Coils of polished steel, adorned with razor-sharp points, glisten menacingly in the sun. Nested atop a chain link fence, the concertina wire sends a message loud, clear, and unmistakable: keep out, or we will hurt you . Derived from barbed wire –- which was originally intended only to restrain cattle on the plains of the American West –- concertina wire was first manufactured in World War I, when German companies realized that die-cutting steel tape into a string of razor-like edges was cheaper and more efficient than making barbed wire from scratch.
Since then, concertina wire has been used as a weapon of war in virtually every armed conflict of the past hundred years. If you’ve never seen concertina wire, just imagine a giant slinky, perhaps a hundred feet long or so, lined with two-inch long razors, each set about four inches apart. The wire may be pulled completely taut, but is most commonly left somewhat coiled, thereby making it more difficult to pass over or through.
An unprepared and unprotected individual will likely emerge from coil of concertina wire with severe cuts, scratches, and other, potentially life-threatening, injuries. Concertina wire, when used in its coiled configuration, may also immobilize or entangle troops and even light vehicles. Most militaries, however, typically train their soldiers to deal with concertina wire in battlefield conditions, including the use of protective clothing, shears, and pads to lay over the wire.
I’ve seen a lot of concertina wire lately. I currently live in a residential treatment facility called The Healing Place, in Richmond’s Blackwell community, one of the poorer areas in the city.
Concertina wire is all over Blackwell. It surrounds neighborhood parking lots, scrap yards, even nearby schools. But the largest concentration of concertina wire by far seems to be the many “Buy Here, Pay Here” used car lots scattered throughout the community. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a Buy Here, Pay Here dealership is a small (10-20 cars), independent used car lot that specializes in high-risk loans and financing aimed at low-income buyers unable to obtain credit through mainstream lenders. The interest rates tend to be exorbitant, the terms and fees onerous, and the service –- other than debt collection -– virtually non-existent. All the cars I’ve ever seen on these lots have signs saying “As Is –- No Warranty.” And I’ve never seen a Buy Here, Pay Here lot with a service bay.
These dealerships are just one example of a particularly unscrupulous species of business: the predatory retailer who deliberately takes advantage of the dire circumstances of the working poor to extort a higher profit. Other members of this species include rent-to-own retail stores, payday loan and check cashing services, and -– for the cynical among us -– state and multi-state lottery commissions.
In each of these cases, the business in question provides a service (check cashing, car loans, whatever) that low-income customers cannot get through ordinary means. In doing so, these merchants exert some degree of monopoly power, and are perversely able to impose higher costs on customers with lower income.
These businesses, only slightly more benign than loan sharks, erect invisible barriers around their customers each day, keeping them from moving up into mainstream society as surely as the concertina wire fences keep them out of the car dealerships.
To be sure, nobody is forcing members of this community to purchase from these merchants. If the auto dealer is charging 100% interest, you can always ride the bus, right? If "buying" a new television set through a rent-to-buy store effectively triples its price, you can just do without, no? The fact of the matter, though, is that people in low-income communities will continue to buy from these stores -- whether through lack of information, education, or simple common sense -- even when doing so is, in fact, ruinous.
Too bad, you might say. That's their issue, not mine. But in a civilized and interwoven society like ours, the costs of such behavior are eventually spread throughout all of society's members. For every family that can't make rent and loses its apartment because of the local car (or other) dealer, the burden is eventually passed on to all of us, whether in the form of more social services, more prisons, or more crime.
Not your problem? All you're telling me is that the leak is in the other guy's side of the boat.
As a show of support for the Blackwell community, everyone at The Healing Place went to National Night Out last week. As the name suggests, this was a nationwide event in which members of at-risk communities would come together and celebrate in an effort to raise awareness against crime. Here in Blackwell, we had a big picnic next to the community center, a brightly-painted building covered in cheerful murals. There was basketball and Frisbee football, hot dogs and hamburgers, dancing and fellowship. All in all, a good time.
Walking back, I watched a group of young kids, the oldest perhaps twelve, on the other side of the street. As they approached a corner, they stopped to talk to some older boys standing by a shiny new Hummer. A friend of mine -– born and raised in Blackwell –- told me that the older guys were crack dealers.
As I looked back at those young kids in the fading twilight, I could swear I saw that concertina wire fence going up.