Last month's report of the State Government Budget Task Force chaired by former New York Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker offered a grim take on how five years of recession and slow recovery have coldcocked cities and counties across the country.
"Pressures on local governments, caused by the weak economy and cuts in state aid, are constraining education spending, law enforcement, aid to the needy, and the initiations that make up the culture of our cities. Local-government cuts pose a significant risk to the overall social fabric of the states."
The report might as well be a road map to jail for poor people — especially young, poor people of color in need of help and those who find the social-safety net reduced to the strength of a cobweb.
The story of a 24-year-old Californian named Devaughndre Broussard is an example. He's serving a long prison sentence for two murders — including that of Oakland newspaper editor Chauncey Bailey on Aug. 2, 2007 — ordered by the leader of a black Muslim cult he had joined out of desperation for food and shelter.
He killed, Broussard told prosecutors, because he had been promised that in exchange, he would be taught the secrets of crimes he thought would make him rich. His statements revealed much about the psyche of the lost:
"We from the hood. We don't do what we in the streets for "¦ the sake of righteousness. We do it 'cause we greedy; we do it 'cause we ain't got shit, 'cause we trying to get something, and so you tempt a man with $100,000 "¦ however he gotta get it, he gonna be ready to do it, you feel me?"
Broussard is a sociopath, who, as a prosecutor once put it, talks about killing the way most people talk about their breakfast.
But before Broussard can simply be dismissed, his past and the failures of the system must be examined. California's social programs were already underfunded and systemically faltering before the recession. Overcrowded and understaffed schools, jails, and prisons plagued it before the money ran out. Now?
The hard truth is, we all put guns in Broussard's hands and the hands of others like him by the failure to take care of our own. By gutting programs meant to help and educate the poor, we are simply shaping more killers at eventual costs far greater than money.
Broussard's mother was a heroin addict who undoubtedly shot-up when he was in utero. His father was nonexistent in his life. Most of his childhood was spent in institutions, as his mother cycled through prisons. In group and foster homes, Broussard developed a bad stutter, and the seeds of antisocial behavior were sewn deeply within him. He never got the help he desperately needed.
He did a year in jail for assault when he was 18. But he was simply warehoused — no counseling, no education. Discharged to the streets, he had a felony record, no high school diploma, no skills, no hope. He lacked even a basic understanding of how to survive.
Within days, he joined a notorious black Muslim cult in Oakland with a long history of exploiting the vulnerable. Its leader, son of the cult's late patriarch, was not much older than Broussard. He promised his recruit he would teach him how to become rich if he'd be "a good soldier" and do whatever he was told.
Soon, Broussard was told to kill.
His targets included Bailey, a weekly-newspaper editor who was working on an article about the cult and a business it ran called Your Black Muslim Bakery.
"We gotta take him out before he write [sic] that story," the cult leader told Broussard. Two days later, Broussard ambushed Bailey on an Oakland sidewalk, blowing him to pieces with a shotgun.
Bailey, 57, a career journalist and the father of a teenage son, was the first American reporter killed stateside over a story since 1976.
Broussard would say he saw killing him as his only escape from poverty, that he saw no other path "for a black man to really get some money." He looked at the young cult leader, who had "a couple house [and] not Toyotas and Hondas, he had luxury cars. I'm about to get a piece of that? This man's money right here, know what I'm sayin'?"
The failure to understand and aid people in the margins helped Broussard become who he is. Gutting educational and social programs renders us as unsafe as eliminating police.To keep shredding the social fabric is to create him again and again.
Thomas Peele is the author of Killing the Messenger, A Story of Radical Faith, Racism's Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist, published in February by Crown.
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