Saturday, November 26, 2016

Being white helps ... a lot.

Kevin Lavin at Guildhaus

     The complex, unvarnished truth and a feel-good finish are enemies. Which is why sometimes space limitations can be a reader's friend, if not a writer's.
     Earlier this week, when I finished saying all I wanted to say about my interview with Kevin Lavin, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and the executive director at Guildhaus, the Blue Island halfway house, I had a column 1,300 words long—the length of a two-page spread. Knowing that would probably never happen, I cut it back to 940 words and hoped it might get squeezed onto a page on Wednesday. But my bosses wanted to save it for Page Two Friday, meaning it had to be 700 words long, which is how long the finished column ran.
      When you have to cut a piece of writing that much, you lose nuance. Tales of Guidlhaus' colorful founder, Jack King, for instance, or how difficult a heroin habit was to overcome: an average of five rehab stays and 10 detoxes, according to Lavin. Didn't make the final cut, because I had to preserve the thrust of the story—Lavin's dramatic flight from the cops, and the caring officer who was more interested in helping than busting him.
     You also lose entire avenues of thought. As soon as Lavin started telling me about phoning his guardian police officer every Thanksgiving, I knew that would be my hook for the holiday. But I also had a qualm, which I raised even as he was praising the police officer.
     "...every Thanksgiving I call him," Lavin said. "He's just a great guy. He didn't charge me for fleeing and eluding. He had me for four or five felonies. He threw the drugs out I had."
     "Why do you think he did that?" I asked.
    "Because he saw me as a human being that was hurting. He saw me as a father and a decent guy. This guy stayed and talked to me for 13 hours. We talked about life."
     I couldn't resist: "And being white helped."
     Lavin, plain-spoken and not one to mince words, didn't argue.
    "If I were a black guy, I'd be in the system still," he said. 

Kevin Lavin
    Later in the conversation, the subject came back up, again discussing the heroin epidemic. 
     "We're finally coming to attention, prevention, and not detention," he said.
     "And a reason for that is it's happening to white kids in the suburbs," I pointed out.
     "It's the only fucking reason," Lavin said. "Because Tommy who lives in Orland in a $3 million house, got caught. Tommy ain't going to jail. He's going to get bought out. But if it's Lil' Tommy in Englewood, he's going to jail because he doesn't have the measly thousand dollars to bond himself out. It's insane."

    To be honest, that was not quite the "It's a Wonderful Life" ending I had hoped for. But it seemed too true to leave out.  "Insane" was the word. 
    But we weren't getting to 699 words with it there. So I cut it, feeling bad about polishing reality to perhaps too bright a sheen. And I felt worse when the most common reader reaction was celebrating seeing a story that paints cops in a positive light, often from readers pausing first to point out how they never read me because of my blistering biases but had somehow stumbled upon this column anyway and were pleased to see me straying into the realm of reality as they understood it.
     "The policeman in Alsip upheld his oath to serve and protect by giving a young man a 2nd chance by analyzing the situation and realizing that by intervening he could do more by counseling him then charging him," a reader in Homewood observed. "I always believed that the main issue with crime is not race but relationships between police and the public.
     Which is not what this episode, laid out in full, really illustrates. Kevin Lavin's police officer savior certainly deserves praise. But he isn't evidence the system works. The bad thing isn't that Kevin Lavin was treated as a person and given a break. The bad thing is that guys with black skin, guys who are as human as Kevin Lavin but who find themselves in crisis, often don't get that kind of break. They get a bullet. 


  1. Another example of why this is the best column in the country.

  2. The fact that he didn't point a gun at the cop helps too.

    1. So this should've been a piece about gun control?

  3. The thought of Lavin's "white privilege" had certainly crossed my mind; glad the whole conversation is now out there in print.


  4. It's a real shame an editor wouldn't have looked at the whole piece and said, "The whole story really needs to get told." and found space for the 1300 words.

  5. THIS is why I always read your columns.

  6. I thought of writing a comment along these lines, bringing up the race issue, in yesterday's post, but I didn't because it seemed like it would be...I dunno, churlish? But I'm glad you did. I'm even gladder that Mr. Lavin acknowledged it so readily. He seems like a really good guy.

    Bitter Scribe

  7. Yes. I'm thinking of a rich doctor's son I know who has been in and out of rehab. He would surely be in prison if he were black.


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