-by Nerdface-

I recently finished reading Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence by David Kennedy (quite a mouthful, eh?). Don’t Shoot chronicles the author’s work developing and helping implement what was originally called the Boston Ceasefire program—alternative policing strategies designed to lower the rates of street homicide and/or shut down open drug markets. Kennedy and his coworkers started in Boston and then took the program ‘on the road’—to Stockton, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Cincinnati—after they saw how dramatic and immediate the results could be. The program has since been used all over the country, including in Los Angeles.

Don’t Shoot was a fascinating but incredibly frustrating read. I highly recommend it—the story deserves attention, and the writing is lyrical and gorgeous. But I cannot emphasize enough how frustrating I found it.

The primary reason for my frustration is Kennedy’s thundering silence around the question of drug legalization. Multiple times in the book he explains, and backs up with statistics, that the basis of street violence is NOT in drug use, but in drug markets. He makes this point over and over, almost from page one. The first time he brought it up, I waited for the logical follow-up, addressing legalization. It never came. Well, it’s a huge issue, I thought—maybe he’s saving it for a chapter down the road… or the other road… or that other road…? No?

It drove me crazy the whole time I read the book, and it’s driving me crazy still. I don’t know which side Kennedy would argue, but I believe he would have some interesting and valuable insights. He spent years and years working on the forefront of drug-market-fueled violence. Surely he has something to say on the question. I doubt he is in favor of substance criminalization in its current form—he says as much when he says that police on the ground never chose the ‘war on drugs’, that they readily admit, in private, it’s unwinnable. But he also comes down over and over again on the side of The Law—as he must, for someone trying to work with and within The Law—and, of course, he never specifically addresses the question. So who knows?

I also found some of his writing on racism, minority communities, and street criminals frustrating. Not offensive—not wrong—just frustrating. At times he writes as though America’s racist past (and present), the distrust of police by poor urban minority communities (and the damn good reasons for it), etc, are a revelation. My God, he seems to say—did you know?!?! It used to be this way—and it still is this other way? Sometimes the police do this? I’m not sure if he was simply white-upper-middle-class naïve (not a good excuse, if you ask me), or was working too closely with The Authorities to easily see it, or what exactly, but I found it frustrating that the reality of Our Super Fucked Up Past and Our Still Fucked Up Present seemed so mind-blowing to him. It was frustrating because if these basic realities, which millions of Americans lived and live daily, represented such an awakening to this [liberal, educated] guy, how much further must that same awakening be from a hell of a lot of other guys?

In conclusion. I never threw this book across the room, as I have done with certain other books, but I did find it frustrating. And fascinating. And beautifully written. So read it, and if you ever get the chance, tell David Kennedy to get on the damn record already about drug legalization. We need his voice. We need every voice.

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  1. David Kennedy here.

    Many thanks for the review and thoughts.

    The book doesn’t talk about legalization for the same reason it doesn’t talk about gun control or economic development or fixing urban education: because none of it is going to happen, if at all, on a scale and at a pace that will mean anything anytime soon for these devastated communities. The country is simply not going to legalize heroin and crack. Whether it should or not is another question, but one entirely immaterial to a practical approach to addressing violence and related issues. A core part of the outlook that has led to the Don’t Shoot work is that anything meaningful has to be capable of being done by real, ordinary people using ordinary resources. That’s led away from a lot of the usual discussion to a different set of – thankfully very powerful – approaches.

    On the race front, the point is less that the history exists – though in fact a lot of people really don’t understand what it was – than it is that the history has led to a set of very powerful and destructive narratives that the opposing parties don’t understand at all. Most white folks simply can’t comprehend why angry black communities would think that the CIA would conspire to destroy them with drugs. Most folks in angry black communities can’t understand why the police would believe that they’re all living off drug money and don’t care about their kids being killled. What matters to changing the way we see each other and work together is understanding how we’ve gotten from the history to where we are today. The main point of the book on that front is that those narratives hide the fact that on the core issues of violence nearly everybody – communities, cops, and offenders – feels the same way: they’re against it. That common ground is enough on which to build massive, and thankfully rapid, change.

    Thanks again,

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