Today’s NY Times reports on the crackdown on break-dancers in the subway.
The young dancers, Peppermint and Butterscotch, scanned the scattered faces aboard the New York City subway. One caught their eye.
“Are you a cop?” a performer asked, as their Q train rumbled toward Canal Street. The man waved them off. Peppermint and Butterscotch were satisfied.
“It’s showtime!” they shouted.
Music filled the train. Legs curled around the car’s graspable bars like creeping ivy. Then came a finale that surprised even the dancers: four plainclothes officers converging in tandem, and two sets of handcuffs.
Cheered by tourists, tolerated by regulars, feared by those who frown upon kicks in the face, subway dancers have unwittingly found themselves a top priority for the New York Police Department — a curious collision of a Giuliani-era policing approach, a Bloomberg-age dance craze and a new administration that has cast the mostly school-age entertainers as fresh-face avatars of urban disorder.
There’s probably nobody more opposed to being a captive audience on the subways than me. I have been riding NYC subways since they cost 15 cents a ride. When they were this cheap, they lacked air conditioning and were as noisy as hell, but you could at least be assured that you would never be forced to watch a musical performance, begged for spare change, or listen to a sermon.
That was a function of the city being a lot more economically and socially viable than it has been ever since the fare reached the dollar level at least. In 1961 the city was home to a million and one small manufacturing plants that provided jobs for Blacks and Latinos. This is not to speak of the jobs in heavy industry just across the river in New Jersey, such as the Ford plant in Mahwah. In those days, jobs were like low-hanging fruit for recent immigrants from the Deep South or Puerto Rico. They disappeared long ago, forcing the grandchildren of those who worked in them to beg for change or to break dance just one step ahead of the law.
In some ways it is the subway preachers that make me the most crazy, even though they are probably certifiably insane themselves. When I used to take the number one train up to Columbia University, there was a guy who showed up about once a month and preach to us. He had a thick Jamaican accent and would always prattle on about how Jesus was coming to take the faithful up to heaven and send the sinful down to hell. I had to restrain myself from ranting about there being nothing but colliding atoms. What good would it do?
During the Giuliani administration, chief of police William Bratton implemented the “broken window theory”, one that posited petty crime as creating a climate for more serious crimes. This meant in practice arresting the homeless men who used squeegees on car windows when they were stopped for a red light. They generally didn’t say anything if you refused but hoped to get a dollar for their work. The cops also went after young men, mostly Black and Latino, who spray-painted graffiti on subway cars, including Michael Stewart who died in 1983 while under police custody. Despite eyewitnesses who saw the cops kicking and beating him, an all-white jury acquitted the six officers.
Eventually the “broken windows” policy led to the formation of a Street Crimes Unit that targeted young Blacks and Latinos for selling drugs or other minor offenses. This was really the beginning of “Stop and Frisk”, the policy that Bill De Blasio claimed he wanted to abolish. Obviously it has snuck back in through the back door. In a very good article on Bratton in the ISO newspaper, attorney David Bliven describes his experience with Bratton’s law and order:
As a young civil rights lawyer in Jamaica, Queens, at the time, I had more than a few victims of this police harassment come into my office. They were often Black teenagers who described how they were walking home from school, or from the store, or just hanging out with friends, when a car pulled up and out jumped the NYPD thugs. They’d throw the teen into their car, rough him up in the backseat, try to get drug sale information out of him, and when they determined the kid knew nothing, end up dumping the then utterly frightened kid on the other side of Queens.
The Street Crimes Unit was eventually disbanded–not because it wasn’t effective at its mission (intimidating and oppressing Blacks and Latinos)–but because it eventually made its way into the mainstream press and thus fell out of favor with the white liberal establishment. The idea behind the Street Crimes Unit lived on and was quickly replaced by Drug Sweep Teams, which were the precursor to the “stop-and-frisk” policy.
Now that Bratton is running the police department again, the “broken window theory” has been reinstituted. Besides break dancers, it seeks to protect the public from the mostly minority men and women who sell single cigarettes on the street at a cut-rate price. One of them was Eric Garner, an immense but sickly African-American who died as an illegal chokehold was being placed on him and as he cried out that he could not breathe:
To its credit, the NY Times editorialized against Bratton’s policy:
How terrible it would be if Eric Garner died for a theory, for the idea that aggressive police enforcement against minor offenders (he was a seller of loose, untaxed cigarettes) is the way to a safer, more orderly city. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton responded swiftly after Mr. Garner was fatally assaulted by officers on Staten Island. They reached out to his family, promising to retrain every officer about the rules against using chokeholds. Two officers have been put on desk duty pending investigations.
The mayor and the commissioner should also begin a serious discussion of the future of “broken windows” policing, the strategy of relentlessly attacking petty offenses to nurture a sense of safety and order in high-crime neighborhoods, which, in theory, leads to greater safety and order. In reality, the link is hypothetical, as many cities and towns across the country have enjoyed historic decreases in violent crime since the 1990s, whatever strategies they used. And the vast majority of its targets are not serious criminals, or criminals at all.
Bratton is a pioneer of broken windows policing and Mr. de Blasio is a stout defender. The tactic was embraced in the crime-plagued New York of 20 years ago. But while violence has ebbed, siege-based tactics have not. The Times reported on Friday that the Police Department made 394,539 arrests last year, near historical highs.
The mayor and the commissioner should acknowledge the heavy price paid for heavy enforcement. Broken windows and its variants — “zero-tolerance,” “quality-of-life,” “stop-and-frisk” practices — have pointlessly burdened thousands of young people, most of them black and Hispanic, with criminal records. These policies have filled courts to bursting with first-time, minor offenders whose cases are often thrown out, though not before their lives are severely disrupted and their reputations blemished. They have caused thousands to lose their jobs, to be suspended from school, to be barred from housing or the military. They have ensnared immigrants who end up, through a federal fingerprinting program, being deported and losing everything.
No matter how much clout the “newspaper of record” has, the politician that the Nation Magazine, Salon.com, and the Huffington Post drooled over will likely ignore its recommendations. Once again from the NYT article we linked to at the beginning of this post:
Mayor Bill de Blasio has defended the approach even as some police reform advocates have called for big changes after the death of a Staten Island man, Eric Garner, during an arrest over accusations of selling untaxed cigarettes, a subject of complaints by local businesses.
“If you’re violating the law, I can understand why any New Yorker might say, well that might not be such a big offense or that might not be something that troubles any of us individually,” the mayor said, standing with Mr. Bratton on Monday at City Hall. “But breaking the law is breaking the law.”
And what exactly is the difference between Giuliani and De Blasio? I guess the same difference between Bush and Obama. In a period of declining economic opportunities, law and order will become more and more repressive. In the early stages of capitalism, vagabonds roamed the British countryside and prompted the equivalent of “stop and frisk” back then—draconian policies including being sentenced to a debtor’s prison.
Chapter 28 of V. 1 of Capital begins as follows:
The proletariat created by the breaking up of the bands of feudal retainers and by the forcible expropriation of the people from the soil, this “free” proletariat could not possibly be absorbed by the nascent manufactures as fast as it was thrown upon the world. On the other hand, these men, suddenly dragged from their wonted mode of life, could not as suddenly adapt themselves to the discipline of their new condition. They were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances. Hence at the end of the 15th and during the whole of the 16th century, throughout Western Europe a bloody legislation against vagabondage. The fathers of the present working class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as “voluntary” criminals, and assumed that it depended on their own good will to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed.
Now that we are in the period of capitalism’s senescence, we find that once again manufacturing cannot absorb the “free” proletariat. In the 18th century this was because it had not come into existence. In the 21st it is because it no longer exists.