When People Are Property

How strategically choreographed, racialized fear built prisons out of broken windows.

In 1982, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson introduced the Broken Windows Theory to a national audience with an article published in The Atlantic Monthly. Theorizing about policing in low-income, inner-city, and predominantly black neighborhoods, Kelling and Wilson put forth an argument that cracking down on public disturbances and petty crimes with foot patrol officers would stop larger, more violent crimes from occurring. The essay cites the Newark Foot Patrol Experiment, a study orchestrated by George Kelling and funded by the Police Foundation — created by the Ford Foundation in 1970. Using the study as evidence, Kelling and Wilson admit that while this way of policing shows no reduction in crime or any affect on crime rates altogether, it does give people (some residents and those with commercial interests in the neighborhood) a sense of safety.

Despite mentioning early on that “the foundation concluded, to the surprise of hardly anyone, that [policing during the Newark Experiment] had not reduced crime rates,” they go on to argue that this feeling of safety brought by the police presence prevents more violent crimes from occurring.

Occasionally evoking racist tropes, such as referring to people as “animals” or communities as “jungles,” Kelling and Wilson argue that the role of the police is to maintain a type of social control:

“We suggest the ‘untended’ behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable frightening jungle.”

George L. Kelling, thinking.

The title of the article refers to a theory on deteriorating property that is not tended to: “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows cost nothing.” The idea is that a broken window should therefore be replaced or fixed. Wilson and Kelling then apply this theory about damaged property to living and breathing human beings: “the unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window.” The United States has a long history of implementing systems of control for the black population — from auction blocks and slave patrols, to black codes and sharecropping — resting on the notion that black people are not free or human but rather, someone’s property. These systems of control, depending on free or cheap labor, create great profits for the ownership class. It is quite revealing that the theory behind contemporary urban policing across America still rests on the concept that black people are property — and should be ‘handled’ as such.

Wilson and Kelling go on to detail the other types of humans they have declared damaged property. They argue that a group of young people saying things that aren’t nice deserve to be policed and criminalized simply because they make people uncomfortable: “a gang can weaken or destroy a community by standing about in a menacing fashion and speaking rudely to passersby without breaking the law.”

Searching for what is feared in the neighborhood, they zero in on a specific, irrational one — regardless of whether the majority concerns itself with that particular fear.

A “survey, in Baltimore, discovered that nearly half would cross the street to avoid even a single strange youth. When an interviewer asked people in a housing project where the most dangerous spot was, they mentioned a place where young persons gathered to drink and play music, despite the fact that not a single crime had occurred there.”

But instead of pointing out that this is profiling based on race and age (Kelling and Wilson are only discussing black neighborhoods); they use the irrational fear of young, black people to promote policing and criminalizing their existence. Kelling and Wilson want to purge the neighborhood of the undesirable — the homeless, the poor, the loud, the young and black — by harassing, abusing and forcibly removing them so often that they either no longer appear in public or get locked in a cage.

In the end, Kelling and Wilson cannot truly answer their own question, “how can a neighborhood be ‘safer’ when the crime rate has not gone down — in fact, may have gone up?” because it debunks their entire theory. The answer is an obvious one: It cannot. It is not. The Broken Windows method of policing offers nothing more than a false security, centered around irrational biases most likely developed from living in a country that has salivated and feasted on white supremacy for the past five hundred years.

The Newark Foot Patrol Experiment, published in 1981, cites the “burgeoning illicit drug trade” as to why the country is “besieged by criminal activity.” Conveniently, the following year and the same year the Broken Windows Theory was introduced, Ronald Reagan announced that drugs were a “threat to national security.” To put this in perspective, crack cocaine wasn’t found on America’s streets until 1985, when it was smuggled in by Nicaraguan guerilla armies. Years later, the CIA would admit that as they were actively using these armies for their covert war in Nicaragua, they were aware of the crack smuggling and did nothing to stop it. Today, George L. Kelling is a Senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute, a neoconservative think tank and long-time promoter of Broken Windows policing, and has worked with the think tank since the ’80’s. The co-founder of the Manhattan Institute, William J. Casey, was Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager during his presidential run and went on to be the Director of Central Intelligence during Reagan’s administration from 1981 to 1987.

Reagan’s campaign for the presidency advocated for the nation to take a “tough on crime” approach. He promised to restore law and order, a popular Republican campaign point after the 1960’s urban riots and political movements. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, contends that The War on Drugs was the manifestation of Reagan following through on his campaign promise. The American government established militarized police occupations in black and brown neighborhoods and harsher sentencing for drug offenders, as it simultaneously stripped social services. The results were America’s prisons overflowing with black and brown people, while our government rapidly worked to build more — just to fill them up again. And as broken windows policing — a strategy based on manipulating racial fears — was about to be implemented in cities across America, a fear-mongering media frenzy was occurring. Spurred by Robert Sutman, of the Drug Enforcement Agency, the irresponsible media hysteria inaccurately depicted all crack cocaine addicts as black, violent, and dangerous.

By 1994, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his police commissioner, William Bratton were implementing the broken windows theory in New York City. George L. Kelling worked as a consultant for William Bratton as they implemented broken windows policing strategies on New York’s subways. Termed the “Quality Of Life initiative”, Giuliani referred to the broken windows theory as “an integral part of [his] law enforcement strategy”, giving examples such as policing “reckless bicycle riding, noise pollution, littering, [and] panhandling,” as well as, jaywalking, street vendors, “squeegee operators and graffiti vandals.” They also began to police non-criminal activity like “standing, congregating, sleeping, eating and/or drinking in public spaces” and truancy. According to Christian Parenti, “NYPD planners drew up lists of names and maps of youth hangouts…to hunt down [and criminalize truancy]” with “operations…usually reserved for serious narcotics busts.” The racism behind the implementation was apparent: 90 percent of those stopped by the NYPD Street Crime Unit were black or latino. Broken windows policing nourished the drug war. After Giuliani implemented it, marijuana arrests began to steadily double each year. In 1991, there were 774 marijuana arrests in New York City. By 2000, the number of marijuana arrests were over 51,000. 86% of those arrested for marijuana were black and latino, a statistic that remained static until the end of Giuliani’s administration. Even though black and white people used marijuana at the same rate, black people were eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people in New York City. Between 1994 and 2002, the percentage of prisoners in New York State who were admitted for drug offenders ranged from 40 to 44.7 percent, second only to New Jersey. The overwhelming majority were nonviolent. By 2002, 94 percent of drug offenders in New York’s prisons were black or latino.

a photo of a squeegee man, targeted by the NYPD in the ‘90s.

In 1994, the number of civilians shot dead and the number of civilians who died in police custody both increased significantly (34.8% and 53.3% respectively). Between 1992 and 1996, complaints of abuse and brutality at the hands of police officers increased by 60 percent, most of which came from the precincts policing low-income black and latino neighborhoods. On the increase of police brutality during this time period, Amnesty International says of the NYPD, “In many of the cases, examined international standards as well as US laws and police guidelines prohibiting torture or other cruel inhuman or degrading treatment appear to have been violated with impunity” and notes,

“the evidence suggests that the large majority of the victims of police abuses are racial minorities, particularly African-Americans and people of Latin American or Asian descent. Racial disparities appear to be especially marked in cases involved deaths in custody and questionable shootings.”

It was the rampant abuses during Giuliani’s era, that called for the transparency of stop and frisk under Mayor Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, broken windows policing and similar strategies were being implemented in cities and black neighborhoods across the country, including Tampa, Chicago, Washington D.C., Denver and New Orleans. When William Bratton went on to be the commissioner of the Los Angeles Police Department, he drove up stop and frisk to over 875,000 stops (70% of which were black and latino). These numbers rivaled stop and frisk in New York under Michael Bloomberg. Bratton also introduced predictive policing, which the LA Weekly described as “a sophisticated system developed…by the US military, based on ‘insurgent’ activity in Iraq and civilian casualty patterns in Afghanistan.” Using past crime data to justify occupying specific neighborhoods with police officers, the system simply tracks past arrests of minor property offenses and contributes nothing to predicting or preventing violent crimes such as murder. These surveillance tools help make broken windows policing easier to implement in poor neighborhoods, but won’t actually make the community any safer.

Politicians, police commissioners and think tanks like the Manhattan Institute continue to try and credit the Broken Windows theory for the crime drop in New York City. However, multiple studies have proven this not to be true. New York University sociologist David Greenberg found “no causal connection between officers per capita at the precinct level and reductions in violent crime or between an increase in misdemeanor arrests and a drop in felonies.” Surveys from NYPD retirees working at the time also revealed “police commandeers faced heavy pressure from higher-ups to reduce felonies to misdemeanors — or in some cases to not report crime at all — in order to make the numbers look prettier.” In Bernard Harcourt and Jens Ludwig’s study titled Broken Windows: New Evidence From New York City and a Five City Social Experiment they find “that the declines in crime observed in New York City in the 1990s are exactly what experts would have predicted from the rise and fall of the crack epidemic, with or without broken-windows policing initiatives.”

Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) and William J. Casey (1913-1987).

While some of these great white men have passed away, these policies, theories and mindsets that produced this country’s mass incarceration persist. Over the years, police departments have given it different names: quality of life policing, community policing, hot spot policing, stop and frisk, neighborhood policing, and zero tolerance policing, to name a few. In the comfort of criminal justice classes and textbooks, these descriptions each have a specific definition. However, in practice over the past 30 years, these tactics mirror one another in their reliance on racial profiling and cracking down on petty crimes and ‘disorder’ to yield the same result: criminalizing the poor, black and brown. Those who champion it should be honest with themselves: it’s not crime they’re afraid of — it’s the black body.

As Bernard Harcourt says, “this type of policing is premised on society being divided into two groups, the ‘orderly’ upstanding law-abiding citizen and the ‘disorderly’ criminal-in-the-making.” Even in New York in the 1990s, where racial and economic divides have always been sharp, who is perceived to be law-abiding is most often white; while the disorderly criminal-to-be is black, poor, or both. In the height of gentrification, the racial and economic divide in New York has only increased. The original 1992 theory did not shy away from showing they valued commercial interests over others:“if a dispute erupted between a businessman and a customer, the businessman was assumed to be right” and at least half of those interviewed on their feelings of safety for the Newark Foot Patrol Experiment were individuals with commercial interests in the neighborhood. Police protect the interests of the developers; therefore, instilling an illusion of white safety becomes of utmost importance. And as the social norms that are expected in neighborhoods are increasingly white and upper class ones, what gets criminalized is the very existence of blackness.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and William Bratton, smiling.

During the mayoral election, Bill de Blasio spoke out against the use of stop and frisk under Bloomberg in the outer boroughs, while telling his Upper West Side audiences that he believes in the “core notions of the broken windows theory.” Conveniently, both stop and frisk and the broken windows theory call for the policing of young, black people. For stop and frisk, they claim they’re looking for guns; for broken windows, they claim they’re keeping the order. After Mayor De Blasio was elected on his anti-stop and frisk stance, he appointed William Bratton as police commissioner at the beginning of the year and Bratton returned to his old job.

In the first half of 2014, reported stop and frisk statistics have gone down. Meanwhile, in a year where homelessness hasn’t been this high since the Great Depression, Bratton made plans to remove homeless people from the subways. The homeless removals are part of a larger subway crackdown, in which Bratton has created two NYPD special units to patrol the subways. The crackdown, that started at the beginning of 2014, is extensive; arrests on fare dodgers, panhandlers, subway performers and homeless people in subways have increased by 300 percent. The NYPD has even gone as far as to monitor generally obsolete (and originally anti-homeless) MTA rules — such as no sleeping on the train in a way that disturbs other passengers — to the extent that they will brutally arrest and detain a black man for dozing off in a near empty subway train while he is on his way home from work. The recent announcement of Bratton’s plan to put cameras on all subway cars, will be yet another surveillance tool that will aid the police department in cracking down on petty crimes and non-criminal ‘disorder’.

A subway showtime dancer. Photo by Kelly Stuart, goingthroughglass.com

The NYPD arrests on subway performers, that escalated at the beginning of this year, are unrestricted; they target both performers on the subway trains and on the platforms, as well as, performers who both comply and don’t comply to the strict MTA rules. However, multiple performers have said that the New York Police Department specifically targets young, black performers. Reports have come out that over 240 subway showtime dancers (who are more often than not, young and black) have been arrested this year, compared to 2 dancers who were arrested in all of 2013. Most of the subway dancers are charged with reckless endangerment (which can be either a misdemeanor or felony and goes on one’s record regardless); others are charged with disorderly conduct (a violation). Kids who get lite on the subway and people who ask for money, “create a sense of fear” on the subway trains, according to Bratton. However, he admits it “isn’t a serious crime.” His reasoning doesn’t explain why these subway dancers continue to receive a steady income from the same public who ‘fears’ them so much. Nor does it explain why young, black breakdancers are also targeted on the subway platform — a performance that complies with MTA rules — and charged with reckless endangerment. Just like how the drug war “has never been about drugs”, here is the root of mass incarceration: heavily police and incarcerate black and brown people — give the public another reason beside their skin color.

Photo by Kelly Stuart of subway showtime dancer, goingthroughglass.com

In the first three months of 2014, there were more marijuana arrests than in Bloomberg’s third or fourth quarter of 2013, according the Marijuana Arrest Research Project. The arrests are dominated in low-income black and latino communities. 500 arrests were made in East New York and 408 arrests were made in Morris Heights between January and April 2014, where residents are 89% and 95% black and latino respectively. Meanwhile, 13 arrests were made in Park Slope and 8 arrests were made on the Upper West Side during those same months. Even in these two majority-white neighborhoods the majority of those arrested were still black or latino. Of the 9,906 total marijuana arrests made between January and April 2014, 86 percent were black and latino. At this rate, marijuana arrests will continue to be just as high as they’ve been for the past five years and New York will continue to make more marijuana arrests than any other city in the world. Even though the Brooklyn District Attorney, Ken Thompson, announced plans to dismiss small marijuana charges, Bratton called marijuana decriminalization “a mistake” and declared that the NYPD will continue to make arrests. Bratton even seems to be steadily increasing marijuana arrests during the short amount of time he’s been in office: 4,360 arrests were made in the first two months of 2014 (up from from 3,964 arrests made in November and December 2013) and there were 5,276 arrests in March and April of 2014. De Blasio’s campaign promise to decriminalize seems to have disappeared.

Thirty years later, the power of broken windows policing to sustain mass incarceration and preserve the system of control and ownership indefinitely is harrowing. Michelle Alexander conceived the term “the invisible cage” to describe the life that a person convicted of a felony lives once out of prison:

“the unique set of criminal sanctions that are imposed on individuals after they step outside of the prison gates…These laws operate collectively to ensure the vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society. They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives — denied employment, housing, education and public benefits. Unable to surmount these obstacles most will eventually return to prison and then be released again, caught in a closed circuit of perpetual marginality.”

furthermore, those on probation and parole,

“are at increased risk of arrest because their lives are governed by additional rules that do not apply to everyone else. Myriad restrictions on their travel and behavior (such as prohibition on associating with other felons), as well as various requirements of probation and parole (such as paying fines and meeting with probation officers), create opportunities for arrest. Violation of these special rules [can result in a warrant issued for one’s arrest and] can land someone right back in prison.”

In fact, in 2011, nearly 40 percent of prison admissions in New York were because of parole violations. Even after someone is released from prison, they remain property of the state. With broken windows policing, those who are already products of the prison industrial complex are more likely to come in contact with the police, increasing their chances of a parole or probation violation. The person selling items on the street without a permit may not be able to get traditional employment because they have a record — and is the same person targeted by police in the name of ‘maintaining order’. Broken windows policing continues to push new people into the carceral system but also continues the cycle of those already locked out of society.

Take, for example, William Bratton’s police raids on homeless shelters. In May, the NYPD raided the Freedom House shelter at 4 a.m. without probable cause and checked everyone for outstanding warrants. The commanding officer of the 24th precinct said the raids, “serve as a deterrent of deviant behavior.” Residents of the shelter describe the raids as, “disruptive and frightening.” Since people with felonies are discriminated against in housing, many have no choice but to go to the city’s shelters. During a press conference on the raid, an advocate mentioned that most of the ‘warrants’ justifying the raids are simply from unpaid fines and tickets.

The Manhattan Institute held a forum called The Future of Policing on May 21, 2014 with guest speakers William Bratton and George L. Kelling. Their current relationship is described as follows, “Kelling is assisting Bratton as the Department ponders strategies to answer such transformative questions.” Kelling, who speaks first, mentions that he and Bratton are “taking a look on the impact of traffic enforcements on crime” and asserts “if one is dealing with traffic offenses, one is dealing with crime…and that’s [where] there are additional opportunities for crime control.” Mayor Bill de Blasio and William Bratton recently received $800,000 in federal funds to gear up their launched “Vision Zero” initiative which will crack down on traffic violations and jaywalking. The initiative will also include installing significantly more traffic cameras that are conveniently necessary for certain surveillance tools being put on the policing market.

Kang Wong, 84 years old, brutally arrested for jaywalking a couple weeks after Vision Zero began.

Kelling eventually introduces William Bratton as “one of the the three most important police leaders in the history of policing of the Anglo-Saxon world, my friend and colleague, Commissioner Bratton.” Bratton begins his speech by saying that the Broken Windows theory “has always been the principal of [his] form of policing.” Mentioning that people give him a hard time for going after graffiti, he diagnoses graffiti as “the first sign of the disease. The first sign that people are not conforming to what we accept as the principals of modern society.”

He goes on to discuss policing disorder and introducing predictive policing to the New York Police Department, as he did in Los Angeles. In a city council hearing in May, Bratton expressed his support for drones — unmanned machines with cameras and microphones that would be used to spy on communities. With surveillance drones, predictive policing, increased traffic and subway cameras, broken windows policing in this new age will grow more effective and therefore, more brutal and dystopian — creating an Orwellian Broken Windows society concerned only with the Quality of Whiteness.

The deadliness of Bratton’s Broken Windows policing has surfaced in a short amount of time. Joining Amadou Diallo (23 years old), Mohammed Asssassa (55 years old), Nicholas Heyward, Jr (13 years old), Anthony Rosario (18 years old), Hilton Vega (21 years old), Devin Brown (13 years old), Anthony Baez (29 years old) and many more, are Eric Garner and Jerome Murdough.

Jerome Murdough

Eric, a 42-year-old black man, had been arrested in the past for petty infractures like alleged marijuana possession and selling untaxed cigarettes and has long spoken up about constant harassment from the police. As the police approached him last Thursday, his words echo the frustrations and trauma of a person who has been labeled a threat to the social order for the crime of selling loosies: “I didn’t do shit. I was just minding my own business…Every time you see me you want to mess with me. It stops today!” A police officer puts him into a choke hold; another slams his head on the sidewalk. Eric exclaims, “I can’t breathe” six times before going silent. At the hospital, he is pronounced dead on arrival. The police officers kill a husband, a father of six, and a grandfather of two.

Jerome, a man with black skin and no home, trying to stay warm on a cold winter night, falls asleep in a stairwell. the New York Police Department arrests him, charges him with trespassing, throws him in Rikers. Why? Because he is the broken window. His existence is a threat. Stripped of humanity, he is the state’s property. A week later, he dies from overheating in his jail cell.

editing done by: Charlotte P.

Please contact Raven Rakia at ravennotcrow@gmail.com before reprinting. Thank you.

Further Reading:

Incite Info Sheets on ‘Quality of Life’ Policing: here & here

Reina Gossett and Dean Space: “What Counts As Violence” (video)

Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colorblindness, 2012

Ruth Wilson Gilmore: (1) The Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California, 2007; (2) Globalisation and the US Prison Growth; (3) Mothers and Prisoners in the Post Keynesian California Landscape

Bernard E. Harcourt: Illusions of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing, 2001

Benard E. Harcourt and Jens Ludwig: (1) Broken Windows: New Evidence from New York City and a Five-City Social Experiment (2) Reefer Madness

Christian Parenti: Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, 1999

Jeremy Travis, Invisible Punishment

State of Surveillance: Police Privacy and Technology by the Center for Investigative Reporting (video), partial transcript here.

Amnesty International report on the New York Police Department, 1996.



Freelance journalist and researcher. Newsletter: https://tinyletter.com/ravenrakia

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