by James A. Bacon
This may be the most grim but fascinating sociological insight into the nature of poverty and crime I’ve seen all year… While violent crime is down overall in the City of Richmond since its horrendous peak in the 1990s, which earned the city the reputation as a murder capital of the United States, the motives for assault and murder have changed dramatically.
“Where a decade ago most shootings were fueled by a melange of drugs, gangs and robbery, today the standout motive is petty squabbles turning into deadly violence,”writes reporter Ted Strong writes for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“A lot of folks today don’t know how to resolve conflict,” said Police Chief Alfred Durham at a news conference about the death of 12-year-old Amiya Moses, who was killed a week ago in an argument that escalated into a gunfight. “They resort to violence and we have to change that behavior. And when I say we, it’s not the police department’s job to change that behavior, but it’s the community.”
The change has been so marked that Richmond prosecutors do not even try to provide a motive for murder in jury trials, said Traci Miller, assistant commonwealth attorney. The triviality of the motive is too jarring. “It’s so senseless that I don’t want to try to sell that to a jury,” she said.
Bacon’s bottom line: The 90’s-era murder wave proved ephemeral thanks to a variety of factors that social scientists do not fully agree upon but are commonly attributed to superior policing and a parole system that kept bad guys locked in jail longer. What’s particularly worrisome about the new wave of violence is that it might well prove to be impervious to policing and corrections policies. The rapid escalation of minor arguments into deadly violence arguably reflects the underlying pathologies of entrenched, multi-generational poverty that fails to inculcate in children the most basic standards of behavior.
To be sure, prosecutors attribute the problem in part to the easy availability of guns. When everyone has access to a gun, angry disputes that once would have led to fisticuffs now lead to shootings. It’s not clear, however, if guns are more easily available today than they were ten years ago.
The problem is especially acute in Richmond because poverty is so concentrated there. Sadly, the erosion of the social fabric among America’s poor is endemic, not just among Richmond’s inner-city blacks, but among poor whites and the poor of other races and ethnicities. Thus, Richmond’s inner city could be the fabled canary in the coal mine, giving us insight into the emergent nature of violent crime everywhere.