Progressives need to address violent crime, not just criminal justice. Failure on this front will only strengthen the right wing backlash.

By Sasha Abramsky, The Nation

Last week, my daughter and I masked up and went to the cinema to see Steven Spielberg’s revamped version of West Side Story. The film is pretty good—though the singing, at times, leaves something to be desired. But one part of the plotline struck me as conspicuously quaint: that of the single gun in circulation between the two rival gangs.

The rumble between the Jets and the Sharks is terrifying, and the imagery of clashing gang members in the salt-filled warehouse is dazzling in its intensity, capturing the raw fury, the hatred, and, yes, the fear exhibited by the teenagers squaring off against each other. Spielberg captures the drama first of fists, then of knives, and, finally, of guns—or rather, of a gun.

Violence crime is rising

In 1957, when the classic musical premiered in Washington, D.C., the murder rate in the United States was about 4.5 per 100,000. Data from earlier in the decade showed roughly 8,000 murders in a given year. That was a murder rate of less than half of what it had been in the first few years of the Great Depression, at the culmination of a 20-year upward trend in murders during the period that encompassed World War I, Prohibition, and the vast economic dislocation triggered by the Wall Street crash of 1929.

America’s murder rate rose again from the late 1960s through the early 1990s, peaking in 1993 at 9.5 per 100,000—fairly close to where it was in the years immediately following the economic collapse unleashed in 1929. But by 2012 it had decreased by half, down to 4.5 murders per 100,000 people.

Today, the murder rate is turning sharply upward once more: It is roughly eight per 100,000. The number of people killed per year has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic, rising a historically unprecedented 30 percent from 2019 to 2020, and increasing significantly again in 2021. Many major cities are now seeing murder rates that surpass even the darkest, most violent years of the crack wars in the 1980s and early ’90s. On the West Coast—the terrain over which this column wanders—Portland has seen record murder rates in 2021, with more than 80 people killed in the first 10 months of the year. Seattle has also seen sharp increases in gun deaths. In Oakland, the number of murders increased 40 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, and have increased significantly again this year. Statewide, California’s murder rate increased 30 percent in 2020, and has continued its sharp rise through 2021.

In much of the country, murder rates are right back to where they were at the peaks of 90 years ago and, again, 30 years ago.

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