Debate on alcohol and violence (1)

 

TAP Connections Vol. 12 No. 3 SUMMER 1996

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Alcohol, Disorder & Crime On TAP

 

Tony Flaherty

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

social problems.

 

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

crime.

 

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.

 

INTERNET COMMENTARY

 

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

the story.

 

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

America".

 

 

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