What started as an awareness raising and ethnographic styled walk through Sierra Leone, this site now details the encounters of a not so academic academic who spends more time occupying Wall Street and squats than a university...

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Broken Windows

So I have been doing an awful lot of thinking of late about a few things seeming to be tieing themselves together to some extent. I had a long conversation with a beat cop working in Bed-Stuy, and some other less lengthy conversations with multiple other cops throughout the city. I've also paid a decent amount of attention over my life to criminality and poverty issues. One of my best friends is a vice cop in Manhattan north, my stepfather is a retired corrections officer. etc. I have at times in the past, and am now spending all this time on the ground now watching and talking to people in areas of high crime and/or policing, not to mention seeing the crack down on Occupy by the police first hand.

In the 1990's Rudy Giuliani implemented a “broken windows” policy where even the smallest crime went punished – the squidgy guys for example - and the slightest blemish in a neighborhood was strictly brought to justice. To most people this was a great success. Crime in NYC is incredibly lower than it was in the 1980's and early 1990's (as it is in most of the country), and of course it's tough to argue that policing did not play some role in that. Obviously there are countless factors playing in on this, from the war on drugs, to mass incarceration, to the economic booms of the late 1990's, etc.  But that is for another time, what I am interested in in this sense is strategy and balance. I should also say that I am no professional criminologist. I have done some academic work through my sociology degrees to familiarize myself with the field and concepts. That being said, I am not going to try to raise a sound critique of the broken windows campaign, as I do not have the knowledge at this time to really do that. But what I would like to do is raise some questions and make some observations on what I'm seeing right now. While I see this policy at work in communities such as Bed-Stuy and the South Bronx, I also see this policy at work with Occupy Wall St. The police force seems to identify targets - “impact zones”, high risk areas, or times/people they seek to target and they make an emphasis on their policing of those people/places. They apply this "broken windows" strategy pointedly in these areas, where they believe even the smallest thing - such as a broken window - can lead to a general feeling of lawlessness or lack of local pride.

Now of course it makes complete sense to put more attention and policing in areas of high crime, especially given current discourse and crime prevention theories. But I would love to see a little awareness of what their tactics and strategies mean for these neighborhoods, not to mention that using them as the sole tactic is grossly incomplete. When 93 out of 100 people surveyed in Brownsville, Brooklyn have been stopped and frisked, yet you can stand on any corner in the West Village in Manhattan and never see it, there is something drastic happening. According to the NAACP's fact sheet:

  • About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug
  • 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites
  • African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.
  • African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). (Sentencing Project)

With such glaring disparities - and drug use/selling being colorblind - something truly odd is happening.  You mean to tell me there aren't many drugs in Greenwich Village?  

These tactics are targeting an entire geographic area and assuming that simply by living there that a person is a criminal. Yes, this may come to paper in terms of probability, but it comes to people's lives as them being assumed to be criminals. And yes, there is certainly a racial component to this as well, or at least a profiling component. I live in bed-stuy for the most part right now. I go out at night, I walk around, I've never been stopped and frisked. No one every gives me a hard time. I'm white, clean cut enough, and dressed in a manner that doesn't seem to draw the ire of the police. I don't have to worry about my safety or my freedom as I walk down the street. Not because of anything I've done, but who I am, what I am. There is something inherently wrong with this. Are you policing high crime neighborhoods? Are you policing individuals? Are you policing appearances? Are you simply policing profiles?

Sure this is the way police work gets done, you work on hunches, on suspicions, and yes, on profiles and probabilities. And yes, I am well aware that these hunches can suppress crime. But what else are the suppressing?  Whole communities?  What are they doing to society and specifically to the specific societies that are being heavily policed?

The black and brown communities have been dealing with this for an eternity, and now I can see it in Occupy Wall St. No one cared at all about the cops when we got down to the park. I talked to cop after cop, chatted with anyone. I even saw other occupiers that seemed to have a really strong distaste for the cops as being so militant, shouting them down.  the saw them as against the people and the movement. I didn't see it. I now see where they were coming from. Most of the people I saw doing this I now know to be long term activists, they had seen what I and we were about to see.

We became targets of heavy policing. And with this, my perception of the police changed. Yes, I always had a real problem with police abusing their power. But I always saw it as individuals and power, and control. With a badge some people would take advantage. I hated those people, I hated aggressive abuse of power policing. But that was the few. Now I have seen that this can be systemic. Once we were kicked out of the park, it was the police's job to suppress us, to keep us from going places, doing things, and having much of a voice. It was at this point that it seems to me, that the NYPD started using broken windows styled tactics against us.

We were now for whatever reason lumped in to that criminal category that anyone in a high crime area, or seen fit to be targeted (i.e. muslims) would and has experienced for decades and even centuries. Broken windows. Everything is scrutinized, every movement watched, provocateurs, undercovers, anyone and everyone that has reason to disrupt us has seen fit to. The police are no different. They have a strategy and they are implementing it. Accusing us of being terrorists, or attempted terrorists. Acting like they would even have a country if it wasn't for protesters such as those that went to the Boston tea party and voiced their frustration at a lack of democratic voice. What are we talking about today? A lack of a democratic voice. Corporations and wealthy individuals have taken it from us, just as the wealthy aristocracy never gave it to the colonists. But, yeah here we are, we're working on taking our democracy back. But unfortunately we're running up against some broken glass that we didn't break, but we're getting blamed for. Yes, you. You one percenters. You in positions of power, you puppet masters. We have had enough and we are tired of not only cleaning up your broken glass, but getting blamed for it. It is not us, it is not our system. It is yours, and we're not gong to take it anymore.      

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