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Grey Sparrow Journal and Press, as of January 31, 2018 will move to

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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 Murder Capital

by Robert Wexelblatt



                The toll for April was twice what it had been the year before, but it was in May that the shootings really picked up.  During the first week in June there were four public meetings, all in elementary schools.  By the end of the month, the tenor of funeral sermons had modulated from indignant to resigned and there had been three shootings at funerals—two on the church steps, one in a rear pew.  Gang-related, drug-related, vengeance-related, relative-related.   Until the Fourth of July the mayor seemed to be everywhere, delivering hortatory, edifying addresses, pleading, exhorting, inspiring; then he gave up and went on an open-ended vacation.  The chief of police resigned two days later.  Fences, gates, gun sales, and national attention all rose.  By late in July the pace picked up to ten a day, then fourteen, and, one Saturday night, twenty-two.  Victims and shooters got younger.  People stopped distinguishing between them or troubling with names.  One TV station started a regular segment between weather and sports:  tearful mothers, angry fathers, grandmothers attesting to the manifold virtues of dead children.  Adults feared the young who feared neither prison nor death, certainly not them.  The police begged for help from “the community.”  One despairing editorial writer asked, “Would that be the impoverished, futureless, gun-toting, written-off, police-loathing, prefrontal lobe-less community?”

                The urban population dwindled; that of the exurbs swelled.  Whole neighborhoods were abandoned, derelict houses crouching behind marestail, rhododendrons, and thorn bushes, like the castle of Sleeping Beauty.  The supply of hideouts outstripped demand.  Real estate values collapsed—what didn’t?  Finally, the governor declared martial law, called up the National Guard and issued shoot-to-kill orders. The gangs held a conclave in the wreckage of Harding High School, elected a chief, pooled their forces and fought back, guerrilla-style. Smoke fouled the air at all hours; guardsmen were cornered, disarmed, either stripped or slaughtered.  Helicopters swooped and hovered day and night until two were brought down by  fusillades from the roof of an abandoned hospital.

                The average age of a gang member plummeted like the price of office space.  Almost none lived to sixteen; the few who did were revered, feared.  Authority was proportional to age.  In the battles with the National Guard, Rottweiler—as everyone called the Chief—proved himself a capable organizer.  Command sharpened his intellect and stirred in him a sense of responsibility.  This was different from when it was just a matter of being harder than the next hardest.  Then, cruelty had been an asset, humiliation of rivals a tactic—no longer.  He began to think strategically. As often happens, a sort of hubris attended the burden of office; Rottweiler began to regard the city as his.  But what was it worth?  He called a meeting with the gang leaders who had voted to put him in charge, his senate.  They met in a looted supermarket; guns were deposited at the meat counter.

                “This city’s a pile of shit.  You all know it.  We turned it to shit.”

                Several grumbled that it was shit all along; the most nihilistic laughed.

                “Listen up.  We need rules.  You listening to me?  Rules.”

                Duke Bam-Bam, who had voted against Rottweiler, was surly.  “What for, man?  We're winning, you weren’t looking.”

                “Things don’t change we’ll have the Army all over us.  Marines, man. Air Force too.”  Rottweiler took out a much creased sheet of lined paper.  He’d labored on this document harder than he’d ever done on anything.

                The rules were Draconian.  No more killing without authorization. No more looting at all.  Confiscation of automatic weapons.  Arson forbidden.  Anyone violating these rules to be executed on the spot.

                “Who by?”

                “Our own police, members from every gang.  You following?  We get the place up and running.  We run it, we profit from it.”

                “You crazy?  We can’t—” 

                “We collect the trash and all that stuff?”

                “Shit.  How we going to—?”

                “We’re going to need people with some education.  You understand?”

                “Schools all shut, man.”

                “Plenty of smart kids.  That Bongo.  Skoots.  Little Blue.  We hire the teachers.”

                “How we going to do that?”

                It wasn’t easy or quick or without bloodshed, but, gradually, Rottweiler realized his plan.  He even met with the governor, who had sealed off the city.  White flag and everything.  He agreed to listen to advice, even to ask for it if he felt he needed to, but said “No way” to the “receiver” the governor wanted to appoint.

                They opened one school, then another. And they found good teachers, too, thanks in part to the generous salaries Rottweiler offered.  Classes were lively, because only the young, brave, and idealistic took the jobs.  If the students didn’t approve of them, they were fired.

                Each gang took over a different job and for a long time did it miserably.  But little by little they did better.  Trash was collected, streets cleared, drains repaired.  Rottweiler negotiated free city-wide wi-fi and new cell phone service.  Stories in the national press—initially outraged, censorious, mocking, derisive and apocalyptic—began to change.  Young reporters blogged positive articles.  Urban pioneers moved in, rehabbing old houses, building new homes.  Rottweiler was interviewed for a feature in the Times magazine.  Tourists from Europe and Asia stayed in two cleaned-up hotels.

                Rottweiler held tight to his power subtly when possible, brutally when necessary.  He survived half-a-dozen attempts on his life and lived to see a new generation of kids who demanded classes in literature, art, and music.  It gave him indescribable satisfaction when one of his thirty-seven grandchildren was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the symphony he titled Murder Capital.