Walls can separate us from a 'problem,' but it won't go away

August 19, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

An ugly story has taken an unexpected turn, leading to this question: Now that they have charged the grandson in the Guilford murders, where do we put the barricades?

You see, if the police are right, it looks like we had it wrong. It looks like it wasn't young, black thugs terrorizing rich, white neighborhoods after all.

It looks like the heart of darkness comes in all colors.

When the police said it was a burglary -- and I wonder now if the cops didn't intentionally mislead us in order to help catch the grandson -- nearly everyone assumed the same thing.

We assumed this was black crime spilling over into nearby wealthy Guilford and resulting in the violent deaths of the Lochs, husband and wife, both in their 80s, alone and afraid, facing an unknown intruder armed with a baseball bat.

We're conditioned to think that way. It's the same conditioning, many African-Americans point out, that can put any black person under suspicion.

In the aftermath of the killings, some Guilford residents renewed calls for roadblocks to keep people (you know which people) out of their neighborhood. The story made headlines in the paper. It's the old headline that might as well read: Fear Grips City.

Now, it seems we assumed too much. What do these assumptions say about us?

One thing they say is that an acceptable way to fight crime -- and crime is real and dangerous and sometimes fatal -- may be to physically separate rich, white neighborhoods from poor, black neighborhoods.

Is this what we've come to at last, that if you don't escape to the suburbs, you put up walls?

Maybe, when that doesn't work, you put armed guards on the walls. And then maybe moats surrounding the walls. And then what?

Crime is a big issue in America today. And it should be. We have unacceptable levels of crime in a country that purports to be free. It's no easy trick to enjoy life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness when you're afraid to walk out your front door.

Politicians understand the issue. They know their role, too. They get tough by looking tough and saying the toughest thing that comes to mind.

Helen Delich Bentley, the tough-as-nails gubernatorial candidate, can play the game. She can out-tough anyone. And so, she announces a two-strikes-and-you're-out policy, meaning life imprisonment for two-time violent offenders. It sounds good until you think about the cost of housing and caring for someone 80 years old, and not exactly dangerous anymore, who knocked over two gas stations when he was 16.

There's a crime bill in Congress that you may have heard about. Certain legislators who carry water for the National Rifle Association helped defeat the Clinton package in concert with those Republicans who complain that there was too much pork in the bill.

I saw the aptly named Newt Gingrich talk about pork. Do you know what the pork is?

It's things like midnight basketball, the same program that George Bush once awarded one of his points of light. And then there are grants for poor schools to fund extracurricular activities and to allow them to stay open late as an alternative for the streets. The pork refers to programs that might rescue someone before he commits a crime.

In fact, the pork is much of what is actually good about the bill, unless you believe more capital punishment will reduce crime.

Legislators want to build more prisons, of course. They'll build them with the knowledge that we already have twice as many people behind bars today as we did in 1981 but with no appreciable change in the crime rate.

The problem is, nobody knows quite what to do about crime, which is why they talk about barricades.

These become barricades not only between potential victim and criminal, but between rich and poor, and between black and white.

They say that parts of the city belong only to a certain kind of person.

And yet you understand the impulse. The barricades are an attempt to create safe havens for people who have done no harm. But what do we do for those innocents who live in the poor neighborhoods where crime is an everyday concern?

Where do we build the barricades that can help them?

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