and establishment of taxation authority, and cultural interchange, and--gaining the consent of the governed.

Venkatesh doesn't necessarily lead where I did, but he has plenty to say. It's well worth picking up a book or two of his and giving them a good read. The one I am still reading (fascinating!) is:

Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor by Sudhir Venkatesh. It's not at every bookstore, but still readily available.


Bob G. said...

I also agree with Venkatesh...provisionally-speaking.
The most difficult aspect you mentioned near the end was that of "gaining the CONSENT of the governed".
That's a problem all it's own...
Many of these people first, DO NOT recognize the authority of those "governing" them...that presents a problem TO whatever city in which such people reside.
That's only the FIRST hurdle to overcome.
Much of the disdain for the PROPER authority comes from generationally-indoctrined children who pass this on at younger ages as they become "parents".
It's a REAL vicious cycle to break, and no amount of money dumped into a myriad of "programs" will overcome the lack of traditional family values.
Increased security IS a must, but again, you run into agencies like the NAACP, and the ACLU, because you're being too "strong-armed" (in order to protect the masses).
When people see the city (or specifically, the police) backing down (less security) they come to erroneous conlcude about HOW the city feels towards them...and they have a point.

Sorry to ramble, but there is SO MUCH to think about here.

Excllent post.

Stay safe & warm out there.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
As always, I can rely on you for a cogent comment.

I think the "consent of the governed" is perhaps the hardest point. And I think we do need to look at it as a diplomacy. We set priorities with other nations--sometimes giving to prop up the status quo, and sometimes giving to make changes. I think we need to look at public assistance this way too.

But what a sticky wicket!

Thanks for writing in!
Ann T.

Momma Fargo said...

Very interesting post, Ann T. And very educational. It is true I find in police work that gangsters do not shat in their own neighborhood and often protect it and neighbors. Even if they don't particularly like them. Occasionally, you will have a neighbor run out...but rarely. They usually like the force to comply method. Good stuff. Keep us thinking with history and today.

The Observer said...

Ann T:
I was just thinking today apropos all the tax talk that to get away from the income tax and go to some sort of VAT/flat/consumption tax would fetch up some of the dollars out of the shadow/"black" economy since dope dealers et al still gotta eat, buy clothes, cars etc. Of course, all the politically expedient adjustments to the income tax would go away so the chances of income tax going away is just about nil.

The KCPD has varying degrees of authority in this town, depending on which part of town they are in and how much force they show. They are not winning the "hearts and minds" war as evidenced by our murder rate--the majority of which are in the area with the least respect for police presence--this is also the area with the lowest "clearance rate" for solving the crimes.

Thought provoking post!

The Observer

Anonymous said...

This is one of my next reads on my new Kindle. :-)

Ann T. said...

Dear Momma Fargo,
Yes, I think Venkatesh would say similar, except that of course the gang deals drugs and so forth.

"Force to comply" method. I like that phrase.

Thanks for stopping in and verifying.
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
I need to learn more about this VAT tax. I keep looking for a way for cities to get revenue so they can govern, oh yeah.

Thank you!

As for varying authority, that I completely believe. I like writing about this because so many indicators come up in comments--that I never thought of.

Thanks for writing in,
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear spark check,
Well, a Kindle! I am jealous.

I think you'll like it. I'm thinking you won't always agree with him, but at least he spent the time and took the risk.

Enjoy! Thanks for writing in!
Ann T.