BY JEFF DEENEY The media discussion of the Kensington Strangler has at this point strayed pretty far from the essential questions, so I would like to try to bring it back to center. When I say the discussion has strayed from the essential questions and has stopped really informing media consumers I would point to Dave Davies’s unfortunate interaction with Mayor Nutter on WHYY last week. The intent here isn’t to beat up on Dave, because I think nearly all agree that he’s about the best we have going in terms of Philly reporters. But the fact that even Dave couldn’t come up with a solid set of questions for the Mayor shows how out of the loop on this story most reporters are, even the ones doing the actual reporting on it for the papers and other major media outlets.
Dave asked two questions of Mayor Nutter about the Strangler, the first of which was a boiler plater about progress in the police investigation, for which Mayor Nutter gave a boiler plate response that yielded little insight into why there is no suspect yet despite apparently abundant resources. Nutter’s assurances come amid continued reports of violence and rape that are flooding out of Kensington at a greater rate than ever before now that newspapers have decided to finally pay attention to them. I think this disconnect left a big opening for Davies to put some hard questions to the Mayor about the persistent lawlessness of Kensington and the adjoining Badlands where the crimes have taken place. Instead, Dave posed a follow up question about the Guardian Angels.
Note to the press: the Guardian Angels are not the story. In fact, I would argue that the Guardian Angels are NEVER the story, regardless of what the story is. If you are reporting on them, it’s likely that you’ve lost the thread. I think most people know that Curtis Sliwa of the Guardian Angels has one priority above all others: to get Curtis Sliwa’s face on television. His assertions to the Philly media (that practically tripped over itself to get cameras and microphones in his face) that people in Kensington will talk to the Guardian Angels when a pervasive Stop Snitching culture keeps them from talking to cops is bullshit and he can produce zero evidence to support this assertion. My counter assertion for Sliwa would be that the kind of dudes who hang at the Somerset El stop think his Guardian Angels are a bunch of corny looking clowns in their jackets and berets, consider them akin to mall cops, and about as worthy of respect and inclusion in their tight knit little world of hustlers and prostitutes. Which is to say not much. Again, it’s worth noting the sharp increase in news reports of rapes and assaults under the El since their arrival. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, because the Guardian Angels don’t prevent crime. If Curtis Sliwa gave a shit about crime in Kensington, his Guardian Angels would have been there before there were TV cameras, and they were not. If they gave a shit about crime in Kensington they would stay after the cameras have moved on, and they will not. Stop talking about them.
What is completely absent from the media coverage of the case is any serious discussion of the prevalence of sexual violence against prostitutes in Kensington that long predated the arrival of the Kensington Strangler. There has been no discussion of police attitudes towards prostitutes who work the Avenue, who universally testify to having previously attempted to make reports about rapes and assaults to unsympathetic cops who told them such reports were a waste of time because prostitutes were making them. Rape and assault, the women are told, is all just part of that “lifestyle choice.”
There is a cause and effect between lax societal attitudes towards protecting sex workers and the increasingly violent environment sex worker are forced to work in. The same scenario has played out not only in Kensington but in every other major city where a serial killer has preyed on prostitutes. That open season has been declared on sex workers while police look the other way has been widely telegraphed. Men know they can go to places like Kensington, pick up a girl, rape her, beat her up, and dump her back on the Avenue with little fear of consequences. This has created an ideal proving ground for serial killers who know where they can go to find throwaway women who are easy sport. It’s happening in New York right now as it is happening in Kensington. Last year it was Anthony Sowell in Cleveland. In 2007, it was Atlantic City, and so on.
If you take one step even further back from this picture what emerges is another line of reasoning that cannot be denied. Fact: Kensington is a decades old longitudinal study in the criminalization of drugs and prostitution, and the brutal and totally lawless underworld there where women are routinely raped and beaten for sport is the logical outcome of such drug and prostitution policies. When drugs and the sex trade are mutually criminalized, drug addicts and addicted sex workers are pushed to furthest fringes of society because they have to take any an all steps necessary to evade arrest. And there, on the fringes, without the basic protections we all take for granted, they scrape desperately to get through each day, “surviving, not living” as one woman shared with me.
What results in the worst case scenario of drug criminalization is “the Tracks;” a vast and totally desolate wasteland that comprises the old freight way whose train tracks cuts across the Badlands and Kensington. This mile-long expanse of shoulder high scrub cut through with walking trails is like some kind of hellish forest scene you would see in a Hieronymous Bosch triptych. The Tracks are dotted with clearings in the brush where mattresses lay in the mud and the entire expanse is carpeted with needle wrappers, used condoms, empty dope bags and other refuse. When you are there you can still see row homes in the distance, and you feel frighteningly far away from the rest of the world. It’s inside Philadelphia, yet outside society entirely. Addicts who shoot drugs there report that the cops never come to the Tracks, unless a foot chase leads them there. Cops avoid the area, they consider attempts to patrol its vast interior to be a waste of their time.
So what about all this? When does anyone ask the Mayor, “You realize the police have ceded an entire section of this neighborhood to total lawlessness, because they don’t care how many hookers get raped or how many junkies OD on the Tracks, right?” How about, “Mayor, even if the Strangler is caught, what fundamentally changes about Kensington? Doesn’t the pervasive culture of rape and violence persist even after he’s caught? Are you committed to providing protection for the city’s prostitutes, and how will you do that without decriminalizing drugs and prostitution? Because what we’ve been doing for decades isn’t working, and nothing ever changes in societies with punitive drug policies except more ruined lives and overcapacity prisons.”
But, alas, that’s not what Davies asked the Mayor, nor has anyone else in the media, so we don’t know where Nutter would stand in a more substantive debate about punitive drug and prostitution criminalization policies and the clear cause/effect relationship it has with life quality in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Nor do we know what the Mayor would say when confronted with fact the that according to nearly all prostitutes that work the stroll the sexual violence against them is more or less condoned by the Philly PD as a reasonable disincentive for engaging in sexually criminal behavior.
The fact that there seems to be so few people in the Philly media scene who are literate on drug policy and sexual violence issues, and able to see how these issues should be driving the story at hand, is really troubling. Let’s all be glad that at least Curtis Sliwa got his face in the paper, though. I’m sure the women who work the stroll (at least, those who managed not to get raped or beat up in the past two weeks) send their kindest regards to his Guardian Angels for keeping them safe.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on The Daily Beast, PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is currently working on a book about life in the crossfire of poverty, drugs, guns, and the bureaucracies designed to remedy them, all of which informed his experiences as a social worker in some of the city’s most dire and depleted neighborhoods.