A Conservative Case For Prison Reform:

CONSERVATIVES should recognize that the entire criminal justice system is another government spending program fraught with the issues that plague all government programs. Criminal justice should be subject to the same level of skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to any other government program.

But it’s not just the excessive and unwise spending that offends conservative values. Prisons, for example, are harmful to prisoners and their families. Reform is therefore also an issue of compassion. The current system often turns out prisoners who are more harmful to society than when they went in, so prison and re-entry reform are issues of public safety as well.

So far, so good. But then there’s this:

These three principles — public safety, compassion and controlled government spending — lie at the core of conservative philosophy. Politically speaking, conservatives will have more credibility than liberals in addressing prison reform.

Why? Because conservatives were more outrageously “get tough on crime” back in the 80’s and the 90’s, and now feel a bit of buyer’s remorse? That hardly sets up “credibility” on the issue. Not to mention, so-called liberals are just as guilty of the imprisonment binge of the 80’s and 90’s as conservatives. It was a bi-partisan wave of stupid that put us in the current bind we are in today.

The United States now has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of its prisoners. Nearly one in every 33 American adults is in some form of correctional control. When Ronald Reagan was president, the total correctional control rate — everyone in prison or jail or on probation or parole — was less than half that: 1 in every 77 adults.

That should read: “When Ronald Reagan became president…” because the prison population and incarceration rates doubled during the “war on drugs” 1980’s, then doubled again under Clinton during the 1990’s.

The prison system now costs states more than $50 billion a year, up from about $9 billion in 1985. It’s the second-fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid. Conservatives should be leading the way by asking tough questions about the expansion in prison spending over the past three decades.

Increased spending has not improved effectiveness. More than 40 percent of ex-convicts return to prison within three years of release; in some states, recidivism rates are closer to 60 percent.

Too many offenders leave prisons unprepared to re-enter society. They don’t get and keep jobs. The solution lies not only inside prisons but also with more effective community supervision systems using new technologies, drug tests and counseling programs. We should also require ex-convicts to either hold a job or perform community service. This approach works to turn offenders from tax burdens into taxpayers who can pay restitution to their victims and are capable of contributing child support.

This is all true, but again, the problem is that the community corrections programs mentioned above were the first to be cut and eliminated during the Great Recession. The author would do well to counsel his fellow conservative governors to restore some of the billions in funding that were sliced during the past five years.

As I’ve mentioned time and again over at the Power-Elite blog since 2007, corrections budgets were cut, community corrections programs were cut, and some prisons were even closed. But not one inmate in the U.S. left prison early because of the recession. Those in prisons that were closed were merely consolidated to other prisons, double and triple bunked in the process, and now are in even worse shape than before.

As this great article in yesterday’s Atlantic points out, the abuse and mistreatment of inmates that has surfaced in U.S. prisons during the past five years, namely in southern prisons where budget cutbacks were worse, is only just now coming to light. And while this is more problematic among mentally ill inmates, the point is that we’ve decimated rehabilitative programs over the past 30 years, including the last five years. Rhetoric is cheap. Put your money where your mouth is.

Right on Crime exemplifies the big-picture conservative approach to this issue. It focuses on community-based programs rather than excessive mandatory minimum sentencing policies and prison expansion. Using free-market and Christian principles, conservatives have an opportunity to put their beliefs into practice as an alternative to government-knows-best programs that are failing prisoners and the society into which they are released.

These principles work. In the past several years, there has been a dramatic shift on crime and punishment policy across the country. It really started in Texas in 2007. The state said no to building eight more prisons and began to shift nonviolent offenders from state prison into alternatives, by strengthening probation and parole supervision and treatment. Texas was able to avert nearly $2 billion in projected corrections spending increases, and its crime rate is declining. At the same time, the state’s parole failures have dropped by 39 percent.

Of course, crime rates have plunged to historic new lows everywhere, including those states that didn’t pass any reforms. In fact, the crime rate in the U.S. today is the same as it was in 1968, and yet we have 2 million people behind bars today, but back then only about 200,000.

Since then more than a dozen states have made significant changes to their sentencing and corrections laws, including Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont, New Hampshire and Ohio. Much of the focus has been on shortening or even eliminating prison time for the lowest-risk, nonviolent offenders and reinvesting the savings in more effective options.

The key phrase there is “reinvest savings,” which is a conservative euphemism for “spend money elsewhere.”

I know I should be jumping up and down in joy, welcoming all-comers, be they conservative or liberal, to the prison reform table. But my hesitancy is borne of watching crime and punishment become politicized (and bastardized) during the 80’s and 90’s. My first reaction whenever anyone of any political or ideological affiliation starts with the “we’re better or have more credibility about it than you do” rhetoric is to cringe. It’s exactly that sort of partisan chest-thumping that got us into the mess we’re in today.

But the optimist in me holds out hope, I suppose. Whatever you want to call it, Left on Crime, Right on Crime, Whatevs on Crime…if you are serious about getting Smart on Crime, then welcome to the table. Let’s put our money where our mouths are, restore community-based corrections, and get the low-level, non-violent people who don’t belong in prison the hell out of there.

Cross Posted to: The Power-Elite

Yesterday, I looked at some data on homicide, worldwide, with a focus on regions, inequalities, presence of criminal organizations, guns, and weak governance.

[As usual, click on the images for larger views.]

Just as a quick recap:

Homicide compared population

Today, I want to look at some data from the other major aspects of the UNODC report, namely, gender and intimate violence in relation to homicide. I want to focus on this particular aspect of the report:

“Disparities not only exist in homicide typologies but also in their prevalence in different regions and countries, yet this study shows that intimate partner/family-related homicide is a chronic problem everywhere. Women murdered by their past or present male partner make up the vast majority of its victims worldwide, which explains why in many countries women are more likely to be murdered in the home than elsewhere.

Men, on the other hand, make up the vast majority of both victims and perpetrators of all types of crime, including homicide, and are more likely to be killed in the street. They are also more likely to be young, the street is more likely to be in a built up area and they are most likely to be killed with a gun.”

My emphases.

Let’s start with the gender of victims and relations to the perpetrators for European countries:

Homicides compared gender

Clearly, women are more likely to be killed by a spouse or ex-spouse than men whereas men are more likely to be killed by someone unknown to them. Homicides by proximity are more likely to create female victims.

However, as the report noted extensively, men are overall more likely to be victims of homicide. This holds true worldwide:

Homicides compared victims gender

Interestingly enough, it is in Europe that one finds the highest percentage of female victims (27%). Here is my humble explanation for this: Europe is the region where we found the strongest governments, the least organized criminality and gangs (although these last two factors are not completely absent, they are less prevalent and less destabilizing than in other regions). On the other hand, the type of homicide one finds in the Americas is more related to organized criminality and drug trafficking, these are masculine types of homicide where both perpetrators and victims are male.

Let’s add age to the mix:

Homicide compared age

The differences are especially striking when it comes to male victims: they are mostly located in the 15 – 44 age bracket, with a decrease after that. Again, this relates to the types of homicide to which men fall victims. On the other hand, age does not seem to be a major factor for women once they are past adolescence, since they are more likely to fall victims of someone more or less close (as opposed to unknown) to them.

Homicides compared locations

Now, this is an interesting graph because it shows that as the overall homicide rate goes down, homicide become more privatized, and therefore, create more female victims. In the countries on the left-hand side of the graph, you find high levels of homicide, mostly related to organized criminality and drug trafficking. These last two do create these high levels of homicide in the first place, but these are homicide of a public nature, between individuals who might not know each other, and where the deed is done in public (weak governance).

As income and development improve, the overall homicide rate goes down, but homicide becomes a more private matter, taking place behind closed doors, out of sight of the public, generating more female victims as a result of intimate partner violence. But the overall proportion of female victims goes up (and that of men goes down) even in the context of low homicide rates overall (Australia and Norway).

This trend can also be seen in this scatterplot:

Homicides Intimate Partners

The relationship between the percentage of intimate partner / family-related homicides and the percentage of female victims is quite strong. As one goes up, so does the other.

The reverse holds true as well. Take a look at this scatterplot of male/male homicide:

Homicides Male Male perp victims

No surprise here. One finds high levels of male on male homicidal violence in the Americas, also with an overall nice linear relationship. When men kill – worldwide and especially in the Americas, less so in Europe – they kill other men, largely in non-family-related contexts.

Take a look at Mexico.

Women victims:

Homicides Mexico Females

Except for the 10-14 age group, there is definitely an uptick around 2006. But keeping in mind the y-axis scale, compare that to the same graph for male victims in Mexico:

Homicides Mexico Males

Same here, the 10-14 age group is a flat line. There is the same uptick in 2006, but the scale is quite different, and higher. Many more men are killed in Mexico.

So there you have it. Homicide patterns worldwide.

[Click on all the images for larger views.]

For those of us interested in topics related to crime on a global scale, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime is a great source of global data. In a previous post on structural violence, I outlined some comparisons on homicide rates. The data for this post came from the 2011 Global Study on Homicide (Pdf). So, I thought I’d dive a bit more in the data from that report.

First of all, when doing global comparisons, it is useful to have some common definitions, so UNODC defines homicide as such: unlawful death purposefully inflicted on a person by another person. They selected this definition based on three considerations:

  • The killing of a person by another person (objective element).
  • The intent of the perpetrator to kill the victim (subjective element).
  • The intentional killing needs to be against the law, which means that the law considers the perpetrator liable for intentional homicide (legal element).

Visually, the defining process looks like this:

Defining homicide

So, what is the overall global picture on homicide? As the summary notes:

“At one extreme, where homicide rates are high and firearms and organized crime in the form of drug trafficking play a substantial role, 1 in 50 men aged 20 will be murdered before they reach the age of 31. At the other, the probability of such an occurrence is up to 400 times lower.

There are many reasons for this but one of the links most clearly identified in this study is that homicide is much more common in countries with low levels of human development, high levels of income inequality and weak rule of law than in more equitable societies, where socio-economic stability seems to be something of an antidote to homicide.

Disparities not only exist in homicide typologies but also in their prevalence in different regions and countries, yet this study shows that intimate partner/family-related homicide is a chronic problem everywhere. Women murdered by their past or present male partner make up the vast majority of its victims worldwide, which explains why in many countries women are more likely to be murdered in the home than elsewhere.

Men, on the other hand, make up the vast majority of both victims and perpetrators of all types of crime, including homicide, and are more likely to be killed in the street. They are also more likely to be young, the street is more likely to be in a built up area and they are most likely to be killed with a gun.”

In this first post, we will look at the overall picture and focus on regional trends, as they relate to organized criminality, drug trafficking and inequalities. The next post will focus on the gender aspects.

Let’s take an overall look first:

Global homicide map

It is easy to identify the high homicide areas: Central and South America, parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, Russia, with the US as outlier for wealthy countries with low homicide rates.

Going in to more details, one can examine differences by regions. For instance, the Americas (a high area overall to start with):

Americas

This region seems to meet conditions for high homicide levels mentioned above: drugs, criminal organizations, weak governments, and guns. One can clearly identify the Mexican states where criminal cartels have been operative as well as the cocaine-producing places.

On the other hand, take a look at Europe, a low homicide continent:

Europe

Hello, former communist block, Turkey and Baltic countries. Anyone who has researched human trafficking knows that these places are main hubs to distribute trafficked humans throughout Europe. Human trafficking is high-profit and low-risk.

Time series are also interesting for regional comparisons. Europe again:

Homicides Region Europe

I am a bit puzzled by the 1990s spike in Southern Europe, here is what the report says:

“Despite some dramatic fluctuations such as those seen in Albania, which experienced an alarming rises in the homicide rate during the civil unrest following the collapse of a pyramid scheme in 1997, homicide rates have decreased or remained more or less stable in the vast majority of European countries since 1995, following the peaks of 1991-1993.” (26)

Asia:

Asia

A pretty clear downward trend across the board. But look at the Americas:

Homicides Region Americas

This is the only region where there is a clear increase in homicide, especially in the Caribbean and Central America:

“Drug trafficking is both an important driver of homicide rates in Central America and one of the principal factors behind rising violence levels in the subregion, as are the illicit activities of organized crime in general and the legacy of political violence.” (25)

There is no doubt that the presence of criminal organizations and guns leads to higher rates of homicide:

Homicides OC

Here again, we find the clear correlation with the Americas:

“Data on overall homicide rates—and homicide by firearm rates in particular—nonetheless confirm the greater involvement of gangs and organized crime in homicides in the Americas than in other regions (figure 3.10). The match between a high proportion of homicides by firearm in the Americas and a high proportion of gang/organized crime-related homicides suggests that in those countries where there is a higher homicide rate, the percentage of firearm homicides is also higher and is often associated with higher shares of homicides committed by organized crime/gangs,15 as reported by the police. However, this assumption cannot be extrapolated to Africa, where the lack of data prevents a proper study of different homicide typologies.” (49)

And, of course, there is the gun thing again:

Homicides Firearms

“The relationship between overall homicide rates and the proportion of homicides committed by firearm is shown in figure 3.6 where the data again emphasize strong regional patterns. Countries in the Americas tend to show a strong correlation between homicide rates and the percentage of homicides by firearm. In contrast, in countries in Asia, Europe and Oceania there appears to be a looser relationship between homicide level and percentage of killings perpetrated with a gun: homicide rates tend to cluster at under 10 per 100,000 population but they show a broader distribution in terms of percentage of homicides by firearms, which ranges from values close to zero up to 70 per cent. (figure 3.6 does not include countries in Africa due to data availability limitations in this region).

It should be stressed that the percentage of homicides by firearm is the compound outcome of at least three aspects: availability of guns; preference of crime perpetrators to use guns in crime; and their willingness to inflict fatal injury.” (42-3)

And finally, there is the inequality thing:

Homicides GINI

The report claims a correlation between both human development (on the left) and inequalities (on the right), but I am not convinced by the one of the left.

So, that’s it for the first half of the data. More to follow.

David Neiwert has made a career of studying hard right-wing movements, mainly through his blog Orcinus, but also at Crooks and Liars and Alternet. In his latest book, And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing The Dark Side of The American Border, Neiwert explores the minutemen movement that gained popularity in right-wing circles, with media uncritical cooperation, back in the early 2000s, as he retraces the steps that led to the assassination of Junior Flores, a small-time marijuana dealer and his young daughter Brisenia, by minuteman leader Shawna Forde and her accomplices (one of which was never identified and remains at large).

The book opens with the chilling 911 call made by Brisenia’s mother, who was wounded during the attack but survived and was able to identify her attackers. From there, Neiwert follows several investigative threads that shape the narrative: (1) the border context, especially Arivaca, where the murders took place, with its mix of wealthy ranchers, and near-poor locals, like Flores (which is where the whole marijuana trafficking comes in); (2) the nativist movement latest incarnation with the minutemen; (3) the rise and fall of Shawna Forde within that movement.

I would not say that Neiwert is the best writer as there are quite a few stylistic repetitions but the narrative is indeed compelling and thoroughly sourced. It does a good job of weaving together local context, individual trajectories, and social movements and their convergence during that one night in Arivaca.

As Neiwert shows, there is nothing really original, in terms of social movement, regarding the minutemen:

“The Minuteman movement that grabbed national headlines in the first decade of the twenty-first century was not a spontaneous eruption of border nativism, as the media would often portray it. Rather, it was the direct offspring of the border militias of the 1990s, which were the stepchild of the Klan Border Watches of the 1980s, which in turn were modeled on a 1960s vigilante movement calling itself, ironically, the Minutemen.” (Loc 494-497)

And the underlying ideology for these movements is always the same as well: the United States is being invaded by hordes of non-White savages from the Third World, who commit all sorts of unspeakable crime and bring medieval disease to this country, and it is up to white men with guns to protect and reclaim it. These movements perfectly fit Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities as members of these movements are linked together through series of myths and made-up stories that reinforce the ideology and are now easily circulated through the Internet.

The fear of uncontrolled immigration has long been a topic of concern for militia, christian identity, white supremacist movements in the Pacific Northwest, and in the border states in the Southwest. These are the same people who believe in black helicopters, New World Order, and la Reconquista. they would fit Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality typology.

And their favorite tactic has been that of the lone wolf: the individual who acts on behalf of the movement but with enough distance from it so that the movement can deny its link to the individual when things go South: think Erik Rudolph or Timothy McVeigh, and now Shawna Forde.

The larger context, though, for these movements is as follows:

“The extremist right in America has always fed on real grievances that go either unaddressed or are mishandled by the mainstream system— by government, and in particular the federal government. In the 1980s and ’90s, they channeled discontent with badly malfunctioning federal farming and land-use policies in rural America into uprisings like the Posse Comitatus and Patriot/ militia movements and their various offshoots, such as the Montana Freemen. This led to armed standoffs with federal agents and varying waves of domestic terrorism, all of it emanating from the American heartland.

What these extremists always tell their audiences is that there are simple reasons for their current miseries— inevitably, it is a combination of a secret cabal of elite conspirators running society like a puppet show at the top, crushing the middle-class working man from above, while a parasitic underclass saps his strength from below. This usually plays out, in the world-view of right-wing extremists, as being part of a secret conspiracy to enslave ordinary working people and destroy America.

What gives them special traction, however, is their knack for finding unaddressed grievances and exploiting them as examples of this conspiracy, thus manipulating working-class people who have legitimate problems. Their agenda comes wrapped in an appeal telling people that they not only feel their pain but have the answers to end it. And their strategy works, time and again.

In the twenty-first century, right-wing extremists became focused on a similarly dysfunctional immigration system as a means to recruit believers, in part because nativism is part of the genetic structure of the racist American right, dating back to the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan, and in part because it was such a ripe opportunity target. After all, American immigration policy in the past forty years and more has time and again proven a colossal bureaucratic bungle that no one has been able to untangle.” (Loc 893-908)

And then, there was something even more specific that triggered the rise of the minuteman movement:

“The big gorilla among these was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was negotiated by Bush Sr., Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, and Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1993, and then ratified with the active support of Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton. The treaty, which in creating a trilateral trade bloc opened up the ability of investment capital to cross borders freely, was sold to the American public as, among other things, an essential component in controlling immigration.

(…)

Cheap American corn put over a million Mexican farmers out of business, and that was just the beginning. With the economy collapsing around them, scores of manufacturers who specialized in clothing, toys, footwear, and leather goods all went out of business. The only upside to NAFTA for Mexico— the arrival of new manufacturing jobs, including auto-building plants, as they departed the United States for cheaper shores, and of a fresh wave of maquiladora, the plants where various manufacturers would outsource their labor to Mexico— proved illusory.

(…)

In the meantime, the American economy— riding along first on a technology bubble and then on a housing bubble— was bustling, creating in the process in excess of five hundred thousand unskilled-labor jobs every year, the vast majority of which American workers either would not or could not perform. Yet the antiquated American immigration system only issued five thousand green cards annually to cover them.

The result was a massive demand for immigrant labor in the United States and an eager supply in Mexico seeking work. At the border, where a rational transaction should have been taking place, there was instead a xenophobic crackdown aimed at keeping Mexican labor in Mexico, with predictably limited success.

(…)

Typically they would travel to one of the old border-crossing towns— Nogales or Ciudad Juarez— and there contract the services of a coyote, or guide, who would take them out into the countryside and across the border and hook them up with transit to wherever their destination might be. As the tide rose and the crackdown increased, the prices for these services started to rise as crossing the border became harder and harder work.

(…)

Much of this was happening on people’s private lands along the border or on federal lands leased out to ranchers who worked them. And so naturally those people were increasingly coming face to face with the brutal realities being created by American border policies— the dead and the dying and the desperate, all wandering through the desert in hopes of reaching the Promised Land. Most of these encounters were simply with people who wanted a drink of water, but some were not so benign, and these moments could be fraught with danger, at least in the minds of the ranchers if not in reality. The crossers also left trash in the desert that was a danger to livestock, and they frequently cut fences, meaning the loss of livestock.” (Loc 993-998)

That’s the larger context for the emergence of the latest version of the nativist movement. But this movement would never have taken off as it did if it had not been for the active, uncritical support of media figure Lou Dobbs (he of the immigrant plague fame) and Fox News. The leaders of the minutemen had almost open, non-stop access to the media that way and they used it skillfully to spread their made-up narrative of border atrocities. And so, if the government was not going to protect and secure the borders, then, real (white) Americans would take matters in their own hands and guns and do it themselves. Hence were born these border watches.

However, if you want to build a respectable right-wing movement that you hope to mainstream, and out of which you hope to make political careers, you need to be careful whom you attract. And so, right from the start, the leaders of the movement, mainly Jim Gilchrist and Chris Simcox, took pain to explain that their movement and its members were not trigger-happy racists, that all border watchers were vetted through background checks (none of which were true). But, of course, also right from the start, the movement attracted white supremacists of the Stormfront type.

What is another theme of the book is that most of mainstream media slept on the job when it came to examine the roots, realities, and membership in the movement, which made it complicit in it:

“In one important way, the Minuteman Project was indeed a success, but not for actually doing anything substantive to stop illegal immigration. Rather, it was eminently successful in mainstreaming and legitimizing extremist vigilantism. After all, not only was it eagerly embraced by a gullible press, but in short order it was given the blessing of a wide range of public officials and politicians.” (Loc 2645-2648)

And, so, the coverage of the border watches was mostly shallow, superficial, and positive. So that even the most basic claims made by movement leaders, that could easily have been verified, such as how many people actually showed up for border watches (hint: much less than reported by movement leaders) went unexamined.

However, it did not take long for discord to threaten the movement unity. According to Neiwert, that is neither new nor surprising;

“The Minutemen’s fractious behavior was in many ways a product of the combative personalities its core ideology attracted. The long history of nativist organizations in America is littered with the same story: gathered to fight the perceived immigrant threats of their respective times, and riding a wave of scapegoating and frequently eliminationist rhetoric, they all have in relatively short order scattered in disarray, usually amid claims of financial misfeasance and power grabbing. This was true of the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, and all of their many shortlived descendants since then.” (Loc 2851-2855)

Neiwert goes into some details on the clashes of personalities that ended up breaking up the movement into separate organizations as well as turf wars over who gets to use the label “minutemen”, and the financial shenanigans within the different splinter groups. But it was the perfect context in which someone like Shawna Forde would thrive.

There is one book in the French comic Asterix, titled La Zizanie (discord, in English), and it follows a Roman agent who has a knack for starting conflict between people, while always pretending to be on the outside, with clean hands. He starts the discord, then, sits back and enjoys the strife that follows.

Based on Neiwert’s description of Shawna Forde, she was exactly like that. If Shawna Forde had not ended up being a cold-blooded killer (now sitting on death row), one would feel sorry for her miserable childhood: the abuse, the repeated abandonment, the complete absence of security and nurturing. No wonder she became a delinquent early in her life.

From that awful childhood, she turned into a manipulative sociopath, a constant liar, stirring up trouble and conflict without seeming to, then, watching the explosions and trying to benefit from them. And she probably tried to have one of her husbands murdered.

But it is this character who managed to work her way through the minuteman movement, awarding herself a variety of inflated titles, and, from ended up in Arizona, to coordinate border watches. But Shawna Forde loves money, so, she needed a way to get it. She came up with the plan of ripping off drug dealers. That is how she ended up leading the murders at the Flores home. Minutemen have since tried to make it look like Junior Flores was a kingpin, but Neiwert’s research reveals a more complicated reality (included the fact that the biggest drug deals in this story was one of Shawna’s accomplices, and former friend of the Flores family).

After the murders, of course, everybody in the minuteman movement was scrambling to distance themselves from Shawna Forde but there is no denying that she was deep into the movement, had access to its leaders, was well considered and promoted. But that is the point of the lone wolf tactic: to provide plausible deniability. Except, in this case, it was harder to accomplish. And so, the murders at the Flores home dealt an almost fatal blow to the movement.

But even with after the killings, the mainstream media continued to carry water for the movement:

“Much of the media calculus in its handling of the Flores murders appears to have been founded on two key narratives favored by media outlets: it ran directly counter to the long-running narrative depicting the Minuteman movement as a collection of friendly neighbors out watching the border in their lawn chairs, and most significantly, it was concluded by the people calling the news shots that because Junior Flores was in fact a marijuana smuggler, he had essentially asked for the fate that descended on his family. After all, weren’t drug-related murders a common occurrence on the border?

(…)

As Dan Shearer at the Green Valley News discovered when he began examining the facts on the ground, these kinds of crimes are decidedly not very common, even on the border, despite the media hype and the hysteria stirred up by Minutemen like Shawna Forde. She may have fully believed, as she told the Norwegian documentarians, that life is cheap on the border: “Shootings and deaths occur on a daily basis out here.” They do occur— but neither that frequently, nor are they greeted with a shrug.” (Loc 6191-6194)

However, in 2008, the economy collapsed and a new president got elected:

“They don’t call themselves Minutemen anymore, because of Shawna Forde— or more precisely, thanks to Gina Gonzalez and her will to fight. There are still border watchers out there, and the shells of the national Minuteman organization linger on in a zombielike half-life. But the Minutemen and their nativist supporters have gone on to greener, Tea Partying pastures now.” (Loc 5998-6001)

And when all was said and done, the minutemen did not have much to show for all their bluster and inflated claims. But none of that seemed to matter as Tea partyer had by then turned their attention to health care reform.

At the same time, there is something disturbing and pathological when it comes to the personalities attracted to these types of nativist movements (remember convergence theory of collective behavior?). Neiwert cites James Aho’s This Thing of Darkness – A Sociology of the Enemy, on this theme:

“Whether embodied in thing or in person, the enemy in essence represents putrefaction and death: either its instrumentality, its location (dirt, filth, garbage, excrement), its carriers (vermin, pests, bacilli), or all of these together. . . .

The enemy typically is experienced as issuing from the “dregs” of society, from its lower parts, the “bowels of the underworld.” It is sewage from the gutter, “trash” excreted as poison from society’s affairs— church, school, workplace, and family.                 The enemy’s visitation on our borders is tantamount to impending pestilence. . . .

The enemy’s presence in our midst is a pathology of the social organism serious enough to require the most far-reaching remedies: quarantine, political excision, or, to use a particularly revealing expression, liquidation and expulsion.” (Loc 6362-6370)

These rhetorical forms were clearly present in minutemen internal discourse. Of course, for the media, there was a wholly different rhetoric dedicated to refuting accusations of racism. However, what minutemen have achieved is the mainstreaming of the dehumanizing “illegal alien” label that is now commonly used in by media and politicians.

Add authoritarian personality types to the mix, and you get Neiwert’s not-very-optimistic conclusion:

“If nativist sentiments in America ever were to build beyond short-lived, self-destructive movements like the Minutemen, the potential for large-scale evil, as Staub defines it, would grow exponentially. When such movements remain small and naturally attract psychopathic elements by practicing a politics that sneers at empathy as weakness, the tragedies they produce will generally be on a small scale like the murder of Junior and Brisenia Flores or numerous other acts of violence against Latinos inspired by inflammatory nativist rhetoric. Translated to a larger scale as a mass movement, where those same antisocial personalities obtain real power, these propensities will produce tragedy on a much larger scale.” (Loc 6406-6410)

An important read that also has the secondary effect of explaining a lot about the Tea Party movement (which already seems to have fizzled the same way that the minutemen did), its rise, media uncritical reporting, inflated claims, imaginary narratives, etc. The very same elements are present and it is no surprise that they attracted the same crowd that needed a new home after Shawna Forde had trashed the place.

By David Mayeda

In the 1960s and ’70s, labeling theory (a.k.a., social reaction theory) gained criminological prominence. Demonstrating a shift towards the critical criminology school of thought, labeling theory questions the broader power structure by asking two overarching questions:

  1. How do those with substantial power in society label people with less power and their behaviors deviant?
  2. What effects do those labels have on the future lives and behaviors of the people being labeled?

Labeling theorists, such as Edward Lemert, note that almost all people engage in primary deviance – petty crimes (e.g., truancy, petty theft) during their youth. This is normal. However, when people engage in these types of behavior and get caught, sometimes the social reaction is overly punitive. When this happens, the normalized behavior is redefined as criminogenic behavior, and the individual’s identity transforms from normal, everyday kid to “screw up,” “problem child,” “criminal,” etc.

As the self-fulfilling prophecy manifests, the individual becomes ostracized from conventional peers and adults, and finds comfort engulfed by similarly defined peers, all leading to engagement in secondary deviance, where the individual’s roles and identities revolve increasingly around criminalized behaviors. In turn, the individual’s deviant master status is further cemented.

Labeling theorists also suggested a deviant master status gets cemented as one goes further through the criminal (or juvenile) justice system, from arrest to conviction to incarceration, and that degradation ceremonies in formal, state justice systems are highly effective in cementing the criminally stigmatized master status.

Also of critical importance, Howard Becker argued that moral crusaders were those with conventional power who thrust their values upon society by stigmatizing minority groups. Working in concert, moral entrepreneurs included those who would utilize propaganda purported by moral crusaders in order to profit financially through minority groups’ stigmatization.

This aspect of labeling theory is important to remember because it is those with power who create society’s rules and laws, and use the law to protect their privilege. Hence, moral crusaders and entrepreneurs have the social capital – the money, the connections, the clout – to work with media, businesses, and politicians in suppressing any contestation to the status quo by labeling threats as deviant.

Of course minorities are not only labeled deviant as criminals. Additionally, they can be stigmatized through labels tied to mental illness. Such labels rely on the medical field’s social prestige, and focus on individuals’ alleged mental health problems (e.g., inability to focus, propensity to resist authority, substance use concerns), thereby detracting attention away from broader social inequities that ultimately cause disproportionately high levels of mental health concerns in minority communities.

And now onto The Wire

In this series of clips from season four, we see “Major Colvin” (or “Bunny,” now retired from the Baltimore police force) working with a university professor and his graduate students. The team is running an experimental alternative middle school class for students who have not adjusted well to mainstream courses, which includes main character “Namond.” The alternative course’s developers feel by removing disruptive students, the mainstream courses can function more smoothly, while the sequestered students can receive more attention. Still in the class’s early stages, Namond, does not trust the situation he has been forced into:

http://youtu.be/EwcQ4JMMwHo

Notice how at 0:45 of this video, graduate assistant, “Miss Mason,” labels students with a variety of mental health conditions. In doing so, concerns are individualized, disconnected from the poverty that encapsulates the students’ proximal surroundings, as well as from the extensive social stratification that characterizes Baltimore as a whole.

And at the end of the video as Namond challenges the class leadership, notice how he embraces his identity as a “troubled youth,” talking back to the teachers and offering his hands so he can be cuffed. He fulfills the prophecy tagged upon him, while engulfed by similarly defined students.

Now fast-forward to a point when this class has matured a bit. Most of the students have developed a better rapport with the teachers, but still question the value that their educational system offers:

http://youtu.be/jimQPVQOknc

Here the “corner boys” (and girls) educate the teachers on the ins and outs of slingin’ drugs. At 2:00, see how Major Colvin likens the education system to any other system that teaches youth to manipulate their surroundings, to “practice getting over, try runnin’ all different kind of games. You know it’s practice for the corner (where drugs are sold), right?”

Perhaps Major Colvin is critiquing the youth and their efforts in the mainstream education system. However, the youth go on to explain how the capitalist system works in their neighborhood, with the panopticon persistently present; someone with higher authority is always watching the subordinate workers to ensure management is not cheated. Here, we see the labeled youth, segregated from their peers demonstrate their skillsets, which have been ignored by the mainstream system.

And at 4:42, Namond returns to drive home labeling theory’s key dimension. Although these youth of color are labeled animals, larger institutions in society – Enron Corporation, government, alcohol and cigarette industries, sports – also cheat, and do so in much more profound ways as society’s real killers. “D” straight up asks, “And drugs, pays your salaries, right?,” revealing that Major Colvin and his colleagues may inadvertently be moral entrepreneurs who profit through governmental funding to run programs for youth that have been labeled “troubled.”

Namond begins to sum it up: “We do the same thing as you all. Except when we do it, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, these kids is animals,’ like it’s the end of the world comin’. Man that’s bullshit… Hypocritical.” Zinobia closes out, “I mean yeah we got our thing but, it’s just part of the big thing.”

Yup, but in accordance with labeling theory, those with widespread power who truly profit by exploiting others through the big thing (i.e., capitalism) are labeled innovative businessmen, not animals.

By David Mayeda

As noted in my previous post, there are rare cases when mainstream media do a little sociological work to explain criminal behaviors in the news, albiet when the offenders are of high social status. But in most cases, the news simply reports crime, noting what parties were involved and how they were impacted. This leads readers to believe that crime is a manifestation of individualized behavior, and that is largely what we see in this story from The Guardian (a media source which I admit, often has excellent reporting).

The story, titled “Three teenagers sentenced for homeless man’s murder,” details a particularly brutal act of violence, where three boys have been adjudicated for killing a homeless individual. If one reads through the story, the information presented essentially (1) recounts how the murder took place, (2) describes the sentences levied upon the offenders, (3) notes two of the boys’ criminogenic family ties, and (4) offers information on the victim’s experience. Virtually no text is offered that might explain this violent act by way of sociological analysis, except however, a significant comment from the judge:

    The judge told the mother: “You have another son who is serving life for murder. There are not many parents who have that sort of personal agony to bear. But then again, not that many mothers would have shown themselves to be either so unwilling or unable to shoulder the responsibility of motherhood as you have.”

So if any explanation for this very heavy violence is presented at all, it falls upon the mother. This lack of broader explanations illustrates mainstream media’s typical approach to crime. Yet considering the severity of this crime and the offenders’ youth, one would think this would be a case when the media needs to look for broader explanations.

However, no speculative questions are offered which might tap into fathering (or lack thereof), socio-economic status, or the fact that the young offenders were all male. No doubt had the youthful offenders been girls, there would have been a major discussion on girls being out of control. But when three boys engage in extreme violence, broader cultural discourse around violent masculinity is completely dismissed.

In short there is no sociology whatsoever, no work presented by the media that would speak to wider, more complex causes underpinning the violence…just a quick jab attributing youthful violence to poor mothering. And finally, one must wonder, had these boys been of color and/or of immigrant background, would the media have highlighted those statuses as potential causes of the violence?

Photo via The Guardian.

By David Mayeda

On occasion, mainstream media do a little sociology when covering crime-based news. A few recent stories in the New Zealand Herald serve as good examples. First this story titled, “Cop drank and gambled away stolen drug cash” (20 April), reporting how a former drug squad detective “was sentenced to 80 hours of community work and ordered to pay reparation of $3467.50” after he was caught stealing money seized in a raid, as well as from an in-house collection.

Granted, this is not a heinous, violent crime; nor is it a white-collar crime tied to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. But look at the degree to which the offender is described, which lends to reader sympathy. To begin with, the story’s subtitle reads, “Stressed officer’s actions a cry for help, says lawyer.” Additionally, in the middle of the story a robust section is devoted that further contextualizes the detective’s alleged illegal actions:

    The court heard that before the thefts Langford had several “issues” including the death of his father, a relationship break up, and being diagnosed with cancer.

    “On top of that he felt tremendous work pressure which wore upon him,” lawyer Richard Earwaker told the court.

    “It’s one of those situations where you have a man who had an otherwise good career, had performed ably and well.

    “He acknowledged he had become somewhat bitter and twisted after spending years in the force. Disillusionment was the only causal factor. It was progressively building up.

    “There were a whole series of major personal and professional situations contributing to where he ended up and decisions he made. He is extremely remorseful and ashamed of where he is standing right now.”

    Langford had tried to speak to his bosses about being “unhappy” at work.

    “It doesn’t seem to have been recognised that he was in trouble. It seems that this is almost a cry for help,” Mr Earwaker said.

Here, we actually see a little bit of sociology, as the story’s author taps into a meso-level analysis, describing how personal health problems, familial tragedy, breakup with an intimate partner, and work-based concerns collectively impacted the detective in adverse ways. While the Herald is not necessarily excusing the detective’s actions, the paper is making a serious effort to explore multiple background reasons as to why the detective broke the law. And one might argue this presented backdrop increases the likelihood that readers will feel more compassion for the detective. Onto the next example…

This story (22 April), titled “Rugby player losing battle with demons” is about one of New Zealand’s male rugby stars who plays for the famed “All Blacks.” The athlete was recently charged with assault, tied to an alleged conflict with his partner; he has openly apologized for his actions: “To my partner and her family I just want to say that I’m sorry to hurt someone that you love and care so much for. To be in this situation, I know it’s hurting them and it’s definitely hurting me, so I apologise to them.”

This story has been granted extensive media attention, largely because the alleged offender is of celebrity status. Additionally the athlete was part of New Zealand’s 2012 “It’s Not Okay” campaign, which aims to prevent and reduce family violence, and he appears to be demonstrating a good deal of public remorse.

Furthermore, like the previous story, this one has led to the Herald doing a bit of sociological work, writing quite extensively how participation in rugby at the elite level too often contributes to serious mental health concerns. In fact the subtitle of this story reads, “Rugby stars predisposed to suffering mental health challenges because of anxiety, says players’ union boss.” A majority of this particular story also details the hardships that often accompany athletic participation for males:

    Little work has been done on how young players cope, but a players’ association survey of former players found many struggled with life after retirement. The survey of 123 former professional players found they suffered from:

        • Feelings of depression or despair (35 per cent).
        • High levels of anxiety and stress (30 per cent).
        • Alcohol or substance abuse (23 per cent).
        • Relationship issues (20 per cent).
        • Aggression issues (13 per cent).

    “We believe that athletes do have a higher propensity to have challenges in this [area] than normal people,” Mr Nichol told the Herald yesterday.

    “We do a lot physically for athletes but we don’t do enough mentally.”

    Over a five-year period up to 2011, 81 players sought professional help for off-field issues. While incidents such as Savea’s alleged assault of his partner hit the headlines, many others were averted through successful intervention, said Mr Nichol.

    “The reality is we are always going to have players who come into the professional rugby ranks who have challenges. We just need to get our heads around that and say ‘okay, how do we deal with it’? When we stack up against other sporting codes, we do a lot. We do pretty well, but we are the first to say we need to do better.”

Again, the Herald is not making excuses for family violence, but it is making a strong effort to explain how sport can harm athletes, which may contribute to subsequent deviance. The story surely could have gone further, tapping into broader masculinity issues, but at least we get a hint of sociology here. And again like the story with the detective, the Herald presents this story in a way that lends readers to feel compassion for the offender – he is young and has been thrust into a potentially harmful work-based environment.

So why in these two stories do we get a little bit of sociology, some broader social explanations to criminal offending? Why are these stories written in ways that help readers feel compassion for the alleged offenders? In both cases, the alleged offenders already had high social status. The detective worked for the police force and is male. Think about the multitude of offenders who have been arrested for theft. How many even have stories written about them at all? And if they do, the news typically only reports the crime’s basic details (e.g., who’s involved, what the crime is, and who is affected). The news almost never educates the public, explaining how family problems, romantic hardships, or toxic-working environments (let alone poverty) can influence individuals’ criminogenic behaviors. But in this case for an otherwise law-abiding detective, broader explanations are presented abundantly.

For the rugby star, it is worth noting that he is a male of color, of Samoan descent. Imagine then if a young Samoan male, but not an athletic celebrity, was arrested for assault of a domestic partner – would the news even report it? And if they did, even if the offender was publicly remorseful, would the news explore potential ties between work-based anxieties and the violent behavior? Probably not. Instead, the news would simply report the basic information provided by police, and that would end it. However, in the case of a rugby star who plays for a nationally revered team, mainstream media takes extra steps to tie sport’s detrimental influences on the player. So for these higher-status individuals, criminogenic behavior is not individualized. Instead the criminogenic behavior is tied to institutional hardship.

These individuals’ social statuses and cultural capital appear to have shaped how the media reported their alleged criminal behaviors: not only do readers get broader explanations for their actions, but readers are also led to feel offender sympathy.

Up next: When Mainstream Media Does No Sociology on Crime

Photos via the New Zealand Herald (here and here).

By David Mayeda

For Emile Durkheim, anomie was a state of normlessness, a society where individuals’ connections with each other had become frayed. This happened during times of massive social change and could lead to heavier patterns of suicide. For Durkheim, the other critical aspect of anomie was that it existed when there was an absence in social regulations that would help to guide behaviours. Or put in more Durkheim-esque terms, anomie equates to normlessness in social regulations.

That is partly what we see in this clip from HBO’s awesome drama, The Wire (season 3). Here Major Colvin (a.k.a., “Bunny”, pictured below) has established a safe zone of sorts for mid-level drug dealers from a variety of gangs. This sector becomes called “Hamsterdam” after a youth misinterprets the area being compared to Amsterdam where drug use is largely decriminalized. There are very little regulations in “Hamsterdam,” as the drug dealers may freely sell their products while law enforcement turns a blind eye, as long as there is no overt physical violence.

In short, dealers may deal, and users may buy and use without many legally enforced regulations or forms of social control. It should also be noted that Durkheim felt crime was a normal part of society. But, when the level of crime passed a certain threshold, then crime would no longer be considered normal and instead would be an indicator of society being truly sick. But before we get to the clip, let’s also account for Robert Merton’s rendition of anomie.

For Merton, anomie happened when there was a loss of means, meaning society didn’t care about the pathways by which people gained wealth, as long as they got wealthy (see also here). Or put another way, getting wealthy was more important than the processes by which someone made/got money. Likewise in this socially constructed environment of “Hamsterdam,” the means by which drug dealers make money is out of control. The goal is to profit, and there are no social morals that would otherwise guide people on how to reach those goals appropriately. Hence, the dealers (as directed by their superiors in the drug crews) will sell drugs to whoever will buy, something that’s facilitated in “Hamsterdam.”

In “Hamsterdam,” we see a combination of normlessness regarding both regulations and means…it’s total anomie for both Durkheim and Merton. Consequently, the levels of crime, and retreatism are astronomical. Even a seasoned character like “Bubbles” in this scene is deeply disturbed as he walks through the community. Of course as Major Colvin would like to point out, by decriminalizing drugs in one sector of the community, the rest of the community is much improved. Gang violence has subsided substantially across the broader sectors of West Baltimore. Unfortunately, unlike Amsterdam, public health-based social services are completely lacking in “Hamsterdam,” and only come in too late as Colvin’s social experiment is about to get shut down.

Okay, now let’s check out “Hamsterdam”:

http://youtu.be/tpV18bqN16w

By David Mayeda

How can one provide sociological analyses of The Wire without bringing in the complex character, Omar Little? Little (well, Omar) is a Robin Hood-esque individual who incessantly steals drugs and money from Avon Barksdale’s crew. In retaliation, Avon has Omar’s partner brutally tortured and killed, leading Omar to hold an even greater obsession in ripping off the Barksdale crew.

In these two snippets from season 1, we first see Omar and his crew at night preparing to steal drugs/money (or “the stash”) from one of the Barksdale sites. Then the next day we see Omar and his crew try to carry out their plan. This is an excellent set of scenes one may use to better understand rational choice theory, which purports that individuals are generally rational, potential criminals, who would engage in crime if they could get away with it. In other words, we have a sense of free will and weigh the pros and cons that go into committing different crimes.

Rational choice theory, however, has a robust range of components. Again, all of us are potential criminals who…

  1. consider how crime is purposeful
  2. sometimes have clouded judgement about crime due to our bounded rationality
  3. make varied decisions based on the type of crime being considered
  4. have involvement decisions (initiation, habituation, and desistance) and event decisions (decisions made in the moment of a crime that should reduce the chances of being caught)
  5. have separate stages of involvement (background factors, current life circumstance, and situational variables)
  6. may plan a sequence of event decisions (a crime script)
Here are the scenes:

Note in particular Omar’s bounded rationality – how his judgement is clouded by his despise for the “Barksdale Crew”, as Omar’s crew asks at night in the car why they need to keep hitting up the Barksdale stash houses, even though more vulnerable targets exist. Also take note of the crime script that is supposed to work out well, but doesn’t, since Omar and company are not aware of the amount of firepower present in the stash house being targeted.

By David Mayeda

Edwin Sutherland is probably America’s most well known criminologist. His theory of differential association has been incredibly influential in criminology. It posits that crime – like any other type of behaviour – is learned. And there are some specific components to Sutherland’s theory of differential association, seen below:

  • criminal behaviours are learned
  • learning of criminal behaviours takes place through criminal teachers
  • learning of criminal behaviours is more effective when the teachers have close, intimate ties with the learners
  • crime techniques become more intricate and refined over time
  • criminal behaviours are defined and valued in a favourable light
  • motives for crime are different from motives behind non-criminal behaviours

It should be noted that Sutherland actually focused his theoretical positions on white collar crime – arguing that all types of crime, irrespective of their class parameters, were learned. Still, the theory can be applied in a variety of class contexts.

Now let’s look at another clip from The Wire that freaked me out … until we saw its ending. And as the ending of this short scene is revealed, pay attention to how the different components of Sutherland’s theory can be applied.

Real quick, a little background on what’s happening here. In this snippet, young Mike is being chased by mentors Chris and “Snoops” – two hardened, ruthless gang members. But eventually we learn that the chase is an exercise for Mike, in which he demonstrates the knowledge required to effectively engage in a gun fight:

http://youtu.be/kIUlhWWIcNc

Clearly at 2:45 of the video, we see that criminal behaviours are being taught and learned. There are older teachers/mentors (Chris and Snoops), and they have very close ties to Mike. In fact, Mike turned to Chris during a time of need to take care of a family problem Mike couldn’t cope with himself. In this scene, we also see Mike demonstrate that he is learning the more detailed dimensions of shooting targets (where to aim, from what distance). And Snoops’s smile at the end as she says, “Aiight, boy’s learnin”, illustrates the criminogenic behaviours – and Mike’s progress in mastering them – are being assigned with positive values.

Stay tuned, more sociology and The Wire coming up…

By David Mayeda

Back in the 1950s as criminologists began to more seriously explore the sociological causes behind crime, Robert K. Merton put forth his perspective through strain theory. Merton argued that mainstream society holds certain culturally defined goals that are dominant across society. In a capitalist society, the dominant goal that most people aim for is accumulating wealth. Merton further argued that this goal of becoming financially wealthy was so powerful that the goal of getting rich itself had become more important than the means by which one attained wealth. In other words, whether you got rich via conventional/legal means, or via unconventional/illegal means, it didn’t matter, as long as you got your coin. For Merton then, there was anomie (normlessness) regarding the means.

Merton furthered this perspective by providing a framework by which sociologists could typologise criminals and non-criminals – strain theory. Strain theory argues that one must consider if an individual rejects or accepts (1) society’s cultural goals (wanting to make money), as well as (2) the institutional means by which to attain those goals.

To this end, five typologies were established:

  1. Conformists, who accept the culturally defined goal of financial success, as well as the institutional means society defines as appropriate to reach that goal (e.g., advancing one’s education, steadily working, saving money). Conformists follow rules and believe doing so will pay off financially.
  2. Innovators, who also accept the culturally defined goal of financial success, but do not follow society’s rules (i.e., laws) in their pursuit of attaining wealth. Innovators may not have the means to attain financial wealth (e.g., not enough money to further advance education), and/or simply not believe in the law. Hence, innovators turn to crime.
  3. Ritualists are those individuals who do not believe they can attain the culturally defined goal of accumulating financial wealth, but who continue to do so through society’s acceptable cultural pathways simply because they are supposed to (e.g., going to work and school, despite feeling such actions will never pay off).
  4. Retreatists are people who reject the goal of financial wealth, as well as the means society deems acceptable to get rich. Hence people in this group escape, or retreat from society, often times through substance use.
  5. Rebels are the last group who redefine society’s goals and create new institutional means of pursuing their unique goals. Rebels work outside of the established system. (See the framework mapped out by clicking here):

Okay, so let’s apply this theory to some examples from HBO’s television drama series, The Wire. In this first example, we see two snippets from Season 3 when characters Avon Barksdale (a west Baltimore drug kingpin recently released from prison) and his right-hand man, Stringer Bell, debate how they can reclaim their top “real estate” (or “corners”), where they would have the younger members of their crew sell heroine. Though not seen in these snippets, a new player named Marlo has entered the west Baltimore market and violently taken the most lucrative corners from Avon’s crew.

Listen to Avon and Stringer Bell discuss the pros and cons of going against Marlo versus trying to work with him. And more importantly listen to Avon – despite already having achieved extensive wealth – state how he would rather habituate by remaining a gangster, or from Merton’s perspective, an innovator. In contrast, listen to Stringer Bell push to work with Marlo and eventually desist from the drug trafficking scene, making “straight money,” much more so as a conformist.

http://youtu.be/QG_jBGIIFWw

Let’s also examine two other characters from The Wire – “Bubbles” and Johnny. In the early parts of this series, Bubbles and Johnny would be defined predominantly as retreatists, who aspire incessantly to get high on heroine. But over the series, Bubbles changes. As the two comrades walk down the street in this scene, listen to Bubbles talk of wanting to desist by becoming a “snitch” for the police. In other words, he is working towards becoming a conformist. Johnny, however, wants none of this:

http://youtu.be/roTQtE820Yw

Johnny temporarily convinces Bubbles to help him rip off the man on the ladder. And note in this particular scene,  Bubbles and Johnny are both innovators – working to get money via illegal means. Still, I would argue Johnny’s status stands predominantly as a retreatist, who innovates through petty crime simply to feed his retreatist addiction (i.e., retreat from society). And again, while Bubbles is an innovator in tandem with his friend in this scene, he is clearly working towards a life of conformity, seen more clearly when he disappears and decides not to take the money.

More analyses through The Wire on the way..

Kathleen Parker in today’s WaPo Nails It:

The bystander effect is the psychological term coined after Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered outside her New York apartment building in 1964. As the story unfolded, neighbors ignored her screams during three attacks over a 30-minute period.

The horror of the crime was magnified by this apparent lack of interest, leading to studies that produced the bystander effect theory. Researchers discovered that the more people who witness something, the less likely any are to respond. When several witnesses are present, people tend to assume that someone else will jump in — or make the call — or they think that, since no one else is taking action, there really isn’t a problem.

In the recent rape case, where two Ohio high school football players were convicted of assaulting a 16-year-old girl from West Virginia while she was too drunk to give consent (one of her attackers described her in a text message as “like a dead body”), not only were there witnesses but dozens of other teens were also privy to what happened through postings to social media. In no time, a 16-year-old’s humiliation went viral.

Much has been said about how social media helped solve this crime. Through texts, videos, photographs and posts on Twitter and Facebook, police were able to piece together a timeline and document what happened. This history is posited as one of the marvels of social media.

What hasn’t been addressed is the factor of social media in the events themselves. If the bystander effect prevented people in 1964 from coming to the aid of Kitty Genovese, what might we expect from this and future generations, technologically equipped with devices that, by definition, place one in the role of dispassionate observer?

I too found the self-congratulatory tweets I read yesterday, crowing about the power of social media to bring these rapists to justice, to be self-serving and completely clueless. It was, in fact, the very “power” of social media that kept this crime from being stopped while it was occurring.

Busting out your cellphone cameras to “record the moment” doesn’t absolve you of responsibility to stop a crime (in this case, a sexual assault) from happening.

With a cellphone in every pocket, it has become second nature for most people to snap a picture or tap the video button at the slightest provocation — a baby’s giggle, a fallen tree or, just possibly, a drunk girl stripped naked by boys who don’t think twice. Over time, might the marginalizing effect of bystander detachment impede any impulse to empathize ?

Endowed with miraculous gadgetry and fingertip technology that allow reflex to triumph over reason, millions of young people today have the power to parlay information without the commensurate responsibility that comes with age, experience and, inevitably, pain.

The ease of cellphone photography and videography promotes a certain removal from circumstances, driving all into the bystander mode that leads to a massive shirking of responsibility and perhaps even a lack of cognitive awareness of one’s own part in the moment.

That it took weeks (months, really) for this crime to come to the attention of authorities, while dozens of  people (perhaps more) had videos and pictures of the night in question, represents an astonishing failure on behalf of technology and the cyber-utopian’s vision of a social-media connected world.

Meanwhile, head over to Sociological Images if you want to read more on the “wonder” of social media. While everyone is busy beating up (rightly) CNN and other television coverage for their brain-dead stories on the verdicts, SI has captured the very best of twitter and facebook’s reaction.

Bravo, social media.