I don’t usually gush over the human interest stories on CNN.com. Living in Virginia, I can’t often relate to being dismembered by alligators or to worshiping seven-legged babies as gods. But today I’m all over the headlining CNN story of “The Homicide Report,” an L.A. Times blog that chronicles the names, faces, and circumstances of murder victims in Los Angeles.
Because two to three people are murdered in L.A. every day, bloggers Jill Leovy and Ruben Vives work a lot harder than your average Gawker employee. They drive through the most violent, forgotten neighborhoods of the city to find their stories. They interview grieving families. They take note of spray-painted eulogies and impromptu memorials on urban street corners. They publish the races and ages of the victims, who are predominately young black and Latino men. And the bloggers keep the comments open so the public can post messages about the murders.
These bloggers are doing their city a great service. Not only are they trying to ensure that people don’t die anonymously, but the blog reads like an anthropological study that might prove useful in preventing future murders. In fact, the blog entries remind me of Jared Diamond’s “Annals of Anthropology” article in this week’s New Yorker (abstract).
Diamond writes about vengeance killings in New Guinea. In a society without formal state government, New Guinea clan members take justice into their own hands. In the Highlands, murder (interpersonal warfare) is an accepted strategy of social checks and balances. Murder seems to maintain order.
The same anthropological phenomenon appears to be taking place in L.A. In neighborhoods like Watts, populated by many impoverished, disenfranchised people (I’ve never been there but I watch a lot of movies from the comfort of my couch), it’s probably hard to feel like your life is actively honored and protected by the government. You might feel like the government at large is absent or even against you. And so, as a gang member especially, your Wild West society is regulated by another set of rules, where drive-by shootings seem far more functional than the court system.
In my own culture, The New Yorker and NPR tell me how to behave. But if I were born in South-Central L.A., I don’t know what rules I’d follow. I am a pretty good shot with a BB gun, so if someone wronged me, I can’t promise that I wouldn’t take it to the streets. But around these parts I am limited to blogging my vengeance on the Virginia Quarterly Review website. My lifestyle is basically Boyz in the Hood, but with hyperlinks and pretentious diction instead of guns and ammo.