Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy

March 11, 2015 at 11:49 am (Book review, books, California, True crime)

A1mftPyMp+L._SL1500_ Here’s how Jill Leovy characterizes an effective officer of the law:

A great cop–or a great detective–needed to be smart and quick, but not necessarily bookish or terribly analytical. A good memory, a talent for improvisation, a keen interest in people, and a buoyancy of spirit–one had to like “capering”–ensured that the hyperactive flourished in a job that left others wilting with stress.

Leovy then states: “Wally Tennelle had all these traits.” Detective Wally Tennelle and his family are at the center of this narrative.

Leovy describes in detail the extraordinary difficulties involved in policing South Los Angeles. Making cases that stick is a process that has its own set of problems, mainly having to do with witnesses who are too terrified to testify in open court.

The tribulations experienced by those who work for the Los Angeles Police Department are rendered vividly in this narrative. There is the inevitable faceless, infuriating bureaucracy. There are cops who operate on some version of automatic pilot.

There are also individuals who operate at the very highest levels of sensitivity, empathy, and most of all, devotion to duty. And there are the counterparts of these, people who are forced to endure the most searing pain there is: loss of a loved one. When that loved one is a child, the pain seems well nigh insurmountable.

I’ve been reading a great deal of true crime lately, but Ghettoside is different. Jill Leovy takes you to a place so dark, so seemingly hopeless, that you can think of nothing but how to escape, the sooner the better.

And yet…

By forcing you to look directly again and again at the  injustice and violence and the inevitable resultant agony, the reader arrives finally at the still, anguished center of this harrowing narrative. It is impossible not to. And once having come to that place, there is no going back.

There are stories of gang members shooting individuals they’ve erroneously thought to be members of rival gangs. These ‘mistakes’ happen because of a particular hat being worn, or the color of a bandana sticking out of a pocket.

You want more than anything to see these murder cases followed through until justice is done. You wish to thank people like Detective John Scaggs and his fellow cadre of officers for their unwavering dedication in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles (some of which emanate from their own police department).

Most of all, you wish you could somehow assuage the pain of those who have suffered the worst of all losses. Leovy tells story after story about vicious, senseless, utterly unjustifiable murders, and the suffering they cause family members, who are left trying to cope with the loss for weeks and months and years afterwards, probably forever.

Choked silence, accompanied by that flat gaze one police chaplain called “homicide eyes,” was perhaps the signature response people offered when asked to describe their experiences with violence….

Karen Hamilton, a bookkeeper from Jefferson Park, had still not spoken of her son’s murder seven years after his death.She tried, drawing deep breaths, her hands shaking, but no voice came. Homicide grief may be a kind of living death. Survivors slog on, disfigured by loss and incomprehension.

At the conclusion of  the trial that is the centerpiece of this book, the jury foreman, who was white, had this to say:

“There is a perception that blacks are doing it to blacks, and if I’m white, it doesn’t affect me….” His eyes flashed with sudden anger. “Well, get over it. It does.”

I can’t possibly do Ghettoside justice in this space. Only let me say that it is the most urgently relevant, compassionate, profound, and beautifully written book I have read in a very long time.

Jill Leovy

Jill Leovy

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No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Meditation XVII, John Donne

 

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