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Carjack city

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 ghettos.

Two incidents

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).

New segregation

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

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