Placing DC’s Crime Wave in Context

This past summer, much media attention was given to what has been called a “surge” of violent crime in DC. Resident reactions to the violent crime have been particularly severe on Capitol Hill, a neighborhood straddling the Northeast and Southeast quadrants of the city. Increasingly alarmed by feelings of insecurity and danger, Capitol Hill residents took to the ‘New Hill East (a name given to the area by developers to appeal to potential real estate buyers) listserv to discuss best practices for addressing public safety as well as the needs for Capitol Hill’s entire community.

However, before we are able to adequately address complex social issues we must, as best as we can, take into account the various historical, social, psychological, and economic factors influencing them. Otherwise, potential insights and solutions will go unobserved and circumstances contributing to the current predicament may even be reproduced. Sadly, most Capitol Hill residents are looking a swift and cursory cure for their anxieties.

Also, while thousands of Capitol Hill residents are subscribed to the listserv, only a handful of the most passionate have been weighing in on a debate so fierce it came the New York Times’ attention.

One of the most outspoken Hill residents on the listserv, Richard Lukas, who claims to have lived on the Hill for fifteen years, dubbed the spike in crime a ‘reign of terror’ in an email sent out to the listserv on Oct. 15th, claiming that a very active segment of marauding at-risk youths who find satisfaction from terrorizing people on a daily basis” are responsible for the inflated crime rate.

Continuing to speak of the crime spike as a ‘reign of terror’, in an article Lukas wrote for HillNow, Lukas identifies public housing complexes, like Potomac Gardens, as “hotspots” of criminal activity—even suggesting “sentinel stations” be placed near, or within, public housing complexes. The harsh, frenzied nature of Lukas’ sentiments are not to be taken lightly—especially while presidential candidate Donald Trump continues to receive support from US citizens despite his blatant racism and xenophobia. What’s concerning is how national and local policies will be influenced by sentiments voiced by people like Trump and Lukas.

However, what worries me most is Lukas’ lopsided understanding of how gentrification, poverty, and crime work in tandem. On his HillNow post, and in the New Hill East listserv, Lukas writes:

I do think that things will get better due to the slow churn of progressive policy reforms being made in our education system and social services, but also due to the increased density through city development. (Even though people like me could never afford that $500,000 one-bedroom condo!)

Here, Lukas doesn’t seem to comprehend that increased city development, also known as gentrification, may be contributing to the recent spike in crime and that, eventually, “people like [him]” may not eventually be able to afford living in the city itself. Presently, the rift between the city’s wealthy and the city’s poor is already staggering. As gentrification advances, and costs of living subsequently increase, this rift will widen—creating conditions in which low-income people will find living in the city even more financially taxing.

As the cost of living increases, and economic resources continue to be distributed inequitably, understanding the relationship between crime and poverty is vital to develop an intelligent and compassionate perspective on the events that took place during the summer. Rather than pinning people who are poor as inherently violent and/or willing to engage in criminal behavior, it is important to understand that poverty often causes people to engage in criminal and/or violent behavior to make ends meet.

Poverty’s effects on the psyche often goes ignored as well, an experience brilliantly encapsulated by the writer James Baldwin when he said, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”.

As stated by the researchers at Poverties.org, It’s only when people witness the starkest wealth differences that they can start complaining about injustice.”. In an area that has recently undergone tremendous development, such as DC, the city’s disenfranchised residents have been extremely vocal about their frustrations. And, as the DC’s gentrification becomes increasingly visible, the residents’ frustrations will increase as well.

Contributing to the inherent tensions across lines of class inflamed by gentrification, in DC, race, and histories of white supremacy in the United States, add another layer of complexity to the issue.

For Black people in the United States, gentrification must be situated within a history of displacement by white people, beginning with the Middle Passage. For example, until the 1950’s, there existed a multitude of Black-owned homes and businesses in Southwest DC. However, these residents were forced to relocate to other parts of the city by the order of the DC government.

Throughout history it has not been uncommon for Black people to be murdered, tricked, or terrorized off of land they’ve settled on. Therefore, gentrification, and the resultant increased costs of living which prices people out of gentrifying areas, is a point of contention for Black people across the country.

In regards to DC specifically, Black people’s identification with the city itself must also be considered when attempting to understand why DC’s Black residents react to gentrification with intense scorn. After the rebellions of 1968, sparked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., DC’s middle-class, white and Black, fled the city, leaving the city to a predominantly Black low-income population. While systemic racism and poverty created hardships in the lives of post-rebellion DC residents, cultural forms, such as go-go, were produced as well—making spaces for community to be built based on shared culture, a cultural identity heavily attached to location of birth. Therefore, a unique form of resentment simmers in the hearts of DC’s long-time Black residents as ‘Chocolate City’ becomes less and less ‘chocolate’.

Sadly, those remaining long-time residents are in danger of recent DC transplants mistaking them for criminals—which was addressed by New Hill East listserv participant Linda who sent,

A post to the man walking a white hound on C St SE between 17th and 18th between 6:30 and 6:45 PM tonight: I was only asking you which side of the sidewalk your dog preferred to pass on – not demanding your money/phone/wallet… We can’t be a community if you fear/think that every person of color who passes you on the sidewalk is about to mug you.  I cannot imagine what this man was thinking in how he treated me, but his treatment of me made me feel unwelcome and unsafe in my own fricking neighborhood… As long as you approach this crime issue with an “us” against “them” mentality – with the “them” being every Black person on foot, on bike, or in car, you’ll never feel safe and you’ll never truly be a neighborhood.

As a result of stereotypes about Black people proliferated by the media, many white people live under the impression that Black people are dangerous—prone to committing random acts of crime and violence. This fear of Black people has been shown to have severe, even lethal, consequences for Black people who are perceived as threats.

Also, a heightened police presence has also been linked to gentrification and, due to years of brutalization by police forces, Black residents in gentrifying neighborhoods are distrustful of more recent, often white, residents who are prone to calling the police. The call for more police appears more than once in the New Hill East listserv, even by those who aren’t as hysterical as Lukas, and others who react in a similar fashion. Jennifer, who believes the response to the crime wave requires a “two-pronged approach” and is willing to address systemic inequality also wrote, “…a short term police presence again, like we had a month or so back, seems in order given the ridiculous spike this week.”

Ultimately, both Lukas and Linda are both tragically confused about how to address crime in DC. In Lukas’ case, the gentrification he claims will improve quality of life in the city may end up displacing him along with the “marauding at-risk youth” he is so concerned about. And, in regard to Jennifer, calling the police into the community she’s attempting to support will only further the divisions between herself and her neighbors.

To address crime in a just, equitable fashion, one must push for policies that bring job creation, living wages, high-quality education, and affordable housing into the city. Only when the masses have access to a high quality of life will criminal activity become an irregularity.

2 comments to Placing DC’s Crime Wave in Context

  • Jacqueline

    It is amazing that none of the new residents recognize or acknowledge that high unemployment drives crime. Just those crazy, criminal poor people “over there.” As hysterical as the are, the don’t seem to be hysterical enough to advocate for job creation as one of the prongs of approach to crime.

  • I agree. Well, I mostly agree. I’m on the New Hill East listserv and made the emails available to Malik who wrote this story. In fact, there was a small faction of folks who advocated for supporting local nonprofits to help address the underlying causes of crime. But there voices were mostly drowned out by those who were and continue to call for more police, more convictions, etc., etc.

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