Thursday, July 12, 2007

Witness Intimidation: Crisis in the Black Community

I'm a couple of days late in posting about this, but I wanted to blog about Tajahnique Lee, an African-American child shot through the mouth in a daylight gang shooting in Trenton, New Jersey. The shooting took place around 1:00pm in the afternoon, at a low-income housing project devastated by rampant gang violence. Roughly twenty people witnessed the gun fire, which hit Tajahnique as she was riding her bicycle. Not one person would identify the shooter to police investigators:

A woman who was standing 10 feet away when a stray bullet from a gang fight struck 7-year-old Tajahnique Lee in the face told the police she had been too distracted by her young son to see who fired the shots.

A man who was also in the courtyard when that .45-caliber round blew Tajahnique off her bicycle told detectives he had been engrossed in conversation with neighbors and ducked too quickly to notice what had happened.

Indeed, at least 20 people were within sight of the gunfight among well-known members of the Sex Money Murder subset of the Bloods gang 15 months ago, but the case remains unsolved because not a single one will testify or even describe what they saw to investigators. The witnesses include Vera Lee, Tajahnique’s grandmother, who declined to be interviewed for this article. People who have spoken to her about the shooting said she would not talk to the police for fear she would “have to move out of the country.”

When it happened, Tajahnique’s shooting in the Wilson-Haverstick housing project in Trenton promised to become a tipping point in the city’s five-year struggle to control gangs, with residents furious that anyone could be callous enough to stage a gun battle in broad daylight where dozens of children were playing. The horror and anger inspired by Tajahnique’s image — her beatific smile, and the thought of her lying injured in a pool of blood as neighbors screamed — made gang violence the focal point of the city’s mayoral campaign and pressured the feuding gangs to announce a truce as the police arrested two of their members in connection with the shooting.

Instead, the case stands as a striking example of the way witness intimidation has stymied law enforcement and allowed gangs to tyrannize entire communities. The truce quickly unraveled. The charges against the two gang members were dropped within a month. Even a local program designed to coax young men out of gangs by buying them business suits has seen its limitations; one participant had his outfit designed in Bloods red....

Such silence has spread over the last decade in cities across the country, as the proliferation of gangs like the Crips, Bloods and Latin Kings has made witnesses an endangered and elusive component of countless criminal investigations. Criminologists say gang culture has made fair game of brutally punishing anyone who helps the police. What results is a self-perpetuating cycle of intimidation and helplessness: residents refuse to risk their lives by helping a police force that cannot protect them; the authorities say they are powerless to lock up gang members without witnesses willing to testify.
Read the whole article. Stories like this leave an empty feeling in my stomach. Thank God Tajahnique's not dead. Sadly, though, there's not much joy in life when entire communities are forced to cower in fear of reprisal in a gang-infested housing projects, where rule number one is keep your mouth shut or else?

I've written many times on race and poverty on this page. There's little substantive political discussion in Congress or the presidential campaign trail addressing the compete collapse of whole segments of our society. But it's not just the political elite in Washington who are failing miserably on this. The New Jersey gang cases represent another powerful example of what Juan Williams called the black community's failure to address the disintegration of inner-city black neighborhoods, and the unwillingness of the contempory black leadership to stand up against the violence and intimidation. Inner city culture has demonized the informant, and those who pay the ultimate price are families and children who want a better life, away from the drugs, violence, prostitution, and complete social disorganization.

For me, as an educator and social conservative, crime and hoplessness are among the most compelling issues on the domestic agenda. We'll get middle-class tax breaks, and candidates will talk about universal healthcare, but a week or two after our next Katrina, the problems of racial isolation and despair will disappear amid the 10-second soundbites of the most recent frontrunner. Both parties need to address these issues, and more government social spending on the poor is not the answer. A cultural transformation is required, particularly in communities of black America's lower third. People need to take back their streets. Standing up against the thugs would be a good place to begin.

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