Debate on alcohol and violence (1)
TAP Connections Vol. 12 No. 3 SUMMER 1996
One Beacon St.
Boston, MA 02108-4805
617 854 1000
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Alcohol, Disorder & Crime On TAP
Center for Community Recovery Innovations, Inc.
Behind most broken homes and hearts in America, you can
find broken bottles. - Tony Flaherty
Nationally, HUD is in the middle of an eight year plan to
demolish 100,000 high and mid-rise public and assisted
housing units (NY Times 6/2/96). All major cities are
involved, and replacements are to be low-rise and scattered.
The effort is meeting with mixed reviews. Some residents feel
it is a good idea; others feel drug havens are just being
dressed up. Experts, in turn, counter that success and quality
of life will be rest upon joint efforts of management and
residents. HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros said, þThis has
potential to change American cities because so many are
damaged by the out of control conditions in public housing.þ I
want to believe him, and I know that if HUD, Management
Agents, Residents, Housing Authorities, Developers, Social
Workers, Governors, Mayors, Cops, and even some robbers,
could favorably impact the quality of life in inner-city housing
for the poor, they would. But they donþt, and wonþt, because
they canþt. They canþt without addressing the cause of most þout
of control conditionsþ...the community illness of alcoholism or
alcohol abuse. This is the cause of most neighborhood crime
and violence in our homes. Ironically, the many who will
make speeches about þdrugs,þ stay silent on the most
accessible drug of all: alcohol. To do otherwise is to be
branded a þneo-prohibitionist.þ
In its Spring 1996 Review, the Brookings Institute has stepped
up to the plate. In an article 'Broken Bottles: Alcohol,
Disorder, and Crime,' Professor John J. DiIulio, Director of
the Brookings Center for Public Management, documents the
density of beer and liquor outlets in high-crime inner-city
neighborhoods with chilling observations. Reading it, I had to
wonder if housing advocates might not be afflicted with an
insanity similar to that of the alcoholic, who does the same
things over and over again expecting different results, when
we ignore the pervasive availability of the drug alcohol in a
community where rehabilitation efforts are initiated.
I surveyed a neighborhood in which several HUD-foreclosed
properties are slated for renovation. This 3.98 square mile
area contained no less than 43 legal beer and alcohol outlets.
This did not account for clubs, after-hour joints, or þkitchen
barrooms.þ Does such a concentration of alcohol outlets
happen by chance? Does resultant numbing and dumbing of
the poor legitimatize nightmarish thinking that inner-cities of
America are places where occupants can be contained through
barbed wires of the mind wound by addiction to alcohol, and
consequently other drugs? When you add the sad facts that (1)
there are few homes in this country not touched by the
shadow of alcohol abuse, (2) there is now little or no
treatment, and (3) no accountability for targeting children in
alcohol advertising, can we see how effective the alcohol
industry's three billion dollar advertising and political
lobbying efforts can be in silencing those who suffer from
their own or someone else's drinking?
Read Professor DiIulio's penetrating observations reprinted
with permission of the Brookings Institute ["Broken Bottles:
Alcohol, Disorder, and Crime", Brookings Review, Spring
1996. Brookings Institution Press:]
Over the past quarter-century, American's have spent billions
of dollars to wage a war on drugs... the particular focus on
illicit drugs has kept the spotlight off a more familiar, yet
perhaps more dangerous psychoactive drug- alcohol.
Most state do not have strong liquor law regulations and
procedures. Even states that have them on the books tend to
underfund the agencies responsible for enforcing them.
Naturally, anemic funding often leads to inadequate
enforcement, which opens up the possibility of socially
harmful concentrations of liquor outlets and other regulatory
failures that can lead to a hornet's next of alcohol-related
Although the relationships are complex, the high concentration
of liquor stores in the inner cities, the ready availability of
beer and hard liquor, and the high incidence of alcohol abuse
are deeply implicated in the troubled homes, disorderly
neighborhoods, and dangerous streets.
Alcohol use has been associated with assaultive and sex-
related crimes, serious youth crime, family violence towards
both spouse and children, being both a homicide victim and a
perpetrator, and persistent aggression as an adult.
Numerous first-rate studies have found close links between the
geographic density of alcohol outlets and consumption [and
alcohol problem] rates. Without leaping to the further
conclusion that if inner-city neighborhoods had fewer liquor
outlets and less alcohol consumption, they would also have
less crime, policymakers who care about reducing community
breakdown and crime in the inner city should nevertheless
seriously consider restricting alcohol availability and reducing
the density of liquor stores.
Alcohol abuse probably drives crime and other social
problems more than drug abuse does, simply because the use
of alcohol is so widespread.
No social disorder is at once so disruptive in its own right and
so conducive of other disorders as public drinking.
A 1993 feature in U.S. News and World Report reported on
the reality of a typical inner-city child named John: "To
John, Tom's Liquor is a short walk from his house, school,
and storefront church in the same shopping strip. A slew of
transactions take John to Tom's. He tags along with his mom
when she goes to cash her welfare checks free of charge.
With no supermarket nearby, John goes to Tom's when he
wants a candy bar. Even when his mother takes him to the
adjoining neighborhoods, John rarely sees a bank or
supermarket. Many neighborhood traits convey disorder, but
unchecked public drinking is a particularly potent affirmation
that 'no-one cares'. That is the message John gains by
observing Tom's Liquor, where winos and crack addicts
congregate at night in the parking lot."
America's liquor-control regime is structured without any
apparent regard for the connection between alcohol
availability, consumption, crime, and other social problems -
and is calculated to give the states almost zero capacity to
regulate and enforce liquor laws.
A study of ABC in California found that investigators were
"less concerned with public health and welfare than with the
rights of applicants...that selling alcohol is treated more as a
right than a privilege."
Anywhere between 30 and 90 percent of convicted rapists are
drunk at the time of offense. Juveniles, especially young
men, who drink to the point of drunkenness are more likely
than those who don't drink to get into fights, get arrested,
commit violent crimes, and recidivate later in life.
In their new book, Alcohol and Homicide, R. N. Nash and
L.A. Rebhun observe, rightly, that the high concentration of
liquor outlets in inner-city neighborhoods reflects "the relative
power of alcohol producers and wholesalers who supply
liquor outlets, banks who loan money to store owners, and
state regulators whose activities are more oriented toward the
interests of alcohol industry lobbying groups than the
regulation of that industry and the relative powerlessness of
the poor and unemployed individuals and groups who live in
greater concentration in these areas of high outlet density."
Middle-class Americans would not tolerate for one second
laws that permitted an inner-city concentration of liquor stores
in and around the places where they and their loved ones live,
work, shop, go to school, or play.
Broken bottles have an even worse effect on community order
and safety than broken windows. The fact that government
itself licenses the entire mess by letting the liquor stores
proliferate and the broken bottles pile up so high in poor,
inner city neighborhoods is the single most compelling symbol
that nobody cares, the ultimate invitation to disorder and
In poor neighborhoods where alcohol is readily available and
broken bottles fill the gutters, social capital goes down the
drain. Whether or not they drink themselves to excess, hang
out at bards or engage directly in related behaviors, it is
probable that poor, inner-city youths who grow up in places
where drinking is common and liquor outlets are everywhere
are more likely than otherwise comparable youth to have
diminished life prospects that include joblessness, substance
abuse, and serious trouble with the law.
In a classic study of community breakdown in American
cities, by William Skogan, public drinking was ranked first
among the disorders identified by residents across 40
neighborhoods. Law-abiding residents in those neighborhoods
beg local police and public authorities to "do something"
about corner to corner proliferation of liquor outlets.
Prof. DiLulio would quite possibly be interested in Adrian Nicole
LeBlanc's article in the April '95 issue of Esquire. Titled
"Falling", it tells the story of Eric Morse, who was dropped to
his death from a 14th story window at the Ida B. Wells projects
on Chicago's South Side. Alcohol figures prominently throughout
In Spanish we have a saying to the effect that "for a sample, one
button is enough". Nevertheless, I think that a sequence of
"buttons" can illustrate a pattern. The Esquire article is the
third in a string of such "in depth" reports that I keep. It
starts with the cover article of Time Magazine's August 29,'77
issue: "The Underclass: Minority within a Minority". The
second leg, published 10 years later, is "Brothers: A Vivid
Portrait of Black Men in America" (Newsweek, March 23, '87).
Altogether, the three articles vividly express the impact of 19
years of "winner-take-all" policies in the world's richest
nation; i.e., no discernible progress whatsoever. If anything, a
noticeable increase in brutality. As a final note, I might
mention that Mark Mathabane's book "Kaffir Boy" -about his
childhood years in Apartheid South Africa's Alexandria ghetto
(excuse me, "township")- describes how his family operated a
kitchen-barroom for a while. An "interesting coincidence". When
Mathabane later made it to the U.S. with the help of tennis pro
Stan Smith and his wife, he was appalled to witness the
conditions that prevailed in ghetto (excuse me, "inner-city")
areas. This is covered in his second book, "Kaffir Boy in
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