Black Death

"If you look at the kinds of crimes we had in the 1920s and 1930s during Prohibition, and during the early 1950s with the advent of drug activity, you'll find that none of this has changed," says Miami PģMDNMĮolice Chief Perry Anderson. "It's still territorial. The violence is often in the form of threats and intimidation, with the goal of economic control. These killings are basically gangland killings. The only real difference I see is that now you have a more reckless style of violence. And there's no honor at all any more - for example, family members of the victim are not spared. You have a killer now who is colder, more cruel.

"The reason? Let's say I'm selling drugs. You have to believe I'll kill you if you invade my area, or appear as a witness against me in court. I've got to let you know that no matter where you are, I can come up and blow you away in front of 50 people. And I will. Can you imagine the sort of impression I've left on that community? Most people think these killings are the result of somebody selling somebody bad drugs. Well, that's not the case. It's almost always because you've become too large and you need to be done away with. You're threatening somebody through economic competition.

"These things have so much depth to them. For example, a clean kid is threatening. A clean kid, athletic type, good build, good-looking kid - he probably would be naturally anti-crime. So maybe he gets involved with one of the bad guys' girlfriends. Technically, he's an innocent bystander, but just by virtue of being on the same street or in the same neighborhood with these guys, he's part of a dynamic. If he isn't seduced into their way of life, he risks paying a serious price.

"You've got to keep this on the front burner," Anderson adds, "or people will think the problem has gone away. It's not going to go away. It's clearly getting worse. And if we think it's going to remain just black-on-black homicide, we're fooling ourselves. It's going to keep spreading until it engulfs everybody. Sure, the vast majority of these killings are committed by blacks, but you don't know what other kinds of crimes these people are committing before they get around to murder. Even the psychological impact on the outside society is profound. When I'm in civilian clothes walking down the street, I can hear people in their cars locking their doors: click, click, click, click,

Black men in America have historically been targets of violence. But in the 1980s, in a departure from decades of bloody tradition, direct physical violence came mainly from within the black community itself. Police Chief Anderson, a professional student of criminality, can describe the mechanics and motives of murder among young black men today, and trace some principal causes. But he and other successful, middle-age black men - despite having grown up in Dade's black ghettos - describe an eerie sense of isolation from an entire generation. A feeling of kinship is missing from their analysis of the problem. The ghetto and its youth have changed profoundly; the nuances of social context, the full flavor of a Zeitgeist inspired by spreading criminality is hard for them to grasp.

Opa-locka Mayor Robert Ingram, reaching into the past for something that will make the present comprehensible, likens today's youthful black killer to the archetypal "ghetto hustler" of the 1960s, described in the autobiography of activist Malcolm X. But the comparison between today's ghetto reality and that of three decades ago seems stale. The inability of the older generation to relate in intimate detail to the experience of the younger makes the flood of killings all the more unsettling to them. "There is so much more encouragement toward criminality in the black community than in the larger community," says Mayor Ingram, struggling to explain the new order at the street level. "As a consequence, this may well be the most dangerous, reckless, and lawless black generation in the history of the world."

Rap music - not literature, film, or newspaper accounts - has been the only medium to successfully communicate the emotional reality of a generation in danger. One of the most vivid portraits of the new black American drug subculture, and one of the most forceful condemnations of it, lies in the lyrics of Los Angeles rapper (and ex-con) Ice-T. The profane accuracy of those lyrics has proved unpalatable to radio stations across the nation. What's more, the very depth of descriptive and dramatic detail in the music makes the message easily mistakable for its opposite: a dark glorification of a violent, decade-old, money-based urban nihilism.

Part 2

Whatever they say about the seductive appeal of a fast and dangerous youth, Ice-T's dark chronicles offer a casebook description of the circumstances of young black death in Greater Miami and most other major American cities during the latter half of the 1980s. "Drama," written in 1988, describes the entire life cycle of an urban killer moving through the defining experiences of street life: prison release, the return to drug commerce, armed revenge, feudal camaraderie, burglary, arrest, interrogation, arrogance, betrayal, jail, repentance, death:

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