Behind Boston’s Recent "Crime Wave"

A recent spate of homicides in Boston’s Black and Latino neighborhoods has prompted city newspapers and politicians of all stripes to begin talking about a “state of emergency” in Boston and the need to crack down on street violence.

In reality, the murder rate in Boston is at the average level for a city of its size. Nonetheless, many people are concerned with the murders and want to understand why all of this is happening.

Throughout the course of the 1990s, the murder rate in Boston had been declining, but over the past several years has begun to climb again. Most of the murder victims have been poor and black, but talk of the “crime wave” didn’t reach prominence in the media or State House until a white tourist form New York City became one of the victims.

In response, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino have both pledged tens of millions of dollars to put more police on the streets, including $1.4 million to install security cameras on public buses. Patrick is also introducing state legislation that would give longer prison sentences to anyone committing a misdemeanor while armed.

In addition, at the end of March, a vigilante group called the “Guardian Angels,” led by right-wing talk radio host Curtis Sliwa, came up to Boston from New York City announcing their intention to patrol the streets of Boston’s non-white neighborhoods. Sliwa claims that “the city of Boston is under siege from armed marauders and cretins with chromosome damage who have paralyzed Boston,” and has held meetings with Menino and the Boston police to discuss how to coordinate efforts.

With the “crackdown on crime” underway, the racist and barbaric nature of the official response has begun to come to light.

On Tuesday, March 27, an 11 year old, African American boy was arrested at his middle school and charged with unlawful possession of a firearm, unlawful possession of ammunition, unlawfully carrying a loaded firearm, and possession of a firearm on school property. The fifth grade boy, who volunteers for the city Head Start program, had found the gun outside of the school, put it in his backpack, told his classmates what he had found, and then handed the gun over to his teacher. The boy spent the night in prison and is now awaiting trial.

To many, it is clear that putting more police on the streets will not make the Black and Latino population of Boston any safer. Leonard Alkins, the head of the Boston NAACP, has called the Boston Police’s stepped-up presence in the Black neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester a “racist targeting of black residents,” and pointed out that, ” . . . in the BPD [Boston Police Department] there is a systematic culture that tends to treat communities of color with disrespect.”

Moreover, a 2006 study conducted by the University of Massachusetts-Boston, found that only 23% of Blacks in Boston felt “good or very good” in the city, and that only 21% had “confidence in the police.”

Over the past five years, members of the Boston Police have been investigated, indicted and convicted in local, state, and federal courts, for wrongful arrests, wrongful killings, tampering with evidence, perjury, and witness coercion. In one of the more gruesome incidents in 2004, members of the Boston Police pepper sprayed and then shot to death 58-year old, Luis Gonzalez, a mentally ill man who the cops had been called upon to prevent from committing suicide.

And all of the above recorded instances of police misconduct are only those that have come to light. The Boston Police stringently adhere to the well-known “Blue Code of Silence,” in which none of them “snitch” on each other for wrongdoing. Ironically, it is precisely a lack of “snitching” to the police on the part of people in Roxbury and Dorchester that Mayor Menino routinely rails against.

For some, the “crime crackdown” in Boston is seen as a more general threat to city workers and unions who are constantly under attack by local government and businesses to work harder for less money. Stephen MacDougall, president of the Boston Carmen’s Union expressed concern at placing security cameras inside public buses. He warned that the cameras would be used “as a club against the workforce” by watching over employee behavior.

Missing from the mainstream discussion of the Boston “crime wave” is an understanding of the ways in which the city itself produces “criminals” amongst the young, poor, and black.

The single-most important factor leading to the recent reversal in the downward trend of the murder rate was the onset of the 2001 recession, when then-Governor Mitt Romney cut tens of millions of dollars from education and workforce development projects. Further budget cuts recently announced by current Governor Deval Patrick, can only be expected to exacerbate this problem.

Indeed, the state of youth of color in Boston is dire. At least 30% of Black youth live in poverty, and according to Boston Public Schools, 70% of public school students (85% of whom are non-white) qualify for free lunch. According to 2000 Census figures (before the 2001 recession), half of Blacks aged 20-24 were unemployed.

Further, the introduction in 2003 of rigid standardized testing in Boston public schools, known as MCAS, has led to higher dropout rates amongst low-income students, students of color, and those with learning disabilities, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Given all of this, it is clear why many Black and Latino youth would lose hope and grow angry at the prospects of a dimly lit future. Add to the mix a President of the United States who not only has shown his disdain for poor people of color, but who also insists that violence is the way to solve all problems and that it is okay to lie, cheat, and steal, in order to get your way, and it is a wonder that the “crime” rate is not even higher.

As the radical lawyer, Clarence Darrow, put it one hundred years ago, “The more that is taken from the poor by the rich who have the chance to take it, the more poor people there are who are compelled to resort to these means for a livelihood.”

In the end, young, working class people need jobs, education, healthcare, and control over the ability to better their lives, not demonization and police abuse. What’s missing is a sense of hope that, together, we can unite and organize to solve these problems that instead of fighting each other, we ought to be fighting the police, businesses, and politicians who live comfortably at our expense.

One shining example of this ability to fight back was shown recently when dozens of students at English High School, in the Boston suburb of Jamaica Plain, staged a walkout to protest the privatization of their school. According to the Boston Globe, the privatization plan would cut enrollment from 1,200 to 800 with “underachievers the first to go.” 16-year old Shamere Ross, who organized the walkout, put the demands of the protest simply and eloquently, stating, “Help us, don’t send us somewhere else.”

For working class people and people of color in Boston, Shamere is offering a better solution to the problems we face than any of those being offered by all of the official heads of state combined.

KEITH ROSENTHAL is an activist in Boston, MA. He can be reached at