How lead lead to the Baltimore riots

Well, not exactly, but sort of.  First, the Post:

Before his controversial death earlier this month while in police custody, which has set this city aflame in rioting, the life of Freddie Gray was defined by failures in the classroom, run-ins with the law, and an inability to focus on anything for very long. Many of those problems began when he was a child and living in this house, according to a 2008 lead poisoning lawsuit filed by Gray and his siblings against the property owner, which resulted in an undisclosed settlement.

Reports of Gray’s history with lead come at a time when the city and nation are still trying to understand the full ramifications of lead poisoning. Advocates and studies say it can diminish cognitive function, increase aggression and ultimately exacerbate the cycle of poverty that is already exceedingly difficult to break.

Kevin Drum, despite being in the midst of serious cancer treatment, cannot resist weighing in with a great post on the lead and crime link (of which he’s written extensively– this is an assigned reading in my criminal justice policy class).

When Freddie Gray was 22 months old, he had a tested blood lead level of 37 micrograms per deciliter. This is an absolutely astronomical amount. Freddie never even had the slightest chance of growing up normally. Lead poisoning doomed him from the start to a life of heightened aggression, poor learning abilities, and weak impulse control. His life was a tragedy set in motion the day he was born.

But even from the midst of my chemo haze, I want to make a short, sharp point about this that goes far beyond just Gray’s personal tragedy. It’s this: thanks both to lead paint and leaded gasoline, there were lots of teenagers like Freddie Gray in the 90s. This created a huge and genuinely scary wave of violent crime, and in response we turned many of our urban police forces into occupying armies. This may have been wrong even then, but it was hardly inexplicable. Decades of lead poisoning really had created huge numbers of scarily violent teenagers, and a massive, militaristic response may have seemed like the only way to even begin to hold the line.

But here’s the thing: that era is over. Individual tragedies like Freddie Gray are still too common, but overall lead poisoning has plummeted. As a result, our cities are safer because our kids are fundamentally less dangerous. To a large extent, they are now normal teenagers, not lead-poisoned predators.

This is important, because even if you’re a hard-ass law-and-order type, you should understand that we no longer need urban police departments to act like occupying armies. The 90s are gone, and today’s teenagers are just ordinary teenagers…

We just don’t. We live in a different, safer era, and it’s time for all of us—voters, politicians, cops, parents—to get this through our collective heads. Generation Lead is over, thank God. Let’s stop pretending it’s always and forever 1993. Reform is way overdue.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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