I'M UNHAPPY living behind iron bars and multiple locks. It seems ghastly to have to sink a lot of money into an expensive burgler alarm system to protect our AR-3 turntable and speakers, not to mention our lives. I don't like those new designer bars people got in colors to match their shutters. And I'm tired of feeling vulnerable every night when I venture into the alley to walk to my garage.
How can I expect not to be concerned when we live in an area with such disparity of wealth? Many of the people who are stealing are stealing to eat; the man on the next block from me can't borrow money to buy an alarm to protect his color television. The people in the suburbs are worrying, too -- only it's about their silver and gold.
Chief Justice Warren Burger agrees with me that crime is getting out of hand. He really agrees with me -- although I don't totally agree with him. He focused so hard on what he called "the reign of terror in cities" in his recent law and order speech that he ignored the fact that, on a percentage basis, crime is growing faster in many suburbs -- Montgomery County, for example. So some people will read city as a code word for black and brown and see it as a go-ahead to channel their aggression in fighting crime totally against black and brown people, and that would be wrong.
Still, the fact is that some of what the conservative Burger said touched a responsive chord in a lot of people who are not conservative, but who are tired of crime and want some way of protecting their stereos, their kids, their silver and their color TVs. People with less to protect could argue that they have a greater right to protection because they have worked so hard to obtain their few possessions.
In this climate, black against black crime is being newly examined. But I don't think the larger mandate for curbing crime can be a cover for abandoning the Constitution. I don't think the cops should have the right to lock people up because of a perception of "future dangerousness," a provisions Burger would like implemented nationwide and one that already exists in the District with the city's preventive detention law.
D.C. Mayor Marion Barry has weighed in with an anticrime program, albeit one mostly composed of existing programs. But his plan strikes me mostly as a political tool. The other day, while driving in Northwest Washington, I saw police roughly arresting a group of boys. Were the police, I wondered, acting more aggressively because of the mayor's new crime package? And would these kids get a fair shake?
One does not need, as the conservatives propose, to throw out all the liberal reforms of the past in a frenzy of obsession with violent crime. For unfortunately, crime has became as American as apple pie. Expense account theft is rampant. cRita Jenrette, wife of a congressional criminal, is glorified by the media. Jean Harris is a hotter market item than Coca-Cola. White collar criminals say,"Everybody does it."
Let's face it: Much of the violent crime is the result of deliberate government policy. The decision to build massive housing projects for the poor and isolate them from the rest of society, over the decades has produced a group that has not been able to rise to the middle class. Two decades of isolation have produced kids like the boy in Northwest Washington who said that committing violent crime doesn't bother him at all.
Yet Americans seem obsessed only by violent crime and that's why Burger's blast at violent crime in the cities, instead of the cities and the suburbs, is misdirected.
Mention cracking down on crime and nearly everybody says "right on," because nearly everybody has good reason. But for some people, crime represents to the conservative 1980s what riots were to the '60s -- fear and a danger. And it's easy for some people to focus the aggression they feel about crime exclusively toward a particular minority group that has been systematically victimized by the larger society. Easy -- too easy. For until we get at the apple pie varity of crime as well, people inclined to commit violent crime will feel that they're not doing anything different from the white-collar criminal. And we all will still have all those triple locks on our doors and bars on our windows.