On March 9th, 2013, two New York City police officers shot and killed a sixteen-year-old Kimani Gray, and claimed afterward that he had brandished a handgun at them after being told to show his hands (Goodman, 2013). More remarkable than the New York Police Department's killing of a young black male, however, was the outpouring of community grief and anger that followed the shooting. The following Monday, March 11th, saw what started as a nighttime vigil turn into a mob, parts of which ended up looting a Rite Aid chain store and a local bodega, and by Wednesday night of that week, forty-six people had been arrested, a bricks had been thrown at both a police officer and a police van (Goodman, 2013). The explosion of disorder and discontentment took some in the media and policing community by surprise, but these evens could only be surprising to someone lacking a useful or accurate theoretical basis. In fact, when considering these events, including the shooting and community response, in the context of two different criminological theories, it becomes clear that more critical approaches, like Marxist criminology, can provide more accurate explanations for criminal events than theories which attempt to explain and predict crime without ever considering the underlying biases and assumptions that underline the accepted definition of and response to crime in the first place.
Depending on the particular theoretical background one approaches the problem with, the community reaction to Kimani Gray's death could be either a complete surprise or entirely expected. On the one hand, while tragic, the death of urban youth as a result of gun violence is fairly common, and not all police shootings instigate the kind of near-immediate, physical response seen in this case. Furthermore, if one believes the statements provided by the NYPD, then Gray was actually brandishing a weapon, which ultimately justifies the officers' behavior and makes it hard to defend their actions, even acknowledging the grief that accompanies any death. On the other hand, police treatment of minorities, and particularly the treatment of minorities by the NYPD, has been a recurring problem in American history, and despite certain nominal developments, the structural and institutional sources of this problem have never been tackled aggressively. An effective criminological theory would be able to reconcile these seemingly disparate observations.
From the perspective of social disorganization theory, the major feature determining whether someone will engage in criminal activity is their location, to the point that social disorganization theory values location over other classic determinants of risk, such as age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status, although all of these of course play a role in determining one's neighborhood (Cagney, et. al., 2009, p. 415). According to social disorganization theory, neighborhood cohesion (or lack thereof) and other ecological factors influence individual behavior, such that "crime occurs in neighborhood characterized by low income, ethnic heterogeneity, and residential instability" (Smith, Frazee, & Davidson, 2000, p. 490). For example, social disorganization theory considers delinquency and truancy to be largely the result of immediate, neighborhood-level influences, because it is the immediate spatial and social environment that either prohibits or allows a culture of truancy and delinquency (Alanezi, 2010, p. 68; Warner, 2003, p. 73). Thus, an examination of the mob actions following the shooting of Kimani Gray would look first toward the demographics of the neighborhood itself, and then begin to piece together how those neighborhood-level characteristics influenced the individuals involved, including both Gray himself and the individuals who participated in the mob action.
In contrast to the approach offered by social disorganization theory, Marxist criminology does not assume that the roots of criminal events are as simple as those demographic or ecological factors that immediately effect an individual. Instead, Marxist criminology, like the other so-called "critical criminologies," critiques the entire system in which a criminal event occurs in order to determine the causes and likely recurrences of said event (Young, 1998, p. 643; Ratner, 2006; Brisman, 2011). In particular, Marxist criminology looks at the material reality of the situation, with a particular focus on the distribution of resources and power among groups, in order to determine if, for example, a certain crime is merely the result of criminalizing empirically-normal human behavior (such as in the case of anti-sodomy laws), or is the product of an inequitable class system. Although this perspective would also focus on the particular neighborhood and demographics of the criminal event in question, it would not view these as a cause, but rather as a symptom of larger issues that affect other areas just as much.
Thus, while in general both Marxist and social disorganization theory would address the particular material and ecological elements of the criminal event in question, Marxist theory would view these elements as pieces to a larger puzzle, while social disorganization theory would focus on the way neighborhood-level social controls determined individuals actions (Rose & Clear, 1998, p. 441). Although social disorganization theory has expanded since its inception to include discussions of the influence other structures and control levels have above and beyond the level of the neighborhood, it nevertheless remains focused on the more immediate influences (Rose & Clear, 1998, p. 441). In contrast, Marxist criminology starts from the recognition that "the category of 'crime' is problematic and its use and application [are] historically contingent and related to particular processes of government" (Hil & Robertson, 2003, p. 92). As this study will demonstrate, while social disorganization theory can at least begin to uncover the causes of crime and serves as a relatively decent predictor, a more critical theory of criminology like that offered by Marxism is necessary if one hopes to actually uncover the roots of criminal events rather than simply treating the obvious symptoms.
Etiology is the study of causation, and the question of causation is central to criminology. However, it also presents something of a quandary, because the researcher must determine at what point is it no longer useful to continue searching for causes and originating factors. Although it would likely not be useful for combating crime, one could theoretically track any given event back to Big Bang, because although there would be some rather dramatic gaps in knowledge everything can ultimately be reduced to physics. However, practical concerns demand that criminologists stop at a certain point, and, with a few exceptions, most schools of criminological thought can be divided according to what point they stop looking for causes and their stated justifications for stopping at that point. By identifying the point at which a given theory stops looking for further causes and begins identifying potential causes at whatever level of magnification (i.e. The individual, the family, the neighborhood, the state, etc.), one can easily evaluate the relative utility of any given theory.
This is not to suggest that the theory which "goes back" the furthest is necessarily the best, because as stated above, constantly seeking to identify an earlier cause can ultimately lead one to a discussion well apart from the original question. So, for example, while one could easily conduct a search for proximate causes in the case of the Gray killing and its aftermath that goes all the way back to the founding of the United States and the decision to legalize slavery and treat blacks as three-fifths of a person, taking the discussion this far back would likely not make it any easier to understand why a mob broke out in response to this killing instead of another, or how one might predict the potential for similar outbreaks in the future.
However, one must be similarly careful that the search does not stop too early, because that runs the risk of misidentifying symptoms as causes, and in the worst case, of generalizing to the point of bigotry. For example, the racist trope that African-Americans are inherently more prone to violence or crime is essentially the result of lazy etiology, because it simply stops looking for the causes of violence or crime within African-American communities following the observation that African-American communities tend to suffer from higher rates of violence and crime. Thus, one must be able to provide reasonable justifications for claiming that a particular phenomenon is worth considering as a cause in itself, rather than one more link the causal chain.
Social disorganization theory essentially stops looking for causes at the level of the neighborhood. This is not to say that the theory completely disregards other factors, but instead locates the most important factors determining the risk of deviance and crime at the level of the local neighborhood and community. So, for example, in a study considering the impact of incarceration on crime, the authors took a social disorganization approach and argued that "an overreliance on incarceration as a formal control may hinder the ability of some communities to foster other forms of control because they weaken family and community structures" (Rose & Clear, 1998, p. 441). Though the research was focused on the effects of incarceration, which is a facet of the criminal justice system that…