East Atlanta Murder Village

Here’s a story detailing efforts being undertaken to increase security in East Atlanta Village. “Village” is something of a misnomer: EAV is just a commercial strip near a series of single-family residential neighborhoods that were the epicenter of gentrification about ten years ago. Think Hipster Central, with little boutiques and bars serving Pabst Blue Ribbon, live music venues starring dudes with mandolins, that sort of thing. But like every other gentrifying neighborhood in the city, there’s a lot of conflict, as an “us v. them” mentality arises.

One of the remarkable things about writing fiction about Atlanta is that it’s impossible to extricate class conflict from racial conflict, all because of a dynamic I’ve mentioned multiple times on this blog: there are essentially no poor white people inside the city limits. So while there are thousands of affluent black people, they generally, for what they feel are excellent historical reasons, tend to stay in their own almost hermetically sealed private culture; gentrifying white people, outside the workplace, only see black people who are poor, and only see poor people who are black.

Fundamentally, the conflict in these gentrifying neighborhoods is a class conflict: (white) people move in, with what to the locals is a lot of money, and they fix up the house they bought and start having cute little white kids. And while the white gentrifiers are usually superficially pleasant to their impoverished black neighbors, they’re generally not going to invite them in or expect to be invited in. And like gentrifiers everywhere, they have absurdly unrealistic expectations about how the neighborhood should change the minute they move in: the police, who have been regarded as a hostile occupying force for decades and who largely leave the poor to their own devices, are suddenly expected to keep the neighborhood as safe as the affluent district the gentrifiers moved from. And they certainly won’t send their kids to the local public schools, nor let them run wild with the other neighborhood kids.

There are cultural conflicts (life among functional urban poor blacks is usually centered around a strong Christian church; educated white people are militantly secular), economic conflicts, conflicts of taste and decorum (poor people tend to play music much more loudly in public spaces), etc. Just something as simple as the habit of gentrifiers of fencing in their front yard rather than just the back is a physical manifestation of a cultural conflict.

And then once enough “pioneers” (a deeply problematic word) arrive, they start developing businesses; and these businesses do not cater to poor urban blacks. It’s not Jim Crow: they’re not going to stop black people from walking in. But there are enough cultural differences between these businesses and the ones the locals are used to that the locals won’t generally go there. Why in the world would you spend good money on cupcakes for a dog? And then there’s a bar and restaurant district, where black people might work, but the owners and patrons are largely white. And the customers have a few drinks and walk around the corner to their car, and someone pulls up on them, draws down and robs them. Then shoots them.

This has happened twice in EAV in the last week, and the white folks are just up in arms about it, as they should be. It’s their neighborhood, after all. And most of the remaining black residents are upset about it too, not only because murder = bad, but also because this means the cops are going to come down on them looking for suspects and/or scapegoats. What’s going to happen? In about a week, some cousin is going to snitch on the extremely stupid 17-year-old boy who never had a pot to piss in and envied everyone else’s wealth and success, and failed out of school, and listened to too many gangsta epics written by rappers who work for record labels run by white people, and decided that he was going to make a name for himself by shooting some yuppie white people who’d had one too many craft microbrews. This kid will get life without parole, at a yearly expense to the state equivalent to about 2.5 full-time college students, and the family of the dead guy, a Georgia Tech grad who worked in the IT industry, will mourn. And about two years from now, some other stupid 17-year-old boy will show up, not having heard of what happened to the last one, and he’ll kill someone else with education and dreams and value to society.

The murderer’s story? Not that interesting: it’s a paint-by-numbers of deprivation. The victim’s story? More so, but as he’s fundamentally a victim of random crime, it’s hard to draw a parallel between his life and death. The class conflict? That’s where the real story lies.

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Amber Alert!

Feel-good story from this morning:

A 1-year-old girl who was in the back seat of a car when it was stolen outside a daycare center near Atlanta was found safe Wednesday morning, authorities said.

Police got a call from a resident who had spotted the car parked in a neighborhood, Forest Park police Lt. Jason Armstrong said.

Police then found the missing car and the girl, asleep inside the vehicle, near Scott Drive and Holly Circle in Clayton County shortly before 7 a.m.

Authorities had issued a child abduction alert early Wednesday morning after the 1994 green Honda Accord was stolen outside the 24-hour Playskool daycare facility in Forest Park, just south of Atlanta.

Now, child abduction isn’t funny; but anyone who follows the news can tell you that abduction by a stranger is so rare as to be remarkable. The overwhelming majority of Amber Alerts come when a non-custodial parent decides that stealing their own kid(s) is actually a workable idea.

So in turning this into fiction, for low comedy we could go with the thief’s perspective. Crack kills, and opportunistic car theft is right up there on the crack-o-meter. You find an unattended car with the keys still in it, and off you go! Then, ten minutes later, the baby makes a noise; you adjust the rearview mirror to see what’s up and holy mother of god there’s a child in this car. Park, wipe steering wheel, forget that you left clear fingerprints on the rearview, exit stage left, spend the rest of the day in crack-fueled paranoia.

Better still, imagine if said crackhead stole the car from the non-custodial parent who’d already abducted the child. From the crackhead’s perspective, it doesn’t matter—though it might be funny to have the crackhead not notice the baby until dozens of cars filled with armed response officers surround him. But imagine the story from the noncustodial parent’s perspective. You’ve raged yourself up on alcohol and masculine entitlement until you’ve convinced yourself that stealing your own child is somehow going to work out. You bust into the daycare center, social-engineer taking the child, put her out in her car seat, run back in because you forgot your phone, come back out and the goddamn car is gone! NOW what?

As an aside, note that the daycare center is 24-hour. What’s up with that? Seems like the kind of fly-by-night thing where they’d actually let the non-custodial parent take the kid.

Stalkers, Zealots and Sentries (5)

Parts 1 and 2 set up the structure of this rather long (15k words) short story. Parts 3 and 4 give the first two sections of the story. Here’s the third:

Two days later, Diana was adrift upon a vast sea of paperwork when the desk sergeant sent up a visitor who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Anything for a break. The man was short, dressed like a caricature of a television husband, simultaneously weak-chinned and pugnacious. “Frank Thomas. I’m the president of the Men’s Rights Association of Atlanta. They said you’re investigating Alvin Smith’s death?”

This ought to be fun. “Yes, sir. Coffee?”

“No, thank you. I’m off caffeine for good. I have information that may help you solve the crime.”

“Well, that’s very kind of you, but we’re not treating Mr. Smith’s death as a crime.”

“That figures. I know for a fact that his ex-wife was out to kill him.”

“Hold on, Mr. Thomas. There’s just no evidence he was murdered.” She sketched out the scene for him. “Accident or suicide; take your pick. And his ex-wife couldn’t have done it, even if he really was killed. I know they had problems, but we double-checked her whereabouts.”

“Then you need to dig deeper. See, she’s a pothead.”

“Um, that doesn’t exactly argue in favor of planning a homicide.”

“Hear me out. She smoked in front of their son. Alvin found out, decided to try to regain his paternal rights. I’m his attorney. He had a pretty good chance of succeeding—or would have, if the justice system weren’t so heavily biased against men, and fathers.”

“So she killed him?”

“Or had him killed, if she really did have an alibi. She’ll get a lot of money, from the life insurance.”

Diana made an effort not to roll her eyes. “We checked her phone records; there’s no hit men there. Hit people. We did our due diligence. Your client was cleaning his gun when it went off. His thumbprint was on the trigger; the door was locked. Unless there is someone out there who can walk through walls–”

“Or has a key. The son does.”

The son did. He showed Diana his key ring. “The keys were in my bag at the play. I know I ought to be sad—he’s the only dad I’ve got—but he was a dick. He hit me, he hit Mom. After the restraining order? I thought he would come around. But then he started talking about how he wanted to send me to one of those camps? You know, pray away the gay? We’re not even religious.”

Two weeks later, Diana and Mustapha were at a house in Kirkwood, a pseudopod of the city of Atlanta stuck deep into DeKalb County to the east. Fifteen years ago, Kirkwood had been a nasty ghetto, but it was somehow zoned for the better schools closer in town. It had gentrified with astonishing rapidity; bakeries catering to dogs now significantly outnumbered storefront churches.

But Robert Fisk’s death looked old-school: an open front door, cabinets rifled through. Fisk lay on the hallway floor in a pool of his own blood, his jaw ruined, the lower half of his face a mass of gore. The blood trail led back to an armchair in what Diana bet Fisk called the “man cave”. This had multiple bookcases surrounding the big-screen TV; but instead of books, these held clear plastic cases that proved on closer examination to hold thousands of baseball cards.

“Holy cow,” said Mustapha. “It’s like a dream come true.”

“For a nine-year-old boy.”

“Get off of my cloud. Look: here’s Sandy Koufax. Wow.”

A patrolwoman who Diana could have mistaken for a high school student said, “The front door was unlocked and open, ma’am. Perp got him from real close range: check out the powder burns on his cheek.” She pointed to the floor beside the armchair. “Dropped the gun and ran.”

“Nice work,” said Mustapha. “You’re gold shield material for sure.”

Diana rolled her eyes at the look of joy on the patrolwoman’s face. “My partner’s being a jerk. There’s no perp; this was a suicide. Mr. Fisk here killed himself.”

“And he did a terrible job. Sorry, kid; I shouldn’t haze you.” Mustapha took her by the elbow, led her to the armchair, motioned for her to crouch down. “Even people who want to end it all have a survival instinct. This guy sat here, took a big shot of whiskey, tossed the glass behind him—see it over there by the couch?—put the gun to his head and went to pull the trigger. But, survival instinct: he jerked the gun away at the last second. Look right there at that bookshelf: see the little hole above that case of baseball cards? That’s where the first bullet went. He gets his nerve back, but like a lot of amateurs he thinks TV is real. Suicide is trickier than you think, plus that reflex. This poor fucker shot off his jaw, then spent five minutes in agony and confusion before he bled out. I bet you money there’s a phone somewhere in that direction.”

The patrolwoman looked back and forth. “Oh. Man, I feel–”

“Don’t worry about it. Live and learn. You ever decide you’re going to end it all, put the barrel of the gun all the way back in your mouth.”

Diana looked up from her tablet. “Thanks, Inspector Morbid.”

“Hey, do the job right, save everyone the trouble. Just do it in the bathtub, okay? Makes cleanup way easier.”

“Okay, that’s enough,” said Diana. “Officer, go knock on doors, find out what the neighbors know. Get away from the bad influence of my partner.” A few taps and swipes on the tablet. “Whoa. Mr. Fisk here had a big old record. Let’s see, assault, simple battery, aggravated stalking.”

“Yeah? Now I’m kind of glad he missed the first time.”

“No comment. He… oh, nice. He busted into his wife’s office and waved a gun in her face. Did a whole three months in jail for that one.”

“Welcome to Georgia.”

“Welcome to the nineteenth century. He got out about a year ago. Let me check civil cases. Yep: divorce, loses custody.”

“Score at least one for the state.”

“Don’t start cheering yet. He filed suit about a month ago to modify the custody arrangements.”

“Because he cares.” Mustapha saw her brow furl. “What is it?”

“His lawyer? Remember how I told you about the guy who came to see me? The men’s rights guy? Come on, it was last month.”

“Oh, the dude with the gay son. He was a lawyer?”

“No; this guy was his lawyer. Fisk’s, too.”

“Ha. Hope he got paid in advance.”

But Had He REALLY Won Some Money?

Two more arrests in the murder last July of David McReynolds, a poor but sweet man in the rapidly gentrifying Grant Park neighborhood. He was murdered in the street walking home from the convenience store.

Soon after the crime, McReynolds wife told FOX 5 that the man family members called “Bubba” walked to the store each day for a lottery ticket. She believes word spread that he had hit a big number, and she believes someone followed him from the store.

In October, Atlanta investigators arrested 23-year-old Andre Byrd in connection with the killing, but this community knew there were more suspects out there and raised money for a reward for information.

This story is not only sad in and of itself but also gives a clear example of the racial and class conflicts involved in gentrifying neighborhoods, where poor and nearly always black people live in a completely separate universe from the affluent and nearly always white people who are moving in, fixing up the houses and taking over. McReynolds, part of the former group, went every day to the ghetto convenience store to buy a lotto ticket.

Since gentrifying white people would never go to that store nor ever play the lottery, they would have no idea what was going on and why this friendly man whose name they probably didn’t know got murdered on the sidewalk. They just got very upset—my Facebook feed lit right up—at the outrage “those barbarians” committed. Most of them were arguably less upset about the man’s death than the intrusion of crime into the neighborhood they see as theirs (they pay most of the taxes, after all). One of the most consistent characteristics of gentrifiers is that they’re absolutely outraged when crime happens in the unsafe neighborhood they just moved into, as if they expected something different.

But in that parallel universe, one of near-total illiteracy, conspiracy theories and short-term thinking, somehow the word got out that McReynolds had won something that day. As in, hundreds, not millions nor even thousands. And three people too stupid to figure out that their own community would dime them out for fifty bucks decided that the big score that had surely multiplied itself by then was totally worth committing murder in broad daylight on an open sidewalk.

From a fiction perspective, the story makes a nice short one: picture the white gentrifiers and the original residents across the street, fifty feet away but worlds apart, each with their own perspective on the crime. This would actually be pretty fun to write; the only pitfall is that it’s difficult, as a white man, to write about these residents without coming off as a racist—that I’m characterizing them as stupid because they’re black, when really it’s more that they’re downtrodden poor people. It’s just that within the Perimeter, all downtrodden poor people are nonwhite.

The crucial detail that all the news stories miss is whether McReynolds actually had won anything in the lottery, or whether it was just the sort of sidewalk radio rumor that everyone believed because they wanted to. In the story, this would have to remain unknown as well.