#120 – The Mean Streets of America

Director Martin Scorsese’s film “Mean Streets” (1973) portrays Italian-Americans in Manhattan’s Little Italy on the Lower East Side preying on other members of the community—organized crime. Many American people can be cruel. And when they are “mean” it’s because they are afraid, not heartless. It’s always because they are afraid. It’s never because they are greedy; never because they are seeking power at somebody else’s expense; never because they use others to create the illusion of pleasure.

For all of us fear is always the genesis of our self-destructive behavior—not an excuse—just the reason we treat each other badly. The rest of our species behaves the same way we do and are not deeply aware of or ready to admit this fundamental reality; until we do, we will never create a sustainable community on this planet.

There is a solution that we will get to but first let’s look at some of the evidence for our basic contention because Americans are in deep denial of one of our most prevalent behaviors, we are mean.

Certain groups in our community are more vulnerable to American meanness than others. Women, children, the elderly, the poor and accused criminals to name a few. Take women, for example where even the chief executive and his friends aren’t shy about abusing women. “Your eyes would glaze over if I tried to list every Trump associate implicated in the beating or sexual coercion of women.” (1)

Sometimes when Americans are given the choice to transform human pain and suffering into enhanced consciousness or into cash, they choose cash. There are those in the American community who are willing to throw others under the bus if there is money to be made in doing so.

Sometimes “organized crime” is the government itself and the instrument of extortion is not a gangster putting on the heat but an ankle bracelet placed on the accused even though they are legally innocent because they have not yet been brought to trial. Politicians find poor people in their districts a less controversial source of revenue than taxes by resorting to the use of tracking devices which at first glance may seem fair.

“But states and cities, which incur around 90 percent of the expenditures for jails and prisons, are increasingly passing the financial burden of the devices onto those who wear them. It costs St. Louis roughly $90 a day to detain a person awaiting trial in the Workhouse, where in 2017 the average stay was 291 days. When individuals pay Emass [the private company running the program] $10 a day for their own supervision, it costs the city nothing.” (2)

Why do we say that the 5,000 defendants in Marion County, Indiana, for example, who were put on tracking devices last year were being treated unjustly? Because: “Across the country, defendants who have not been convicted of a crime are put on ‘offender funded’ payment plans for monitors that sometimes cost more than their bail. And unlike bail, they don’t get the payment back, even if they’re found innocent.” (2)

If you’re poor and black, the burden of being targeted as a source of revenue for state and local government budgets is especially infuriating. “In 2015, the Ferguson Report by the United States Department of Justice put hard numbers to what black residents had long suspected. The police were targeting them with disproportionate arrests, traffic tickets and excessive fines.” (2)

It turns out that Big Bother is the state and local government driven by fear which is expressed in the behavior easily recognized as greed and the lust for power. “Emass makes its money from defendants. But it gets its power over them from judges.” (2)

To continue walking the mean streets of America in search of justice click on the link below.

Insight # 120:

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) Irish poet



  1. Goldberg, Michelle. “The Caligula Administration Lives On.” The New York Times Magazine. July 14, 2019, page 2.
  2. Koeman, Ava. “E-Jail.” The New York Times Magazine. July 7, 2019, pages 39 & 40.

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