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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Death at a Rave

I used to go raving once upon a time.  I wouldn't ever consider myself a "raver" per se (e.g. I never got into the whole "candy" subculture), but between 1999-2001/02 I went to several raves in the Bay Area, CA.  From massive parties held at the Home Base near the Oakland Coliseum, to shady underground parties hosted inside clandestine crack houses, I have seen more than my fair share of raving.  At one point during my undergraduate time at Berkeley, I was going to 2 or 3 raves per week; when some of my friends were getting ready to hit the bars, I was driving with other friends to "map points" and taking secret shuttles into unknown parts of the city.   

Although I look back at my time raving ambivalently, I believe that there's something magical about raves.  Raves provide a unique public venue for people to feel comfortable expressing themselves creatively.  Unlike dance clubs, bars, and other social settings in which people work hard to keep up and elaborate appearances, raves are settings in which anything goes.  Everyday social taboos are virtually absent in raves.  As a result, people stop worrying so much about how they might appear to someone else, who they should be talking to, etc.  Raves might be the closest that I've ever been to experiencing the social magic that Emile Durkheim calls "collective effervescence." 


Which brings me to the inspiration for this post.  This morning, I learned that someone died after a long night of raving at the Electric Daisy Carnival--a massive rave that was once hosted in LA.  This is a tragedy and my heart goes out to the family and friends of this person. 

However, I must say that I'm disappointed with the media coverage of this event and other like-events.  Similar to the media's slanted coverage of violent crime and terrorism, the media is especially good at distorting people's sense of reality and danger. While this death is no doubt a tragedy, and should cause organizers to pause and assess their preparation for hosting these events, the media provides little more than a twisted representation of raves as a social problem.

Here are a few ways the media fails in its coverage of these events: 1) The rate at which people die or require hospitalization after raves is extremely low.  The whole quote about "People are dropping like flies" is less about trying to investigate the potential problems of raves, and more about raising public moral outcries against these events.  I haven't done this research myself, but I would be willing to bet that the rates of death and hospitalization from most competitive sports is significantly higher than raves.  It's probably note even close.

2) The media consistently fails to contextualize the dangers of raving against other kinds of public settings in which people party.  Why aren't night clubs, bars, and other settings included in this conversation?   Last time I checked, automobile accidents (many of which involve intoxication) were the leading cause of accidental death for all Americans.  Approximately 50% of all accidental deaths are a result of automobile accidents.  Are raves and the drugs taken at these events more dangerous than the risks people assume when they go out drinking and driving with their friends?

3) The media seems to suggest that raves cause teenagers to experiment with drugs and make bad decisions.  This is another example of bad scapegoating.  My feeling is that raves might provide one kind of occasion for young people to experiment with this stuff, but that they are by no means unique in this regard.  Young people also get drugs at school, through after-school programs, sports teams, and other informal public settings--and yet, none of these are included in the same conversation with drug abuse and raving. 

Anyways, that's it from here.  For those interested, here's nne of my all-time favorite trance songs from my raving days, System F: Out of the Blue... =)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Month w/out Murder in Brick City

So, I was perusing the internet today and stumbled upon a series of articles that people may or may not have heard about.  Apparently, the city of Newark, NJ, celebrated a month without murder last April, 2010.  I guess this hadn't happened since the late 1960s.  I was astonished when I read this.  I've heard plenty of bad stories about "Brick City" from close friends who have grown up there or lived there, but for some reason this statistic and the news coverage around it floored me.  What's it like to live in a place where a month without murder makes the news?  

Dilapidated projects in Newark, NJ
 Then, I began digging around on one my favorite wikipedia sites: The US Cities by Crime Rate page.  This is a great page, if you're interested.  Some people took the time to compile the FBI's Uniform Crime Stats and organized them into a table that you can manipulate to your liking.  So, for instance, if you were curious, you could find out that Toledo, Ohio lead the nation in Arson in 2009, or that in the same year, Oakland, CA lead the nation in motor vehicle theft. 

After a few clicks and some scrolling, I discovered something kind of curious about Newark's violent crime rates.  In 2009, Newark ranked in the top 5 cities with the highest murder rate (250k and above).  However, in many other violent crime categories, Newark ranked significantly lower.  For instance, Newark ranked 58th in forcible rape, 17th in robbery, and 36th in aggravated assault.  It's interesting that St. Louis, one of Newark's "peer cities" in terms of size and murder rate, seems to be much more consistently violent across all categories: St. Louis is tied for 2nd in murder, 8th in forcible rape, 2nd in robbery, and 2nd in aggravated assault. 

What explains these disparities across different violent crime rates in Newark?  My best guess is that people are reporting violent crime at a much lower rate in Newark than in places like St. Louis.  Sociologists and criminologists have long known that rape, robbery, and aggravated assault are some of the most under-reported violent crimes out there.  Unlike dead bodies, victims of rape, robbery, and violent assaults (that don't require extended hospitalization or medical care), often go unnoticed and unreported.  This has long been one of the shortcomings in Uniform Crime Report Data; it's entirely based on crimes that are reported and documented by the police.  I understand that this is one of the best measurements out there, but it doesn't provide a really good way around under-reporting of violent crime.  Then, again, maybe there's something unique about Newark's violent crime problem, right?

I guess I'm just wondering if is this a reporting/documenting crime problem, or something unique about the city of Newark?

If you're interested, here's a great song, "Brick City Mashin'" by Redman...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Sleepy Bullies?

In an era when Michelle Obama (and just about every other moral crusader) is talking about the importance of food and exercise on how kids perform in school, have we forgotten about sleep?

I was reading an article today about how some scientists are claiming that bullying behavior might be strongly linked with sleep deprivation.  The study claims that sleep deprivation can affect regions of the brain that are important for emotional regulation and decision-making.

A lot of this makes sense on an intuitive level.  Speaking from personal experience, I know that my sleep patterns greatly influence how I feel the following morning.  I don't have it down to an exact science, but if I get less than 5 hours of sleep, I notice that I have less energy, less patience, and occasionally, will feel more irritable than if I were to get a solid 6+ hours of sleep.

Also, I've also figured out that the timing of my sleep matters as well.  If I get to sleep by midnight or 1am, I typically will wake up the following morning feeling refreshed and ready to start a new day.  However, if I go to sleep at 4am, it seems like the quantity of my sleep has little effect on how I feel: Whether it's 3 or 6 hours, I feel tired as hell...

So, on multiple levels, the idea that sleep influences a person's emotional state and their decision-making seems like a plausible explanation.  However, as a sociologist, I can't help but think that some important social stuff is missing in this sort of explanation.  Bullying is much more than emotional instability and poor decision-making, right?  And my best guess is that there are lots of sleepy children who never become bullies.  So, what else could be at stake here?

From what I can gather, bullying--like other forms of violence--carries a special charm to those who do it.  Bullying is one way for kids to become infamous.  Infamy--the mean cousin of fame--is a powerfully alluring quality in its own right.  If you can't be famous, infamy is the best thing, right?  To some, infamy might even be more attractive than being famous. 

Curtis Jackson-Jacobs, a brilliant sociologist, has written widely about the allure of physical violence to young men.  Through very in-depth participant-observation, Jackson-Jacobs shows us how and why a group of white, middle class guys from Arizona get into lots of fights.  At risk of simplifying his work, Jackson-Jacobs reminds us that violence can be enthralling and fun to those who are willing to give it a try. 

At the same time,  bullying can also be practically-rewarding.  Kids who bully can take your lunch money, favorite snack, or your homework.  I'm not endorsing these behaviors (in fact, I think bullying is a big problem), but for many kids the ability to get these "spoils" might be reason enough to become a bully (An aside: Think about Nelson, the schoolyard bully from The Simpsons).   

Anyways, what are your thoughts?  Anybody have funny stories involving bullying or being bullied?  If so, I'd love to hear them!

Also, one more thing: Bullies should beware of who they try to bully.  Here is a great video clip of a guy who seems to be bullying another guy (who then busts out some kung fu)...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Thieves Bait

Partially out of stupidity, and partially out of laziness, I've started locking my bicycle to a street sign in front of our apartment building.  I've done this for about 9 months without any problems.  In fact, lots of people do this in my neighborhood. 

This morning, while taking my dog out for a walk, I discovered that someone stole the rear tire from my bicycle. 

Property theft sucks.  In addition to the money it will take to replace this tire (I'm guessing that it could cost about $100), I now have to spend part of my already busy afternoon at a local bicycle store.  As someone who enjoys efficiency, this is no fun: I can't help thinking about all the other ways I could spend the money needed to replace the tire, or about all the other ways I'd rather spend a couple hours of my day.

1st moral of this story: Use the metal cord that comes with a U-lock to secure the rear tire.

While sitting in my apartment and trying to imagine how and when this thief stole my rear tire, I began to reflect on another personal experience with property crime that involves...A bicycle locked up outside of my apartment!


During my fourth year as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I shared a 1-bedroom apartment with Anthony Ervin, the gold medalist in 50 meter freestyle in the 2000 Olympics. 

We lived in a pretty dumpy place.  I lived in the living room, which doubled as my bedroom.  For privacy, I used a partially transparent bed sheet that sort of covered the entrance into the living room/bedroom (whenever someone was in the kitchen with the lights on, I could see their silhouette from my bed).  For the most part, our place was a bachelor pad: We had an old set of sofas, rarely cooked anything except for pasta, played lots of Counterstrike, and spent most of our time partying or having late night existential talks.

One spring afternoon, Anthony and I went to a sushi place near our apartment. After finishing lunch, we began walking to campus.  Before continuing to campus, Anthony decided to grab a hoodie from home (Berkeley can be chilly, even in the spring).  Already running late, I begrudgingly went along with him.  As we approached our apartment, I remember saying, "Hurry up, man, we gotta go!" 

He then reached into his pockets and began unlocking the front door.  In a matter of moments, we then heard the sound of loud, thudding footsteps running toward the door.  The footsteps grew louder and were now accompanied by yelling.  Then, the front door swung open and a guy with latex gloves sprinted past us.  Without hesitation, he ran down our driveway, turned the corner of our block, and dove Dukes of Hazard-style into the passenger side of a getaway car.  Within seconds, the getaway car sped off into the distance, never to be seen again. 

I wish I could say that we both leapt into action, chased down the burglar, tackled him to the ground, and turned him over to the authorities.  However, this fantasy didn't play out that day.  Instead, Anthony and I both stood frozen on our porch, staring blankly at our front door which was slightly ajar.  As the getaway car sped away, both of us looked at each other with confused faces, wondering "What the hell just happened!?"

We then entered our apartment and found that we had a meticulous burglar on our hands.  Unlike the movies, where a burglar ransacks a place, leaving drawers and cupboards open and personal items strewn about, our place was surprisingly neat and orderly.  In fact, it took us a few minutes to figure out what he had been planning to steal.  The bathroom and kitchen were left untouched.  Anthony discovered that his ziplock bag of laundry quarters was missing, but that other personal items were left alone in his bedroom.  Then, we went into the living room/my bedroom and saw that he had unplugged our computers, television, and playstation 2.  I remember how carefully he organized these items in the corner of the room.  The cords were coiled neatly, as if to prevent them from getting tangled and knotted. 
 
The following day, one of our neighbors told us that a man was inquiring about my bike that was locked up along a chain link fence.  Apparently, she discovered him snooping around our back yard eyeing my bicycle.  When asked if he knew someone at the property, he sort of stuttered and produced this line about wanting to buy my bicycle.  In hindsight, she told me, "I wish I would have told you about this guy, he just rubbed me the wrong way." 

In the end, I don't know if this guy was the burglar, or if he was just an interested party who wanted to buy my bicycle.  I don't think the two events are unrelated, but I guess I'll never know for sure.  

Anyways, here's the 2nd moral of the story: Don't leave your bicycle locked up outside of your apartment.  It's thieve's bait.  In addition to inviting someone to steal it (or your rear tire), it can also become an excuse for someone to do more in-depth recon at your apartment.