By Ali Winston
In the wake of the brutal Aug. 4 murders of three promising youngsters in Newark, there remains one unanswered question: Why did this particular event touch off the long-overdue public outcry against a wave of violence that has wracked East Coast cities?
Answer: They were not your typical victims. These three youths were college students who had navigated through Brick City’s troubled public education system and dangerous streets to a brighter future. They were not “in the game.” In other words, they were not caught up in Newark’s burgeoning drug trade, which has taken the lives of an untold number of black and Hispanic youths who are discouraged by an abysmal public education system, lack meaningful employment opportunities in a post-industrial city and consequently are lured by the flash and fast cash that pop culture has tied to the dealer lifestyle.
Prior to the slayings of Terrence Aeriel, Dashon Howard and Ioefemi Hightower, 57 people were murdered in Newark in 2007 alone. The city’s homicide rate has risen by 50 percent in the past decade, and this year remains on track to nearly equal the 106 murders that took place in 2006. While these killings have been reported in the Essex County edition of the Star-Ledger (or in the New York Times if they are gruesome enough), the rest of the state maintained an attitude of indifference to the violence until Aug. 4.
Newark’s Police Department estimates that approximately 80 percent of violent crime is linked to drugs, and more specifically, to the gangs that control territory where narcotics are sold. And the city is awash in drugs. A stroll through downtown (not the self-contained Gateway Center, where white-collar workers can walk from Penn Station or their parking lot to work without setting foot in the rest of the city) can be reminiscent of the old Lower East Side, with junkies slumped on the sidewalk and dealers soliciting customers within sight of City Hall.
By no means is Newark an isolated case. So far this year, Miami, Orlando, Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston have experienced sustained increases in violent crime, particularly homicides. These cities are linked by I-95, one of the nation’s busiest roadways and a main conduit for drugs and illegal firearms. A bumper opium crop in Afghanistan, dropping street prices for heroin along the East Coast, and the glut of cheap firearms bought wholesale in states with lax gun-control laws are the ingredients for this perfect storm. Baltimore, a city whose reputation for crime has been enhanced by The Wire, recently hit its 200th homicide of the year, a month after under-fire Mayor Sheila Dixon axed her police chief for not doing enough to stem the bloodshed.
Philadelphia, which is headed for a record number of murders, has seen 232 killings this year, including five people gunned down within six hours on July 22. Neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post sent reporters to cover this rash of homicides, as they would with the Newark murders. The sad truth is that the U.S. media have a sliding scale when it comes to victims of violent crime: if you are poor, have a felony record, did not finish high school or are unemployed, your death does not matter. If you are middle or upper class, have an education, have a clean record and a steady job, the violence of our society is not supposed to touch you.