In my home state of California, smash-and-grab is fast becoming a way of life. Crime is a rampant, daily occurrence. Just this week, two of my close friends were robbed near San Francisco.
One owns a popular restaurant; the front door was destroyed, and the cash register robbed. The other was renting a car, the entire rear window of which was smashed to bits and the contents swiped. So common is this sort of looting and thievery that when he returned the rental car, he noticed that the car company’s lot was full of vehicles with broken windows.
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Since November, throughout California, thousands of dollars have been stolen from stores including Apple, CVS, Louis Vuitton, and Burberry. In San Jose, over $40,000-worth of inventory was stolen from a Lululemon before the robbers escaped in getaway car. In Carmel-by-the-Sea last week, thieves wielding sledgehammers broke into a high-end jewellery store, smashing, grabbing and then fleeing. Right before Thanksgiving, 80 individuals rushed a Nordstrom in the Bay Area to participate in what authorities called “organised theft”.
Cannabis dispensaries are another favourite target. In Oakland, the Police Chief LeRonne L. Armstrong explained that most of these attacks turn violent: “more than 175 shots were fired” during cannabis robberies in Oakland last month alone. Even a physical therapy office in Beverly Hills was robbed this month by armed, masked burglars who entered the office and stole the doctor’s Rolex. The list of robberies is not limited to stores or businesses.
Many of the victims are ordinary individuals, walking down the street in broad daylight. As Jamie McBride, the head of the union representing LAPD officers, told tourists last week: “We can’t guarantee your safety. It is really, really out of control. I said it to people before. It’s like that movie Purge, but instead of 24 hours to commit your crime, these people have 365 days to commit whatever they want.”
Once upon a time, we would have been shocked by this level of crime. Today, citizens fatalistically adapt their behaviours. I know countless women who no longer walk alone after dark in California’s cities. Everyone knows to hide anything they leave in their cars. Those who can afford it are installing gates and building tall fences around their homes. The wealthy are hiring personal security and no longer relying on police for protection. I’ve seen this all before — in Nairobi as well as other places in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and India.
Stores are boarding up their windows and closing earlier. They are hiring security staff and implementing new safety processes. A Safeway in San Francisco has installed gates that “let customers easily enter the store but swing quickly shut behind them, preventing would-be thieves from dashing out with shopping carts full of stolen items”. Rental car companies, like the one my friend used, are hiring glass repairmen to work full-time fixing the overwhelming number of broken windows.
As for those who cannot or will not adapt, they are faced with one option: to leave their city and often the state. High taxes are not the only reason so many big companies have pulled out of California over the past two years.
But how did we arrive at a point where people either have to adapt to the crime surrounding them or to flee; where the police union’s spokesperson has to warn the public that they are no longer in control?
The answer lies in an abundance of affluence. Affluence has allowed us to overcome many constraints in a way past generations could never have imagined. For long periods, a majority of people in the West have not had to worry about what tomorrow might bring. Questions over where future food, water and shelter will come from are no longer bother the majority of Americans. We’ve got apps on our phone that tell us what the weather will be not only tomorrow, but ten days hence; apps that allow us to buy meals, drinks, cars and even apartments with only a click or two; apps that even think for us.
But with that increased quality of life, we’ve become lazy. We’ve stopped paying attention. We’ve come to take for granted the institutions that hold up our affluent society. We have assumed that they would continue functioning without our personal involvement and investment. It seems that when a society is as wealthy as ours and as insulated from day-to-day threats, the vigilance to maintain its institutions wilts.
What makes this affluence particularly damaging is the fact that the rich are the furthest removed from the consequences of their negligence. In California, those with enormous wealth are often also the loudest advocates for leniency towards criminals. Those individuals, who have the least contact with crime, are frequently the most enthusiastic proponents of reforms that reduce the safety of the average American. Democratic donors give their money to candidates who support defunding the police. They campaign against stop-and-search, three strikes, and “broken window” policies. They argue for lighter sentences or even the decriminalisation of certain crimes — shoplifting, for example, has been all but legalised in San Francisco.
Wealthy liberals for some reason feel more compassion for those committing crimes than for their victims. They believe in a form of “progress” that ignores human nature and social reality. As Mary Harrington recently wrote: “Team Empathy… tends to skew wealthy: it’s easier to believe people are naturally good if you’ve led a sheltered life.”
Meanwhile, some of the politicians they support, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, even deny problems such as smash-and-grab exist. Others urge the public not to be distracted by rising crime, but to follow the “arc of history” towards the utopia of social justice, diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism. Melina Andullah, founder of Black Lives Matter LA, recently said of those concerned about the rising tide of crime: “They’re trying to move us backward. We don’t want to move backward; we want to move forward.”
On December 1, Jacqueline Avant, the wife of Clarence Avant and mother-in-law of Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, was shot and killed in her home in Beverly Hills. The suspect, Aariel Maynor, was attempting to rob her home when he shot her. He also attempted to kill her security guard.
On hearing the news, Abdullah’s response was to condemn it as “appalling”, yet also called on officials not to use it as an excuse to introduce tougher measures on crime. Elsewhere, Oprah Winfrey mourned the loss of her friend with a social media post that ended with the comment: “The world is upside down. And deeply in need of some love today.”
Love, as Oprah imagines it, is an ideal. Who knows? Perhaps, one day, we will achieve universal love. But, in the absence of any meaningful proposals, to hold it up as the solution to criminal activity is pure decadence.
Far more important is the need to keep in place the infrastructure of policing, investigating, trying and punishing that has evolved in the Western world — a system that seeks to strike a judicious balance between the safety of society and the rights of any accused individual. Tweak that system by all means. No one claims it is perfect, and much has been achieved in recent years by the movement for criminal justice reform.
But don’t delude yourself with talk of “love” or proposals to defund the police. For the perpetrators, the best kind of love is tough love. For the victims, whether they’re affluent or not, the best kind of love is being protected. We don’t need “social justice”, just plain justice.
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