Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Dallas Can't Continue to Ignore the Impact of Poverty

On July 24, in an neighborhood in south Dallas known as Dixon Circle,there was a near riot after a known drug dealer, James Harper was shot and killed during a raid, spurred by a call from a rival dealer.

Residents of Dixon Circle were angry and frustrated especially after reports that Harper, who was unarmed, was shot in the back after a fight with Dallas police officer Brian Rowden. The Dallas County Medical Examiner's report revealed that Harper was not shot in the back (although he was shot four times). 

Controversy erupted over whether or not the officer was used excessive force or whether it was self-defense. But I believe there is a larger picture to be taken into consideration: the issue of what is happening in whole neighborhoods, isolated and trapped in such poverty that they are almost a forgotten subculture. The fact is, we can do something about them, if we do not allow this incident to be spliced and diced into smaller issues that never resolve the underlying problem. 

I explore that idea in my column in yesterday's Dallas Morning News...

Dixon Circle’s tangle of toxic tragedies

"It’s impossible to describe the pain that comes with the loss of a child, especially when that loss is the result of violence. On July 24, those witnessing the near-riot in South Dallas’ Dixon Circle community got a glimpse of that agony on the faces of the parents of James Harper."

"That agony spilled out and mixed with the summer heat, engulfing nearly 400 people who poured into the streets and producing a toxic blend of grief, suspicion and frustration at what they believed — and some still believe — was Harper’s unjust and unwarranted death. That agony rippled throughout other South Dallas neighborhoods, as family friends and even former high school classmates mourned another tragic loss of life."

"This is a multifaceted tragedy, saved from being unimaginably worse by leaders in that community, including Harper’s parents who, no matter what their suspicions, wisely called for calm until the completion of a police investigation."

"Still, other facets of this tragedy must be acknowledged. Those who mourn Harper’s death must come to grips with the evidence that he was apparently involved in drug dealing. The only career path in dealing drugs leads to prison or death, or both. Those who insist that Harper didn’t deserve to die are right. But he chose to participate in a death-dealing business in which his own demise was almost inevitable. Attempts to comfort the bereaved by infusing this incident with sympathetic meaning mustn’t result in making Harper a martyr. Drug dealers forfeit candidacy for martyrdom.
Likewise, those who poured into the streets also must refuse to countenance drug houses in their neighborhoods. No neighborhood can harbor drug dealers in its midst and expect anything good to happen."

"The grief of this family and community is tragic on yet another level. Dixon Circle is an isolated neighborhood of concentrated poverty surrounded by even more poverty. Its average income is about $8,000 a year. Aside from the DART rail line, the newest construction that comes to mind in the area is the Larry Johnson Recreation Center, built in the late 1990s. The nearest middle school, Pearl C. Anderson, is scheduled for closure. The closest grocery store is on MLK Boulevard, one of two for all of South Dallas."

"Dixon Circle is in ZIP code 75215. The Justice Mapping Center estimates that, in 2008, state expenditures for incarcerating residents from this area or supervising them upon release from incarceration exceeded $26 million. The population living in 75215 represents 0.08 percent of Dallas’ population, yet residents are incarcerated at a rate of nearly 40 per 1,000."

"Sympathy for the Harper family and his loved ones is appropriate, but it’s also appropriate to grieve the circumstances of his life. Consider this: Harper was a parolee, ineligible for consideration for most jobs that might provide him a future. He could not live in public housing, nor would he be able to obtain a lease in many privately owned apartments. He was ineligible for food stamps. He couldn’t vote."

"Yes, there are people who have had it far worse than Harper who have nonetheless turned their lives around and are productive citizens — even leaders. These are the exceptional ones. But the conditions breed a daily, dehumanizing hopelessness that often traps the unexceptional."

"Redirecting and investing a significant portion of that $26 million into neighborhood redevelopment, economic development, public education, adult education and job training can help young people avoid the fate of James Harper. Just as neighbors must not look the other way at drug houses in their midst, Dallas should not tolerate neighborhoods becoming such airtight pockets of poverty that they ensnare our citizens in such desperation that they are deprived of hope or humanity."


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