by Gregory Saville
By popular accounts, South-Central Los Angeles is a chaotic place – a place where the community has collapsed and people live in fear. A quarter-million people suffer poverty rates over 30%. Half of the city’s murders and hundreds of gang shootings emerge from South-Central. Popular films, like South-Central and Colors paint a bleak picture.
This year alone LAPD reports 100 homicides in South-Central, a homicide rate of 40 per 100,000, eight times higher than the national average and more than any other country in the world, except El Salvador.
The fact that there is gang violence and racial conflict is not news. The more interesting questions are: If neighborhood culture has collapsed, why isn’t it so much worse? How does a family even survive in such a place? Why has it been getting better over the past few decades (notwithstanding increases in homicide this past year)?
Do conditions in South-Central simply reflect basic human behavior in our natural state? When the chips are down, do we just become beasts? If so, how does South-Central still survive?
Thomas Hobbes wrote that our natural state was self-serving and violent. At the moment of collapse, for example following a catastrophe, people revert to their natural “solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short” lives.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, argued the opposite – humans are basically good and, following a cultural collapse, we will end up finding ways to cohabitate. “Nothing is so gentle as man in his primitive state,” he wrote in 1754.
What does history suggest?
COLLAPSE IS NORMAL
The Golden Age of Ancient Greece lasted for centuries. That remarkable, but fatally flawed, Hellenistic society never managed to eliminate slavery or internecine conflict and they eventually gave way to the Romans. Of course, Greek city-states did not vanish and their citizens did not perish. They continued on under Roman rule until, eventually, the Roman empire collapsed.
The Romans absorbed Greek culture, technology, and engineering, advancements we still use today. In fact, we base our contemporary democracy, science, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy on some of those early Greco-Roman discoveries.
People imagine the fall of the Roman empire as some cataclysmic war or conquering marauders burning Rome as Emperor Nero watched. In fact, after the Western Roman Empire faded, the Eastern Roman Empire transformed into the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). And the ancestors of the Byzantine Empire became the Ottoman Empire. Today 80 million people, the progeny of those empires, live comfortably as citizens of the modern nation of Turkey.
It’s the same all over the world. Societies emerge, thrive, and collapse, but their demise does not signal a return to permanent chaos under a violent short life. Human nature is not permanently brutish.
THE PROGRESSION OF HISTORY
Life may be brutish for a while, but history suggests Rousseau was onto something. Life doesn’t remain brutish – actually the opposite. People find a way forward.
Consider the treatise of Harvard’s Pulitzer-winning author Steven Pinker, arguably the leading American scholar today on matters of mind and culture. His widely heralded book, Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined studies the history of violence and civilization from one era to another. In each subsequent era, he discovers the persistent decline of violence through history and the emerging civilizing effect of rational thought.
Even today, when rational thought seems a distant dream, collapse from social chaos rarely lasts. Human nature, he says, is both brutish and beneficent at the same time. Rousseau and Hobbes were both right and wrong.
That brings us back to South-Central and a marvelous book by Cid Martinez, The Neighborhood Has Its Own Rules: Latinos and African-Americans in South Los Angeles. Martinez studied the social disorganization (and ultimately, re-organization) of cultural life in South-Central ten years following the infamous Rodney King riots.
FLASHBACK: If you don’t recall the 1992 LA Riots, they followed video coverage of a police beating of motorist Rodney King, and the subsequent acquittal of the officers responsible. It led to days of rioting, 63 deaths, and 2,000 injuries. Hundreds of stores burned and over 12,000 people were arrested. By all accounts, society collapsed in South Central.
Matinez spent a year living in South Central studying the culture and his conclusions echoed both our findings during our SafeGrowth programming and the conclusions of Pinker in Better Angels.
He found order within the disorder. People discovered a way to be civilized when some of those around them could not. Says one reviewer:
“Despite the many divisions that South Los Angeles residents have from each other…Martinez finds unexpected commonalities among Latin American and African-American residents. Because residents do not perceive state actors as legitimate, they turn to each other to provide social organization.”
Martinez calls this special ordering “alternative governance” and, while it is certainly not an ideal way to run a society, as elsewhere when enough people cultivate the beneficient side to human nature they can make their community function.
We retain this Rousseau-style lesson as a central philosophy of SafeGrowth programming. We call it the To/For/With principle and time and time again, we see people turn their own community back from the brink of crime.
Life isn’t always, or even mostly, brutish and short. As they always have, people find a way forward.
by Tarah Hodgkinson
We are often asked why we focus our crime prevention work so intensely on small-is-beautiful versus large scale transformation. We have learned that small scale neighbourhoods, particularly disadvantaged or high crime neighbourhoods, offer the greatest potential for creating safe, cohesive, and liveable places that show how to rebuild cities in the future.
That doesn’t mean large scale transformation isn’t possible. It just means it can be far more difficult, turbulent, and unproductive.
Consider the political, social, and cultural upheaval of the last few years in the United States. Over 400,000 people are dead due to coronavirus. Children are in cages. Domestic terrorists attacked and entered the capitol building and five people were killed. Muslims from certain countries have been banned. Rights for all kinds of groups have been reeled back.
It has been a few weeks since America inaugurated a new leader. A subdued celebration ensued in order to keep people COVID-safe and the world went wild over a pair of handmade mittens.
And, by most accounts, Americans let out a sigh of relief. Within hours, policy after racist policy was rolled back, with 17 executive actions signed in the first day and over 40 as of this week.
AS DIVIDED AS EVER
Nonetheless, America is as divided now as ever. This division is not new. Read back only a few decades and you will find the exact same sentiment.
In fact, those exact words, have been written again and again over the last century. But what does this mean for America? And how do people move forward?
We have discovered through many years of our SafeGrowth project work that progress only happens when people truly listen to each other.
There are thousands of books, articles, and critiques on the rise of “populism.” However, these accounts often ignore the original tenets of populism: real democracy for all people. Real democracy is messy. It doesn’t involve scapegoating or hatred, but a recognition of the rights of all people.
It seems obvious that Americans also need to take a hard look at themselves. There is an excellent scene in the HBO Series, The Newsroom when Jeff Daniels' news anchor character, Will McAvoy, is on a public stage and is asked: “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” He stuns the audience when he replies, “It isn’t! But it sure used to be”.
McAvoy cites a myriad of statistics on how America fails to compete with other countries on literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality, health care, economic equality, and more (all of which - while spoken by an actor in a fictional show - are true).
What this scene suggests is that the warnings of a crumbling American empire are also true, sentiments found in Niall Ferguson's book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire and Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope.
HOPE FOR 2021
America has always been one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial countries in the world and it can innovate again. As famed American historian, Howard Zinn suggested in his book Passionate Declarations Americans need to see themselves the way much of the world does. Self-reflection is the first step in the journey of self-improvement.
Finally, Americans need to take that reflection and get to work. This starts with the demands coming from the populists: health and education reform, economic reform, policing reform, and others.
This will require that neighbourhood residents and leaders, like the incredible people we have met in our SafeGrowth network, continue their hard work and demand better for themselves and their communities.
A new leader might mean new hope. But unlike the world of Star Wars, we can’t put that new hope on one Jedi’s shoulders or the magic of The Force. This must be done by people themselves. A new hope for America comes from the voices of all Americans being heard. And that starts with a small-is-beautiful approach in local neighbourhoods in the cities and towns all over the nation.