Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A New Vocabulary of Violence?

Associated Press Writer Nafeesa Syeed drew upon some interesting terminology in reporting a violent shooting incident in the District of Columbia last night:

A gunman sprayed bullets from a moving vehicle into a crowd in southeastern Washington, killing four and wounding at least five others, before leading police on a chase into neighboring Maryland.

Three people were arrested in the drive-by shooting Tuesday. The D.C. councilman who represents the area said a dispute between groups in the neighborhood apparently caused the shooting.

Groups? Was there something about this incident that distinguished it from what usually counts for gang-related violence? It took a page scroll to account for both who the councilman was and how that particular word came to be used:

D.C. Councilman Marion Barry, a former mayor who now represents the area of the city where the shootings occurred, called the attack a vicious crime. Barry, who had been briefed by police, said it appears "crews" — groups of friends who are not necessarily organized as gangs — had some sort of dispute with each other.

So, apparently, the new term of art, at least in reporting crime in the District of Columbia, is "crew;" and Syeed had deliberately used "groups" to avoid using "gangs."

Do we really need a new term of art where drive-by shootings are involved? Who was responsible for introducing it? Who really benefits from the distinction it draws?

All we can deduce from Syeed's text is that Barry used the term after having been "briefed by police." We have no idea whether or not the word was used by the police in their briefing. My knowledge of Barry's past and my innate sense of cynicism both lead me to hypothesize that the term originated with Barry himself, perhaps because he made a campaign promise to rid his district of gang violence, which would have been quite a promise for one of the tougher parts of town. However, I doubt that many of those represented by Barry would see much value in that kind of terminological legerdemain. Any distinction between "crew" and "gang" has little impact on how safe it is to walk the streets. Those who think they can hide behind vocabulary when confronted with an ugly state of affairs should hang their heads in shame (assuming, that is, that prevailing conditions have not purged any sense of shame from their spirits).

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