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Racial Matters

What the Breonna Taylor Grand Jury Transcripts Won't Tell Us About Police, Prosecutor Behavior

The Breonna Taylor case continues to peel away uncomfortable layers of our criminal justice system. It began with the reality that an innocent citizen could be shot to death by police in her own residence. It then moved to the reality that the police involved in a bungled drug raid could be exonerated of legal responsibility for the innocent citizen's killing. Now, we're learning about the secretive legal mechanism that allowed those police to avoid responsibility for the death: the grand jury.

 

When the Kentucky attorney general, Daniel Cameron, announced in September that only one of three police officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor was indicted by a grand jury for charges unrelated to the killing of Breonna Taylor, he said, "our investigation showed, and the grand jury agreed," that the other two officers shouldn't be charged.

 

Since then, the outraged family and attorney of Breonna Taylor demanded transcripts of the grand jury proceedings, and new demonstrations took shape in cities around the country. Earlier this week, a member of the grand jury that supposedly exonerated the cops came forward and contradicted the Kentucky attorney general, arguing that the panel likely didn't hear all the evidence or learn about all the possible charges the police could have been indicted for. Surprisingly, Kentucky's attorney general first said he was okay with immediate release of the transcript, and then suddenly wasn't so sure, keeping the matter tied up in court.

 

It should be understood that, whenever the transcript is released , it probably won't show obvious problems. That's because the words and documents in a transcript will likely fail to communicate the full, highly loaded, context within which the grand jury proceedings took place. For example, it won't show the power of the police in shaping the investigation of their own, or of the prosecutors in choreographing the narrative grand jurors hear. I know, because I served on a Massachusetts grand jury for three months at the end of 2019. And while I don't know exactly what transpired in the two-and-a-half days in Louisville when the jury heard evidence in the case, I can pretty much guarantee it was a thorough and tense affair choreographed fully by the Kentucky attorney general and his prosecutors. The grand jurors knew the gravity of the case they were dealing with, but were nearly powerless to alter the script developed by the prosecutors and their police witnesses.

 

Grand juries differ somewhat from state to state — Massachusetts grand juries have 23 members, while those in Kentucky have 12. They operate in secret mainly to protect the privacy of witnesses and possibly innocent suspects, as well as to prevent those being investigated from learning they are targeted, and possibly fleeing.

Grand juries also differ importantly from juries that decide individual cases at trial. For example, grand juries approve indictments based on some sort of majority vote. In Massachusetts, only 12 of the 23 members need to vote in favor; in Kentucky, 9 of the 12 grand jurors need to approve. In a criminal trial, a jury must vote unanimously to convict. Moreover, a grand jury bases its indictments on "probable cause," while a trial jury's conviction is based on guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt," a much tougher standard. Finally, grand juries only hear from prosecutors, and not from defense lawyers, so the presentations are very much one-sided.

If and when the Breonna Taylor grand jury transcript becomes public, three key subtleties may be less than obvious:

 

1. Prosecutors fully control the proceedings. They vet prosecution witnesses beforehand, including police, coaching them on what to say and what to avoid. They review key evidence, including incriminating videos. As a result, the prosecutors nearly always get indictments if they want them. There's an old joke in the legal profession that grand jury members would indict a ham sandwich if prosecutors requested it. Over the three months my Massachusetts grand jury met, hearing cases roughly five to seven hours a day, four or five days a week, we heard about 150 cases. They ranged from bank robberies to rapes to assaults to child abuse to fraud to murders, and we refused to indict on only two occasions, I believe; and even in those cases, it was a matter of declining to indict on just one or two charges out of, say, six or eight. So in those few cases, the cases still went forward, to trial just minus a count or two.

 

2. Prosecutors are very tight with the local police. That's because the police are such an integral part of the grand jury process. The Massachusetts grand jury I served on heard from one or more investigating detectives or uniformed officers in nearly each of the 150 cases we heard — about what they saw when they arrived on the crime scene, what evidence they accumulated, and what their interpretation of the evidence was. We got to know their styles — some were flashy dressers, others took great pride in tracking down less-than-obvious evidence or witnesses, and still others were very quiet and unassuming. Regardless, the cops were always treated with kid gloves by the prosecutors, as I discovered about six weeks into my three-month service period. Grand jurors are always invited to question witnesses, and in this instance, I questioned why a detective took many months to arrest a suspect who was burglarizing retail stores in a northern Massachusetts city, when it seemed as if cops knew the suspect's identify pretty early on. The detective glared at me, mumbled something about collecting all the evidence, and I thought that was the end of it. Minutes later, when his testimony had concluded and the grand jury approved the indictments, the assistant district attorney who was in charge of overseeing our juror group motioned me into a windowless office. "You know, a number of other jurors have complained about your irrelevant and hostile questions."

"Really?" I said. "I agree my last question implied criticism, but up till that, I've only asked a few questions to confirm facts or possible inconsistencies."

 

"That's not true. You've asked a lot of questions that are unnecessary and have nothing to do with deciding the case." His tone had become accusatory. It was as if I was no longer a grand juror, but a criminal suspect. He paused, letting me squirm and wonder where this was heading, and then his tone returned to normal: "Remember, you are just here to decide on probable cause. You're not here the debate the merits of a case or how it was handled." By the way, I never had any indication from any of the other grand jurors, that I had irritated anyone; everyone was cordial and the group became close.

 

3. Members of a grand jury are simply ordinary people trying to do their civic duty. The grand jury member who came forward in the Breonna Taylor case suggested in the request for transcript disclosure that he/she felt manipulated "….when the highest law enforcement official fails to answer questions and instead refers to the grand jury making the decisions. The interest of the individual grand jurors is parallel to the public but also manifests as fears of persecution, condemnation, retribution, and torment. Unforuntately, they do not get to hide behind any entity, person, or office." Members of the grand jury I served on sometimes wept after hearing testimony about especially violent cases in which innocent women like abused spouses were injured or killed. In those cases, the jurors' hands would sometimes be raised in favor of indicting even before the prosecutor had completed reading individual counts. But as committed as the grand jury members might be, the only way the Louisville grand jury was going to charge the police with crimes like manslaughter was if the prosecutors said that was an option, and wrote out the actual "true bill," or indictment, for a vote. To suggest that the jurors, who are legal novices, should somehow have come up with charges when they weren't offered is completely unrealistic. The grand jury I served on was ready to do whatever the prosecutors told us was legal to do to get the bad guys….even if they were cops.

 

The grand jury transcripts in the Breonna Taylor promise to unlock additional details about the events leading to her killing, and thereby trigger even more intense public discussion about the case. Unfortunately, they may not tell us a great deal about what was really going through prosecutors' minds as they pursued the case, such as how they might have pulled their punches to please racist cops. Remember, if the grand jury would indict a ham sandwich, surely it would indict cavalier and careless cops who killed an innocent bysander in a botched drug raid.

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A Chicago Neighborhood Wants Just the Basics of Groceries and Dry Cleaning

Chicago keeps getting national news attention for all the wrong reasons. 

 

In early July, it was about seemingly endless gang violence. Earlier this week, it was about rampaging looters on Michigan Avenue (sometimes referred to as "the Magnificent Mile"), who had streamed into the Downtown area from the South Side. Police were injured, 100 looters were arrested, and Chicago River bridges were closed to shut off exit and entrance roads. 

 

The immediate provocation appears to have been a police shooting of a criminal suspect. But the mayor labeled the response entirely criminal activity.

 

Certainly, the dire straits of much of the South Side is a factor in such outbursts. The New York Times this week profiled one South Side neighborhood, Roseland, that typifies the grim outlook. As one community activist quoted in the article put it: ""Fifty thousand people live in Roseland, and we don't have one dry cleaners or one grocery store. Basic human needs are not being met here."

 

This is a community made famous by Barack Obama, who worked as a community activist there during the 1980s.

 

According to the New York Times article, "The desired policy prescriptions in Roseland are wide-ranging. They do not include defunding the police, as has been the focus for some progressives and their conservative critics. In this community, the desire is for basic investment and amenities: job opportunities, grocery stores, retail corporations and Black-owned local businesses that would feel connected to the neighborhood." 

 

Yes, "basic investment and amenities" would be a good start. Strengthening the schools would help a lot. Then, the community can look toward more serious investment, such as the launch of growth-oriented black-owned businesses. There's no question there are lots of potentially eager employees. 

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When It Comes to Gang Violence in Chicago, the More Things Change the More They Stay the Same

The Blackstone Rangers announce their presence on a building on 63rd Street, near Stony Island, in 1966. 
 

When 87 people were shot in black neighborhoods of Chicago over the July 4 weekend, resulting in 14 fatalities, including a seven-year-old girl, city leaders were seemingly at a loss to make sense of the mayhem. "Sorrow itself is not enough and what it says is we need to do better as a city, this day, this year and really every day," said the city's black mayor, Lori Lightfoot. "There is no reason we should be feeling and experiencing moments like this." She went on to push for more effective gun control measures.

 

You had to read the news reports closely to understand that the shootings were mostly not directly related to the massive protests over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and other cases of apparent police brutality that have been vividly recorded in Atlanta, Baltimore, New York, and other cities.

 

According to one report, Chicago police quickly arrested a 33-year-old man and charged him with the murder of the seven-year-old girl. Deep in the news story about how the man and several accomplices fired into a crowd gathered for a July 4 party, was this: "Police said they believe a possible motive was gang retaliation."

 

Well into another news report about the weekend shootings was this from Chicago's chief of detectives, Brendan Deenihan: "It's this constant gang-on-gang violence where they're targeting an individual. There is usually zero cooperation between these gangs because they just wanna go back and exact their revenge the next time around…."

 

The difficulties of both public officials and the media about how to portray the spasms of violence is understandable, because the reality is that the outbursts of black-on-black gang-based violence in Chicago and elsewhere at once have nothing to do with the protests against police brutality….and everything to do with them. Let me explain. 

 

Serious black-on-black gang violence has been going on for decades in Chicago and other large cities. Making the problem endlessly troublesome and frustrating is that all kinds of remedial efforts — ranging from government programs to police crackdowns to gang truces — have done little or nothing to short-circuit the violence. 

 

In Chicago, gang-instigated black-on-black violence has been around at least since the early 1960s. That was when the South Side was going through a huge amount of racial upheaval brought on by white flight, blockbusting, redlining, and related race-based housing discrimination practices. In 1962, an African-American social studies teacher at Hyde Park High School in the South Side's Woodlawn neighborhood, Timuel Black, tried to mentor a skinny young black freshman by the name of Jeff Fort not to drop out of school. "Jeff was a smart kid," Black told me a few years back. "He had a lot going for him."

 

But not surprisingly, the teacher wasn't successful. Fort was a gouster, a term used on Chicago's South Side at the time to describe tough poor black kids, and Timuel Black was a middle-class black man who was most comfortable relating to Ivy Leaguers, the term used to describe upwardly mobile middle-class black kids. Indeed, Black would do much better 20 years later mentoring another smart young black male by the name of Barack Obama.

 

In those days of the early 1960s, Jeff Fort hung out at the Woodlawn Boys Club, where he used his charisma to attract a regular flow of members, many from Hyde Park High School, to his new gang, known as The Blackstone Rangers. Like gangs and underworld operators in poor areas everywhere, the Rangers were the best source of employment and income for poor black kids via illegal drugs, shaking down local businesses…..and protecting the gang's turf from competitors, which during the mid 1960s was primarily the Devil's Disciples gang from the neighboring Englewood neighborhood.

 

Fort's gang was so "successful" — running drugs and shooting it out with rivals — that it soon attracted the attention of police and community leaders. A white community leader and Presbyterian minister, John Fry, worked up a plan to engage Fort and his gang members in legitimate enterprises. Fry formed a political organization that in 1967 obtained a $1 million federal grant to teach job skills to gang members; he put the Rangers in charge of making the plan work. Chicago's establishment embraced the Rangers and Fort actually received an invitation from president-elect Richard Nixon for the 1969 inaugural ball. Fort declined the invite, but sent a couple of lieutenants in his place.

 

Not surprisingly, the gang's initiation into Chicago's establishment didn't end well. Months after the inaugural ball invite, Fort and his gang were being investigated by the feds for misusing the grant money; Fort actually appeared before a Congressional committee looking into the affair, and refused to say anything beyond giving his name. By 1974, he was serving two years at Leavenworth federal penitentiary for fraud.

 

As the Rangers expanded their influence and notoriety, Fort became more of a target for both other gangs and police. By the 1980s, the gang had changed its name to El Rukn and, while Fort was imprisoned in Texas for cocaine trafficking, and now known as the imam Malik, the gang sued prison officials in Federal court for recognition as a Sunni Muslim religious organization.

 

Fort continued running the gang from prison, including involvement in a scheme to carry out domestic terrorism on behalf of Libya, in exchange for $2.5 million. Fort claimed he was merely discussing religious matters with the Libyans. He was convicted in federal court, and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Not long after, he was convicted in the 1981 murder of a competing gang leader, and given a 75-year sentence, to be served on top of the 40-year domestic terrorism sentence.

 

As much as law enforcement might have hoped, permanently jailing Jeff Fort didn't solve the problem of gang violence. New gangs and new leaders continued to emerge.

During those years of the 1980s, while Jeff Fort was running his gang from jail and fomenting mayhem around the South Side, his former high school teacher, Timuel Black, had become a civil rights activist and community organizer, and began mentoring another young black man, this one a young articulate Columbia University graduate by the name of Barack Obama. Black introduced Obama to the political and community powers running things on the South Side, and a political career was born.

 

The worlds of Jeff Fort's gangs and Barack Obama's community and political organizing ran on parallel tracks, rarely intersecting. As president, Obama did visit the place Jeff Fort began his gang, Hyde Park Academy (formerly Hyde Park High School) once, in 2013, and spoke movingly about Chicago's ongoing violence: "Too many of our children are being taken away from us….Last year there were 443 murders with a firearm on the streets of this city." He added, "For a lot of young boys or men, they don't see fathers or grandfathers who are succeeding…..I wish I had had a loving father around." But he uttered not a single word about youth gangs and their codes of violent initiation, promotion of drug use and prostitution, and community intimidation — in fact, he's never known to use the term "gang."

 

Similarly, in Michelle Obama's 2019 best-selling book, Becoming, there are only vague allusions to the gang violence that was all around her, growing up as she did in the South Side neighborhood of South Shore, just a few miles from Hyde Park Academy. During the 1970s, she writes, there were "families who watched their better-off neighbors leave for the suburbs or transfer their children to Catholic schools. There were predatory real estate agents roaming South Shore all the while, whispering to home owners that they should sell before it was too late, that they'd help them get out while you still can (author's emphasis). The inference being that failure was coming, that it was inevitable, that it had already half arrived."

 

What she was describing was an exodus of middle-class blacks, which accelerated with the turn of the century. In the first two decades of the new century, 200,000 black residents left Chicago for the suburbs or other parts of the country, with 50,000 of those exiting after 2015. While we don't know for certain, it's fair to assume most of the exiles were middle-class blacks.

 

Alex Kotlowitz, author of a 2019 chronicle of gang violence in Chicago, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, described the frustrating persistence of the problem this way in a 2019 interview: "I can point to half a dozen times at least over the past 15–20 years when we've had these moments in the city where we've thought, OK, this is the moment where everything is going to change. It's usually in the aftermath of a horrific shooting of a kid. The city is flooded with national and international press and there are all these cries of 'Can't go on anymore.' And here we are. It's maddening."

 

For middle class blacks and white progressives alike, the depressing reality of urban gang violence is the proverbial elephant in the room — everyone knows it's a big deal, but no one wants to talk about it, likely because no one knows what to do about it. For middle-class blacks, it's a little like having a misbehaving poor relative you're ashamed to talk about with your friends — no matter how angry you get at the embarrassing cousin or brother-in-law, you can't get rid of him.

Maybe a different perspective is needed to rid everyone of the shame. Gang violence is, after all, organized crime, and that's not particular to the American black community. It's what drives migration from Central American countries like El Salvador and Honduras to the U.S. Italy has had to deal with mafia violence for decades and decades. Russia's mafia is understood to have significant influence in the Russian government.

 

In other words, once a criminal class becomes seriously entrenched into a community, it is very difficult to eradicate. But you can only begin to seriously consider eradication approaches after you recognize the existence of the problem.

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Maybe the Answer to Police Lynchings Is Non-Racist Cops

I know the heading of this post sounds impractical - racism after all, infects all whites (and blacks) to some degree or another. Try as we might in all our roles (parents, teachers, politicians, job supervisors, etc.) racism is so heavily conditioned in our society that there is no way to fully escape its taint. And we certainly have tried as a society, from emphasizing racial diversity in business and government hiring, too.

 

But having allowed for conditioning, along with the efforts of big-city police forces to hire more blacks and install black police supervisors, it is clear that more needs to be done. The murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer is yet another outrage in a seemingly endless series of such outrages going back many decades. Heck, the plot of my novel, "Gouster Girl," which is set nearly 60 years ago, revolves significantly around a case of racial abuse by Chicago police. And even at that point, in the early 1960s, our nation had a long history of abuse by white cops against black men and women.

 
Each time these outrages occur, there is all kinds of hand-wringing about what can be done to stop them. There are calls for whites to become more racially sensitive and aware of "white privilege." There are calls for more effective prosecution of the police perpetrators.

 

But I recently heard a suggestion on a radio call-in program that made more sense than any of it. A guest on the program pointed out that the Minneapolis cop who killed Floyd, Derek Chauvin, had 18 complaints against him over his 20 year career, at least some related to his aggressive and racist policing behavior. The caller pointed out that major airlines wouldn't keep on a pilot with even a few complaints about drunkenness or reckless flying. In fact, the airlines try hard to weed out such problem pilots before they even get the opportunity to go into the cockpit.

 

Isn't policing at least as demanding as flying a jet plane? After all, a screw-up in the cockpit can easily lead to needless death and destruction.

 
The airlines' success at screening out and policing against unstable pilots is clear: airline crashes are quite rare. If the airlines won't tolerate unstable pilots, so should big-city police forces not tolerate racist cops. 

 

The pervasiveness of social media makes it easier than ever to spot racist police applicants. Any hint of racism in terms of the organizations an applicant has been involved with or statements made on Twitter or Facebook should work against hiring a particular individual. Once an individual is hired, possible racism should be monitored early on; many police forces have a probationary period of up to a year for new recruits, when they can be let go without possible intervention by police unions. Beyond that, even a small number of complaints, such as for racial profiling in police stops of people of color, should prompt serious investigation, well before 18 complaints.

 

Before any of this can happen, the white power structure in each city needs to make the commitment to taking racist police behavior seriously. This is a big shift, because up till now, even with diversity programs, the power structure, including powerful police unions, has remained committed to backing its police no matter what. That's why it is so difficult to gain convictions in cases like that in Minneapolis where police misbehavior is clearly demonstrated.

 

The power structure in each city needs to make the commitment to policing standards of excellence, with adequate oversight, that includes zero tolerance of racist behavior. It's not rocket science, and it's been done to combat police corruption, with most forces having internal police groups that monitor their brethren for hints of payoffs. Demands for excellence and accountability, with threats of losing a job that in most cities provides excellent benefits and guarantees a generous pension, counts for a lot. It's all a matter of commitment.
 

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The Sensitive Subject of Violent Crime in Black Urban Neighborhoods

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a major article about a large exodus of black residents from Chicago—some 200,000 have left over the last twenty years, 50,000 since 2015, the paper reported.
 
The article  focused mainly on three generations of a black family that had originally settled on Chicago's West Side during the 1950s.  The first generation settled in well, bought a home, but the second and third generations began questioning whether Chicago was the best place to raise children, according to the article.  By the early 2000s, Dora White, a member of the second generation of the White family, "had grown concerned about their surroundings. By 2003, no other city in the country had as many homicides as Chicago. Their neighborhood of Austin, a community of aging brick houses, greystones and apartment buildings that occupies a large swath of Chicago's West Side, had become notorious for its violence."


Dora White had become somewhat accepting of street drug sales because it was pretty much out of sight. But "the young guys, they just started blocking streets, blocking traffic. They didn't care."


Ms. White worried about her teenage daughter. "who was bright and ambitious," and decided she "wanted to get her out of that environment." Her solution was to buy a house in the suburb of Hillside, ten miles west of Chicago.


The New York Times reporter kind of dances around the notion of crime being the major force in pushing blacks out of Chicago. Instead, he summarizes the reasons for why blacks are exiting Chicago as follows: "They have been driven out of the city by segregation, gun violence, discriminatory policing, racial disparities in employment, the uneven quality of public schools and frustration at life in neighborhoods whose once-humming commercial districts have gone quiet…."
 
Actually, "gun violence," "discriminatory policing," and "once-humming commercial districts have gone quiet" are all part of urban crime. "Discriminatory policing" means the cops aren't around when you need them. And commercial districts "go quiet" when the middle class departs, leaving poor people who can't afford to support serious commerce.
 
Urban crime is a difficult subject to discuss for what it is in a political climate inclined to blame police for unequal law enforcement. But in the departure of middle class blacks from Chicago, we begin to get a sense of the challenge: violent crime in black urban areas tends to be carried out by poor kids. The victims tend to be middle-class blacks simply trying to lives their lives and go to work and school. In Chicago, middle-class blacks are voting with their feet, and increasingly they are outta there. 

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Books About Chicago's South Shore Neighborhood Are All the Rage

Over the last 15 months, three other books besides Gouster Girl have come out about  the South Side Chicago neighborhood of South Shore and its longstanding racial and economic difficulties, i

 

There is a novel about police brutality and gangs by a young black man, Gabriel Bump (Everywhere You Don't Belong). It officially goes on sale next week, but initial readers at Goodreads and other places have given it pretty good reviews.

 

There's a kind of memoir and economic assessment of South Shore as a community by a man who grew up in South Shore, Carlo Rotella. Published by the University of Chicago Press, it came out last spring, and is an intriguing read about his conversations and meanderings around the neighborhood trying to make sense of the wide economic disparities he observes. 

 

And then there is the hugely popular bestseller by MichelIe Obama (Becoming), which devotes its opening 60 pages or so to her growing-up years in South Shore.  She laments, at times, the exodus of whites and middle class blacks from the neighborhood, and the doom that has meant..

 

Each author has a different story to tell, a different time frame, and a different perspective to offer, based on their life experiences and/or research. The volume of literature is testimony to the big impact South Shore has on the people who grow up there. Indeed, there's a Facebook page as well: "I grew up in Chicago (South Shore), which has more than 2,000 members. 

 

By the way, each of the authors I mentioned here, including myself, now lives somewhere other than South Shore. Bump lives in Buffalo, Rotella and I live in the Boston area, and Michelle Obama is mainly in Washington. 

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Here Is What Some Initial Readers Are Saying About Gouster Girl

If you grew up in Chicago, you'll find Gouster Girl enchanting, evocative, and difficult to put down. Here's what some initial readers are saying on Amazon:
 
-For me, reading this book was like meeting up with an old friend from fifty years ago…. It's a must for anyone who grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s.
 
-I so enjoyed all of the descriptions of places I of course remembered as a South Sider!
 
-One of those difficult to put down books even though you know it's time to go to sleep.
 
-Gumpert is unflinchingly honest in his description of a lost world, which makes this novel not only a moving personal story, but a portrait of a bygone age with lessons for today.
 
It's available in digital at a ridiculously low introductory price, and in paperback, all via the home page of this site. 

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Can Gouster Girl Be Appreciated by non-Chicagoans?

Gouster Girl is a historical novel set on the South Side of Chicago in the early 1960s, a time of incredible racial tension in Chicago and around the country.  One concern I had about the novel from early on was whether it would be of interest to people who had little knowledge or connection to Chicago.
 
Yesterday, I received two comments that shed light on that question. The first was a comment on Amazon from a reader who wonders about that exact question--if Gouster Girl has appeal outside of Chicago:
 
For me, reading this book was like meeting up with an old friend from fifty years ago. Like Jeff, the book's protagonist, I too grew up in South Shore in the 1960s and lived through the racial tensions and violence. Much of what Jeff experienced I also experienced a few years later at South Shore High School.
 
My experiences growing up were instrumental in shaping who I am today, and it was interesting to see my feelings corroborated in this book.

 

Nevertheless, I wonder whether this book will appeal to those who did not grow up in South Shore in the 1960s. Dear readers, I challenge you to find out.
 
So I took the challenge, or shall I say, by coincidence I received a second comment yesterday from a psychologist I know, who grew up in Pennsylvania in the 1950s and 1960s, and was captivated by Gouster Girl:
 
Our divisions growing up were very much related to social class - blue collar vs. white collar. But we didn't have the intense racial and religious divides you describe  in Gouster Girl. For me, the story brought back some of the angst and general visceral discomfort about identity and social connections of those year and multiplied it by 100!
 
The intense stress and confusion and hatred described in your book is so painfully moving. Somehow the general context of the age group plus the racial and religious divides that existed — and which were actually enhanced by the government, police, cultural, real estate practices, etc.-- felt almost unbearable to me. You did a wonderful job of fostering this strong emotional experience that I had in the reading of the book.
 
So the initial feedback is encouraging. Gouster Girl may well have life beyond Chicago.

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Only Eddie Murphy Could Make Inner-City Racial Conflict So Funny

Black comedian Eddie Murphy made a triumphal return to Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago and revived some of the characters he played when he was last on 35 years ago, including Buckwheat and Gumby.
 
But it was his reincarnation of "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood," the takeoff on Mr. Rogers, that probably drew the most laughs, especially this monolog within the sketch: 

 
Mister Robinson (Eddie Murphy) tying his shoes: "My neighborhood has gone through so much. It's going through something called 'gentrification.' Can you say, 'gentrification,' boys and girls?  
 
"It's like a magic trick. White people pay a lot of money and, poof, all the black people are gone." 
 
"You know where the black people go?" Pause, as Murphy looks wide-eyed, and prepares to deliver his punch line. 
 
"They all go to Atlanta!!!"
 
The crowd loved it, in large part because the joke is over in less than 30 seconds, which is about as much time as most whites want to think about such unpleasantness as poor blacks being displaced by well-to-do whites in old city areas of New York, Baltimore, San Diego, Washington, DC, and others. 
 
Back in the early 1980s, when Murphy launched his takeoff on Mr. Rogers, he was doing jokes about "white flight," which in a sense is the flip side of gentrification. Instead of whites moving back into the city to displace blacks, back then blacks were crowding into white neighborhoods, and whites were fleeing, often to the suburbs. 
 
It all began in the 1950s and 1960s, when blacks who were part of the Second Great Migration from the South, were pouring into northern big cities. Whites felt threatened with the prospect of not just living among blacks, but living among poor blacks. While the whites feared crime, they also feared their property values would decline. The South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, where Michelle Obama grew up, saw some two-thirds of its white folks flee during the decade 1960-70.
 
In Chicago, the mass exodus of whites, and eventually of middle-class blacks, led to the rise of mostly black street gangs that to this day continue to raise havoc via shootouts that claim young blacks kids and teens as victims. 
 
My novel, Gouster Girl, is about the trauma of racial conflict and the white flight that took place in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago in the early 1960s. It's told through the eyes of an interracial teenage couple in love, and when you read it, you'll begin to understand why so many whites and blacks don't want to spend much longer than the few seconds Eddie Murphy devoted to the subject of inner-city racial turnover in "Mister Robinson's neighborhood." 

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A Different Sort of Writing--My First Novel Is Born

I've been spending lots of time over the last few years on a very different sort of writing project for me: my first novel. A lot different than writing about real food or starting a business, or the Holocaust. Now, at long last, after many stops and starts, hopeful progress and difficult frustration, it's finally going prime time.

 

With launch day finally at hand, I feel a little like I did as a reporter having his first bylined article published—proud and more than a little nervous. Like a lot of what I've written over the years, the novel is controversial—it's about race, and it's almost impossible to write about race these days without being seen as controversial, even if you didn't mean to be.

 

Anyway, the novel's title is Gouster Girl. To understand the meaning of the title, I'm afraid you're going to have to read the novel. I can tell you that it's a historical novel about an especially dark period in Chicago's racial history that foretells many of the difficulties burdening the city today. 

 

The good news is that Gouster Girl is available in digital formats at a very low introductory price. The book is also available in paperback at a somewhat higher price (though still quite affordable).

 

The story is set in the early 1960s in the Chicago neighborhood of South Shore, made famous by Michelle Obama in her recent book "Becoming." She spends the opening 60 or so pages recalling her fond memories of this lakefront neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. She refers in passing to the "white flight" still ongoing when her family moved in during the late 1960s.

 

"Gouster Girl" is a love story. Nerdy white Jeff Stark falls in love with cute black Valerie Davis, except that on Chicago's South Side in 1963, that is a risky affair. At first, Valerie and Jeff help each other out of tough racial fixes—he saves her from attack at an all-white amusement park and she saves him from injury in a racial brawl at school. But as their romance becomes more serious, so do the racial dangers.

 

I've long appreciated that growing up on Chicago's South Side was an unusual experience. People would move out from one day to the next, without telling friends or neighbors, or sometimes even their own kids till the movers showed up. The white flight from South Shore was pretty much over and done in the 1960s, when Gouster Girl takes place; an astounding two-thirds of South Shore's 65,000 whites fled during that decade. During the 1970s and 1980s, many middle-class blacks departed as well, leaving much of South Shore and neighboring areas to the very tough black street gangs that rule today.

 

As the South Side of Chicago has evolved into something of a gang-dominated community on the order of Honduras or El Salvador , I decided to write "Gouster Girl" as a way of explaining how it all began going bad.

 

Part of what I wanted to get across is that the travails of the South Side are much more nuanced than either liberal or conservative political dogma would have us believe. Liberals tend to see it as an outgrowth mainly of systemic racism and police brutality. Conservatives often use it to "prove" their point that gun control laws can't work, since all the gang violence is happening despite tough Chicago gun-control laws.

 

If you decide to read it, please comment on Amazon. And thanks for your ongoing support.

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