Shit’s flyin’ these days around the subject of crime in Burlington. In spite of the actual crime statistics, and in spite of the voters’ thorough rejection of Law ‘N Order Lite candidate Ted Kenney, the news can’t stop hyping the largely imaginary epidemic of lawlessness in the Queen City.
Yes, there’s been a substantial jump in gun incidents, and although three fatal shootings may be just another Tuesday afternoon in big cities, it’s a lot by Burlington standards. Nobody wants a hail of bullets from their Welcome Wagon. Otherwise, though, Burlington has quite a bit less crime — including violent crime — now than, say, ten years ago.
But some people, prominent white people, feel unsafe. And if prominent white people have a feeling, it must be a real problem, right?
I mean, we’ve got Moderate Nice Guy Phil Scott out here lying about defunding the police: “…with all due respect to Burlington, they defunded the police. They did that.”
Not unless you think “defunding” means “a modest temporary reduction.” Which it doesn’t. Look, if we’re going to ceaselessly demagogue every cut to the police budget, criminal justice reform is gonna be a long time coming.
Last Friday, a gaggle of conservatives under the rubric of “Keep Vermont Safe” held a Panel Of Grievance in Burlington City Hall. VTDigger, for some reason, sent a reporter and a photographer to cover the event. And cover it they did, despite a pitifully small turnout. “Roughly two dozen,” Digger reported. There were almost that many people on stage.
But Digger had committed, and so it dutifully ran a piece that gave the event far more gravity than it earned. I would have suggested “Scant Turnout For Copaganda Forum” as a working title.
The event did not warrant coverage. Why was it covered? Digger had committed precious resources. Heaven forbid they should be sacrificed on the altar of journalistic responsibility.
It’s also the zeitgeist, or at least the media-driven appearance of a zeitgeist.
In the process of justifying itself by referencing other crime coverage (see how this becomes an echo chamber, the noise growing louder and louder no matter how small the initial sound?), the Digger story linked to a recent exercise in white privilege published by Paula Routly, co-founder of Seven Days.
The piece, entitled “Summer of Strife,” recounted not a summer of strife, but her perception of same. She began with a lovely Friday evening that was interrupted by a brace of cop cars driving by, lights and sirens turned up to 11. Their passage, to an unknown destination, was for Routly “a visual suggestion that Burlington might not be as safe as it once was.”
A suggestion. Might not be. The qualifiers were thick as morning fog.
Later, back in her home in the New North End, her peace was shattered by the wails of a woman emanating from a nearby encampment of the unhoused. People, she noted, displaced in the recent clearance of an encampment in the South End.
Man, those people are like Whack-A-Mole. You chase them away from one spot, and they show up in another. It’s almost as if the problem won’t be solved by policing.
This time, the Homeless Roulette Wheel landed on Routly’s comfortable neighborhood. The result is frequent loud noises of various kinds. No mention was made of actual personal contact with these unfortunates, but she is still left “thinking twice about walking home at night.”
More feelings, tethered to hints that your life might not be as thoroughly serene as you’ve come to expect.
The numbers show that Burlington is a safer place to walk home than it used to be. Perhaps the homeless are harder to ignore because there are more of them, but there’s no reason to be especially leery of crime right now in Burlington. The flurry of gun incidents, as police themselves say, mainly involve a small rotating cast of regulars shooting at each other. They’re not after the yuppie strollers of the town.
But at this point the boulder is rolling down the hill, and it won’t stop until it hits bottom. It does make for nice lurid clickbait of a kind that’s normally in short supply around here.
Big-city TV stations make their bones with breathless coverage of crime, mayhem, and destruction. Pretty soon that coverage turns perception into reality.
About 35 years ago, my spouse and I took a long meandering road trip through Canada’s Atlantic Provinces. At one point we stopped for gas in a small Nova Scotia town. The gas jockey noticed a small chip in our windshield, the result of an encounter with a pebble somewhere along the way. He pointed to it and said, “Bullet?”
Our car had Michigan plates, and it turned out that their cable TV systems carried the CBS, NBC and ABC affiliates in Detroit as their source of American programming. Which means that these Nova Scotians’ entire image of Detroit was crafted by local TV coverage. From which you could very well conclude that bullets are flying everywhere and you’re lucky if you don’t get shot down if you should be so stupid as to cross the city-suburb border.
The feelings of insecurity in Burlington remind me very much of that gas jockey. He had no evidence of Detroit’s safety or otherwise, but he had a powerful feeling born of breathless TV coverage.
In truth, you might be more justified in fearing a nighttime stroll in one of our apparently peaceful small towns. The Wall Street Journal just chronicled a sharp rise in homicides that has hit rural America at least as hard as our urban hellscapes. Example: White County, Arkansas entered the year 2020 having not seen a homicide in two years. By; the tine 2021 rolled around, twelve people had been killed in a jurisdiction whose total population is roughly 40% of Chittenden County’s.
In cities, the Journal notes, increases in crime have been blamed on prosecutorial reforms, “defunding the police,” and Black Lives Matter, among other things. But…
In rural counties, where ties between police and locals are often less fraught, officials say the reasons for the rising violence are hard to pinpoint.
Translation: No convenient targets like shorter sentences or elimination of bail or shrinking police forces. So we’re puzzled, of course we are. The likely culprits, per the Journal: the pressures and stresses and uncertainties triggered by the Covid pandemic.
Gee, those things exist just as much in Burlington as anywhere else. So maybe it’s not Sarah Fair George’s fault?
Nah, can’t be. We need a scapegoat! The people demand it!
Or at least a very loud minority of the people demand it, and their voices are amplified by a complicit news media.