The dark days are here
Al Sharpton is a gifted public speaker, but his best addresses are eulogies. The recent funeral of Davell Gardner was no exception. Gardner was murdered last month at a barbecue in a public park in Brooklyn at the age of 1. "If nothing shakes this community, to see this young baby in a casket that doesn't even need pallbearers," Sharpton said, trailing off in search of something ineffable. "His father could've walked him down by himself. This is a disgrace."
This infant was one of 54 people murdered in New York in July, during which shootings increased some 177 percent in comparison with the same month in 2019. Murders there were up 50 percent for the month, continuing a recent and undeniable trend. A similar pattern is being observed in 20 major cities throughout the country. In Chicago there have been 432 homicides in 2020, already an increase of 125 over the total for 2019. On May 31, 18 people were murdered in 24 hours in the Windy City, making it the single most violent day in Chicago in 60 years. All of this is taking place even as the rates of other crimes have sharply declined.
What is responsible for the nationwide surge in violence? The most obvious answer, one from which even prosecutors are not shying away, is the lockdowns themselves. This is what I meant when I wrote back in April that social distancing was going to get darker. Pollyannish talk about working through Proust or learning to knit was a fantasy for the privileged. The reality of lockdown for millions of Americans was always going to be economic deprivation, neglect of physical and mental health, less exercise, less sunlight, worse diets, the absence of meaningful human interaction, the almost total suspension of children's education, and, especially for those most vulnerable, an increased threat of violence.
Not all Americans found their freedom of movement restricted, however. In early April, Ibrahim Bouaichi, who had been imprisoned after being accused of rape, strangulation, and abduction last October, was released from jail on house arrest earlier this year despite the protests of a prosecutor in Alexandria, Virginia. On July 29, Bouaichi, whose chances of dying or even becoming noticeably ill from the coronavirus while imprisoned were statistically slim, found his former victim outside her apartment and murdered her before taking his own life. His case is far from unique.
What are the foreseeable consequences of what could be the largest single-year increase in violent crime since the late 1960s? Apart from the victims themselves, the first casualty will be efforts at criminal justice reform. We do not do nuance in American politics, and the apparently binary choice between unjustifiable generation-spanning mass incarceration and high rates of violent crime will have only one outcome. Sooner or later, if present trends continue, centrist liberals will start talking like Donald Trump, and the Clinton-Gingrich tough-on-crime consensus of the 1990s will return with only token opposition from the usual ragtag assortment of progressives, libertarians, and Christian humanists.
Who stands to benefit from the increase in violent crime? The same people who stood to gain the most from the lockdowns. When the real world gets scary, people who deliver you things from the internet get richer. In our cities, rising crime will continue the work begun by real estate profiteering: formerly trendy neighborhoods will empty out, and affluent professionals will take their work-from-home salaries to more affordable suburbs in the middle of the country, where (for now anyway), their money will go further. The country's economic future will be intimately bound up in the service industries that emerge in order to cater to this new class of exiles.
But the greatest beneficiary will inevitably be politicians themselves who exploit this issue. Some will lie with every word. Others will tell hard truths — about gun ownership, for example — along with nonsense. None of them is likely to address the spiritual crisis, exacerbated by the lockdowns, that lies at the heart of this and so many other ills.
The dark days ahead? They're already here.