Daniel Bryan reports from New York on the latest source of suburban
paranoia about crime and the new excuse for a police crackdown: carjacking
It seems that carjackers have now replaced communists as the biggest threat
to the American way of life. Carjacking is defined by the FBI as 'the taking
of a motor vehicle from the person or presence of another by force, violence
or intimidation'. In recent months it has become the focus for a law-and-order
panic which has served to heighten suburban hostility to the inner cities,
and to justify the launch of new legal and policing measures against the
The initial carjacking hysteria centred on two gruesome incidents which
received heavy attention in the national media. In September 1992, a research
chemist from Columbia, a planned suburban community near Washington DC,
died after her arm became entangled in the seatbelt during a carjacking;
she was dragged for nearly two miles. The carjackers had tossed out her
two-year old child, carseat and all.
Less than two months later, a suburban New Jersey housewife disappeared
while on a late-evening shopping trip with her three-year old daughter.
The child was found the next morning unharmed, but three days later the
mother was discovered stabbed to death in a ditch near her abandoned van.
In both cases the accused, all young black men, were charged within days,
their mugshots plastered across the newspapers, with footage of them being
led away in shackles shown repeatedly on primetime TV news.
The coverage of these incidents was at the centre of a huge media scare
about an alleged new crime wave against suburban shoppers, carried out by
inner-city criminals. 'Urban terrorism has come to shopping centres', declared
one report (New York Times, 27 November 1992). In fact, these grisly
events stand out and shock precisely because of their relative rarity. The
fear which carjacking has been used to create among suburban residents is
far bigger than the crime itself.
Police estimate that carjacking accounts for one per cent of the 1.7m auto
thefts committed in the USA in 1991. Far from suddenly booming, in some
big cities, the figures for carjacking declined slightly in the early nineties.
In New York, for example, 2298 vehicles were reported stolen at gunpoint
in 1990; in 1991 it was 2007; and in the first six months of 1992, 926. More
importantly, the overwhelming majority of carjackings occur in the areas
where other crimes of violence and theft are most common: the big cities
with impoverished ghettos. Statistics also show that the vast majority of
carjackings result in no injuries.
It is clear that the real chances of suburban residents falling victim to
a violent car theft are extremely slim. Nevertheless, the violent carjacking
scare has taken hold of middle class public opinion. Its message chimes
in with the racially loaded crusade against 'urban terrorism', which is
being used to justify new measures of containment against inner-city communities.
The governor of New Jersey, for example, has fuelled the panic about carjacking
by declaring his determination to keep the ghetto 'plague' at bay: 'We haven't
yet seen the epidemic plaguing other areas around the nation and we're not
willing to. We intend to escalate our response to a full-scale assault on
the problem.' (NYT, 25 November 1992)
For its part, the FBI has made carjacking 'a nationwide priority'. Although
local police involved in the cases said that they had 'established no trends
in profiles of victims...type of car...time of day...or location', the FBI
quickly decided who was to blame. The Feds have said that carjacking will
now be 'included with gang activity and drug-related violence as crimes
investigated by a 300-member arm of the agency formed in January with former
counter-intelligence agents' (NYT, 16 September 1992).
Nobody has to say it out loud, but the target is clear: young black men.
And they are to be targeted by former secret service agents made redundant
by the end of the Cold War, because 'street terrorists' from the ghetto
have apparently replaced the KGB as the Public Enemy No1. On top of all
this, the only anti-crime bill passed by the federal government in 1992
was an anti-carjacking law - as if stealing vehicles at gunpoint was somehow
a new offence not covered by existing federal legislation.
The carjacking scare has been promoted by politicians and the media as yet
another reason for mainly white, middle class America to retreat behind
its security walls and leave the police to deal with the inner cities. Suburbanites
who have been panicked into thinking that the ghetto is reaching out to
get them are now seeking safety in 'master-planned communities'. These are
corporate-owned and operated suburbs with private security armies and names
like 'Memories', 'Green Valley' and 'Celebration' which offer 'safety from
threats both real and imagined, and control over who moves in beside them'
(Harpers, November 1992).
One happy resident who had moved from suburban southern California into
a walled citadel in the north of the state explained that 'even the good
neighbourhoods there aren't good any more'. Everybody knew what she meant;
bad equals black. This is the sentiment behind a new movement seeking to
partition California into two states: Northern California, home to the best
white-only suburbs, and Southern California, populated largely by blacks
and Latinos and centred on the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. Segregation,
it seems, is back in fashion.
The carjacking furore captures the dangerous advance of law-and-order politics
in America. Entire black and Latino communities are being criminalised and
treated as a violent plague to be policed in military fashion. With last
year's Los Angeles riots still fresh in the minds of the nation's law-makers
and enforcers, this latest panic provides another pretext for clamping down
hard on the inner cities.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 55, May 1993