The murder emergency

Black Americans are murdered at alarming rates. Does anybody care?

In December, someone shot Carmelo Duncan to death in Southeastern Washington D.C. He was fifteen months old.

Carmelo was “old enough to dance to a good beat but too young to know his favorite color.” His mother said that he was the best baby ever but, according to a press accounty, could only say “a few words about her son’s death before ending a short conversation in tears.”

Carmelo was in the back of his father’s car, strapped into his car seat, when two people decided to shoot it up. The car was hit ten times, and Carmelo - or “Melo” as people called him - was shot in the head. Paramedics found him unconscious and unresponsive. He died at the hospital.

A few days later, police found the vehicle they think was used by the gunmen. They announced a $60,000 reward for information about the case. But that’s about it. A few months have passed. No arrests have been made.

Today’s post is about Carmelo Duncan. Normally, I try to make sure the Graham Factor combines my personal experiences in policing with broader data and research. I don’t try to play on feelings. But I can’t look at a picture of Carmelo without tears forming in my eyes. When I think about the people that killed him, ice runs through my veins. I imagine what I would do if it was my son. I want to quit my desk job, rejoin the department, strap on my gun belt, and hunt these people down.1

You’d think the senseless murder of a fifteen-month-old toddler is the kind of thing that would prompt some national introspection. But really, I don’t think that we as a society, give a fuck about Carmelo Duncan’s life being taken. After all, he’s not the only innocent kid shot to death on America’s streets over the last year. He’s not even the only one in Washington D.C.

  • 11-year old Davon McNeal was shot to death attending an anti-violence cookout in Washington D.C. last July.

  • 13-year old Malchai Lukes was shot in the neck last March while he was walking to play basketball with his friends.

Just in the last week in Chicago, a four-year-old and a ten-year-old were shot, in two totally unrelated incidents, on the same day.

If I don’t include some kind of statistics in a post about crime, someone will inevitably accuse me of “fear-mongering.” I freely admit that I hope this post makes you feel something. But the numbers are on my side too. So for those who haven’t yet seen it, here’s the chart:

The annual homicide count is now about what it was in 1995 - which means 25 years of progress have been wiped out. If murder rates in America had stayed flat in 2014 instead of rising over the last five years, 10,000 murder victims would still be alive. And most of them would be Black.

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But I don’t really think this is about numbers or stats or whatever. I just think that we, as a society, don’t care about the Carmelo Duncans of the country. Our collective attitude toward all these murders reminds me of Joker’s quote in The Dark Knight:

You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan". But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds.

If a truckload of Carmelo Duncans were shot in drive-by shootings tomorrow, it would be a blip in the local news. But when a supermarket in Boulder (demographics: 0.9% Black) gets shot up? When a white toddler is killed? Everyone loses their minds. It’s wall-to-wall media coverage. It’s the “trial of the century.” It lasts for years. Of course, every murder is a tragedy. But I can’t help noticing the contrast between how we react to these killings and how we react to Black children being murdered in Anacostia. The latter, it seems, are just part of the plan. The plan is horrifying.

Some people do care about this problem. Black people care. How could they not care? It’s their community, their family members, who are paying the price. That’s why when Carmelo was shot there was a protest in D.C. The protesters marched down the street. They chanted: “Somebody knows something!” Carmelo’s grandmother implored people to hand in illegal guns. Davon McNeal’s grandfather demanded that people turn in killers: “We need to report crimes and let people know we’re not going to tolerate it.” So I won’t listen to any right-wing claptrap about how Black people don’t care about “black-on-black crime” or whatever. They do care. It’s everyone else who has some soul-searching to do. I don’t see a lot of white faces in this crowd:

And whether people believe me or not when I say this, cops care. The cops who are working hard to solve Carmelo’s murder care. I did the job because I cared, and I write this blog because I still care. Right now, there’s a cop somewhere picking up shell casings or putting a chest seal on a shooting victim because he cares. And he’s going to log back into service tomorrow night and do it again because he still cares. If you’re a cop reading this and you’ve gotten so burned out that you don’t care anymore, you need to either take some time off and get right with yourself or hang it up.

When you’re the police in an urban area, sometimes it feels like you’re the only one who cares. As one Chicago cop eloquently put it:

I hear talk about Black lives from white people who live in very safe neighborhoods, people who not only don’t live where I work, but won’t even risk driving through. These people consider every police interaction with a “person of color” a civil rights violation, but think of hundreds of more Black men shot as just some abstraction, an inevitable consequence of an unjust society.

Sometimes you spend your night following a trail of blood spatter through a vacant parking lot and digging bullet fragments out of an elderly woman’s wall. Sometimes the next day as you peacefully arrest a drug dealer with a felony warrant, some white 22-year-old with a liberal arts degree sticks a camera phone in your face and shouts “Black Lives Matter!” And sometimes what you want to say is: Black Lives Matter? Where the fuck were you last night when I had to call out the fire department to rinse a Black man’s blood off the sidewalk? Where was your camera phone when that shooting happened?

You don’t say that, because you’re a professional and the body cameras are rolling, and it isn’t worth the complaint and formal reprimand that will inevitably result. But rightly or wrongly, that’s how you feel about it.2

So I think most cops care, but I do sometimes wonder if police departments - as institutions - care enough. Because the idea of “law enforcement” starts to look like a sick joke in a country where four out of every ten killers get away with it. And that joke looks even sicker in cities like Indianapolis, where a murderer’s chances of getting away with it are something like 60-70%. In Baltimore, almost 240 of the 348 murders in 2019 went unsolved. I can only hope that some police chief is screaming about this inside the police department, but they should also be screaming about it to the public, elected officials, and anyone else who will listen. Because this is not acceptable. We’ve normalized it, we’ve become numb to it, but it isn’t acceptable.

Why don’t more people care, especially people in positions of power? I suspect that actually caring about this problem would be inconvenient for just about everybody who doesn’t live in the “wrong neighborhood” or pick up shell casings for a living. Caring would mean that red and blue partisans have to confront the fact that this is a nuanced problem that does not fit neatly into any predetermined political narrative. Democrats might have to grapple with the uncomfortable fact that most of the people killing Black people are also Black, and consider what, if anything, should be done about that.3 Republicans might have to ask whether we really need, on a per capita basis, more privately owned guns than Yemen.

I’m not going to tell you, in this post, what I think we should do. That’s what the rest of this blog is for. And there are plenty of other, smarter people with good ideas about that as well. I have my own priors of course, but at this point, I’m willing to set them aside and have a conversation about doing something - anything - if it means that there are no more Carmelo Duncans, starting tomorrow. I’m a gun owner, but if you can explain how handing in my guns will make it happen, I’ll listen. I love cops and I think we need more, but if you can explain to me how defunding police will actually solve this problem - I’ll still listen.

All I would ask is that we stop pretending this isn’t a problem at all. Stop saying it’s a “shiny object” that only Hollywood cares about. Stop lobbing insults from a safe distance to score political points. Stop blaming the pandemic and claiming things will go back to “normal” in a year. Because “normal” in this country is and always was an atrocity. Our murder rate has always been an international embarrassment. Even in 2014 - when things were “fine” - Black men were 6% of the population and 40% of the murder victims. Most of their killers were getting away with it. The only good thing to be said about the murder rate in 2014 was that it was declining, albeit slowly. But five years later, even that is no longer true.

It may be that if we decide to do something, we run the risk of doing something that doesn’t work. We might do something that has negative second-order consequences. But leadership sometimes means choosing between two bad options, and doing nothing is also a choice. Right now, we’re collectively choosing to let Carmelo Duncan and his family pay the price for our complacency. And I am hard-pressed to think of anything worse than continuing to do that.

Recommended reading: Ghettoside by Jill Leovy.

1

And arrest them so they can be successfully prosecuted.

2

Black Americans have every right to be skeptical of police based on history alone. But I’ve observed that most white progressives’ interest in racial justice comes to a swift end when asked to do something more than post on Instagram or attend an implicit bias training.

3

Most crime is intraracial. I don’t believe anyone is predisposed to commit a crime because of their race; anybody who does believe that is not welcome on this blog.