Been there? Done that? Got the T shirt?

I was planning to grapple with my thoughts about the war between Israel and Hezbollah Iran, until I was distracted by today's Sunday paper.

Not that an article on the Israel/Hezbollah war didn't merit the front page (it did), but on the same front page there are two huge articles on "gun violence" (at the web site, this one is called the "top story"). Plus there's the accompanying piece headlined "In the city, any day can be a killing day, and on top of all that, today's lead editorial calls for gun control.

Yet I keep reading that gun control is not a winning issue for Democrats, and that the Democrats know it. Philadelphia is a city run by Democrats, and Pennsylvania's governor is Democrat Ed Rendell.

And all politics is local, right?

So what gives?

I'm having a political logic problem, because whether it's a "winning" issue or not, local, Philadelphia "gun violence" (the Inky's term, not mine) is an issue that will not go away. (Only yesterday, an Inquirer story editorialized that Philadelphia is a "war zone," -- and just the day after I had given credit to the rival free Philadelphia Weekly for the term! Really now. Such competition can only leads to cycles of war zones.)

To be fair to the Inquirer, though, today's editorial lists cultural factors along with the availability of guns:

The blueprint hits many right notes: It is long-term. It is multi-pronged. It aims to increase awareness about violence, change community norms, link people to services, and improve enforcement of gun laws.

As part of the research that went into the Blueprint campaign, the teens and adults who live inside the street code of violence, or who have lost loved ones to it, talked about the reality. Listen:

"Respect is everything - pride, and get your name out there as the next big person."

"We fight because we don't know no other way."

"If you don't have money, you are going to get it."

"A lot of violence is because kids don't know how to read."

"Little bitty kids are repeating" violent song lyrics.

"My pop never encouraged me for nothin'."

"You've sometimes got 15 kids on the block, and the oldest cat watching them is 12."

"It's racism."

A list of reasons like that won't submit to a one-size-fits-all solution.

Responding to these problems requires a change of culture in some homes, on some streets. It requires creating more opportunities on those streets to make money legally.

It requires fathers to be present in their kids' lives, and all parents to be more responsible for their children. It means more parenting classes that can teach adults the skills they never learned from their own families.

Children need more role models and mentors who can show that respect doesn't have to come from violence, more people such as businessman Blane Fitzgerald Stoddart, a product of Philadelphia public schools and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Stoddart has been a driving force behind community development and safety programs in West Philadelphia.

Kids need to be taught how to respond to conflict and perceived disrespect without shooting a gun. Peer mediation programs in the city schools, along with violence prevention curricula such as Second Step, are providing those lessons. Support them with your time and dollars.

The media should seek out stories about African Americans and Latino males doing the right things.

And yes, the flood of guns has to be dammed.

Gun rights' advocates preach unreasonable absolutism when it comes to the sale of firearms. . . .

I'll leave off there, because I know that I fall into the Inquirer's "unreasonable absolutism" category, and I think I've written enough about the particulars that regular readers know my stand, and know whether they agree with me or not. Plus I just don't feel like fisking yet another cry for gun control. I should content myself with the reassurance that this is a "losing issue" for the Democrats, and focus on the, um, "cultural" issues. At least I'll try. But what if guns are a cultural issue? Is it possible there are two distinct gun cultures? A law abiding gun culture, and a criminal gun culture? Is it possible that in the haste to blame guns, this criminal gun culture (itself illegal by definition) is being allowed to evade responsibility? This is a problem I've discussed before, along with what I suppose might be called "media responsibility."

I also think it touches on the Inquirer's advice to its fellow members of the media:

". . .the media should seek out stories about African Americans and Latino males doing the right things."

I'm wondering. Might this image (which I saw at every news rack and every store in the area last week) be undercutting that theme?


I don't know.

But what about the cult of hero worship surrounding rap stars who proudly serve time for not snitching on shooters? It's one thing to send a message that we shouldn't be too judgmental of people who fear for their lives and won't "snitch," but isn't the cover suggesting a bit more? Isn't there a difference between being afraid to snitch, and belonging to a cult which boasts of proudly intimidating the snitchers? Why would anyone want to blur the distinction between the two?

After all, the whole point is that these T-shirts are being worn all over the place -- especially in areas plagued by shootings.


I'm not saying Philadelphia Weekly wanted to boost T shirt sales, of course. But to put it bluntly, the T shirt is intended to be -- and is -- a form of intimidation (bordering on advocacy of violence) against people who snitch, as well as an expression of solidarity with people who don't. And of course it's permitted expression under the First Amendment. But its free speech character has nothing to do with the public's right to properly condemn it. While PW seems to feel differently, I think the suggestion that the public should not condemn the whole anti-snitching movement is not a stellar example of what the Inquirer calls "doing the right thing."

All the more reason I applaud another Inquirer proposal from the editorial:

Kids need to be taught how to respond to conflict and perceived disrespect without shooting a gun.

Maybe they also need to be taught something I think is a major reason there isn't as much shooting in some neighborhoods as others (despite the "easy availability" of guns): when someone commits a crime, why, you call the police!

That was once called common sense; now it's called "snitching."

I don't think this is a profound idea, but the fact is, in some neighborhoods, calling the police is considered a form of cultural treason. I'll never forget an incident which really opened my eyes to the phenomenon. When I was in my twenties, I moved into a bad neighborhood in Berkeley, California, which was plagued by what were then called "drive-by shootings." No one seemed to know how to deal with the problem, which was obviously drug-related. I soon noticed that the shootings were inextricably related to groups of young people who'd hang out and direct customer traffic to whoever might have been the connection to whoever might have been holding. I was amazed by the complexity of the operation, and being a curious person, I entertained myself watching through the shades with binoculars. Young "lookouts" (early adolescents -- usually 12 or so) would hang around a few blocks from the "action," and if they saw a police cruiser they'd yell "rollers," which would then cause an immediate (if temporary) disbursement. If you wanted to buy, you'd have to ask one of the older guys, who'd then direct you to another guy, who might tell you to pay twenty dollars "to the guy over there." Then, someone else would come along and tell you to go somewhere else to score. More often than not, the stash would be hidden, and rotated constantly. The kids were so good at this game that often you'd see a customer stopping to pick up what looked like a tiny piece of trash (which had just been left next to a fence by someone else), then get in the car and immediately drive away. Other methods including cigarettes and candy being apparently "shared" during what would look like a long conversation between driver and pedestrian, but the car would drive off, and it didn't take much imagination to see what was going on. Even stash houses were often not the real location, but they were multi-unit buildings where one apartment might appear to be holding, but the real stash was handed across a common ventilation shaft from another apartment. Of course, ventilation shafts in the backs of these buildings often are a few feet away from the back of another building on the next street -- with a completely different address.

You could almost swear that the dealers knew more about search and seizure law than the cops!

Now, I think drugs should be legalized. "Relegalized" is the word I like to use. Really, it never ceases to amaze me how few people know that not that long ago (when my father was a small boy, in fact) heroin and cocaine could be purchased over the counter in any neighborhood drug store or ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalogue. If druggies could buy the drugs, urban entrepreneurs wouldn't be setting up these businesses on street corners. And they wouldn't be acting like mini Al Capones, either; when was the last time a shootout occurred over alcohol distribution rights?

I have to say, the libertarian in me was conflicted, because I don't think anyone should be imprisoned for drugs. However, what most bothered me was the noise. I had trouble sleeping because there's something about people "tweaking" in the street at three in the morning (with the inevitable noise that entails) and your alarm clock is going to go off at six, that another libertarian principle is invoked: the right to quiet enjoyment of your home. (I mean, even if we see the drug trade as a business, why should freelance pharmaceutical retail outlets have any more right to make noise on residential street corners than anyone else? At the risk of sounding like a hopeless communitarian, what's wrong with reasonable business hours?)

Back to my memorable incident. Eventually, I made the acquaintance of a very nice elderly woman -- the type who kept an eye on everything. One day, we were chatting in her front yard and, looking about and lowering her voice to a whisper, she asked me to come inside quickly. She had a confession, but the way it came out was a major shock for me at the time:

"I'm so glad you white boys have moved in here, because now they know I'm not the only snitch, and they don't know who's callin' the police."

What this meant, though, was that they "knew" that I (and my partner) were "snitches."

Why? Simply because we were "white boys"? (Like I say, it was a shock.)

I'm wondering now, would the T shirt have made me safer?

(Times change.)

posted by Eric on 07.16.06 at 12:23 PM


I don't think you are as absolutist as you yourself believe. After all, you believe only in access to personnel weapons, correct? No cannons or crew-served machine guns?

On the other hand, I am an absolutist on that point. I believe that everyone should be allowed to have any and all weapons imaginable. Including, but not limited to, thermo-nuclear weapons. As Heinlein pointed out, in the end, someone, a human being, has such a weapon, if it exists. And there is no reason to believe that individual is any more responsible than anyone else would be, in my opinion.

Also, one thing I've recently come to realize on the drug war is that it should be obvious to anyone that winning it isn't reasonably possible. After all, there is a huge drug problem in our prisons. If we can't keep drugs out of the place we look people up when they commit crimes, what odds are there that we can keep them out of America, exactly?

Jon Thompson   ·  July 16, 2006 7:31 PM

I didn't say I was an absolutist; I only said I'd probably fall into the Inquirer's definition of that category.

To my mind, "keep and bear" means arms capable of being carried in a normal manner on the person, though, so I don't think it includes stuff you wouldn't carry down the street.

Again, this is one of those things that cannot easily be resolved. (I'll never forget a Libertarian debate lasting way into the night over whether handguns should be sold in vending machines to elementary school children. Ain't gonna happen!)

Eric Scheie   ·  July 16, 2006 7:55 PM

Ahh, thank you for that clarification. I missed it the first time around.

However, as much as I respect the Bill of Rights, I don't think it is the end-all of liberty. So, while I completely agree with your interpretation, that doesn't change my mind.

Though, in case it isn't clear, I absolutely respect your opinion/interpretation as well.

And, as it stands, that's a good standard.

Jon Thompson   ·  July 16, 2006 10:39 PM
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test   ·  July 27, 2006 12:45 PM

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