“Broken windows” is a broken idea

October 10, 2013

ON THE October 4, 2013, episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, host Bill Maher stated:

You know, back in the 1990s, New York City tested an idea called the broken windows theory, which said in a nutsack [sic], that if you fix the little things that make people feel like they're living in a dumpy neighborhood, the big things will follow. If you fix the broken windows and paint over the graffiti and pick up the trash, a psychological barrier is broken.

New York basically said we're going to look good until we feel good. And it worked! Crime plummeted. And before you say, but Bill, this is about poverty, not fashion, no. No, it's not. If you can afford pajama pants, you can afford pants!

This statement is especially concerning given the rumors that liberal New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio may bring back "broken windows" architect William Bratton as NYPD commissioner.

As a preliminary matter, it should be said that "broken windows" did NOT actually work, because crime was plummeting all over the country--including in cities which didn't use "broken windows" policies.

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As elaborated on in the book Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America by Kristian Williams, "broken windows" was a theory first articulated in an article in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic Monthly by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. It advocated, in a nutshell, that if society ignored "petty crime," it would then lead to more and more serious crime.

They went on to say--in not-so-hidden racist code--that if petty crime is ignored, "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 and frightening jungle."

They went on to describe the effects of unaddressed petty crime (without, of course, any actual scientific evidence): "families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers [who knows where they came from if their families just moved out?] gather in front of the corner store."

As Kristian Williams stated, "It seems frankly implausible that litter and abandoned cars lead to rape and murder." But this is just the sort of logic put forth by the white liberal establishment to explain the ghetto. However, "if panhandler and dilapidated buildings serve as indicators of disorder, and thus promote crime, then public safety should be better advanced by the state's welfare functions rather than its policing functions."

But the bottom line is that it's far cheaper--and more effective at perpetuating the status quo--to spend money on cops and jails rather than on good jobs, schools and hospitals.

THE "BROKEN windows" theory was implemented by then-NYPD Commissioner William Bratton (along with the active enforcement from then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani). The NYPD's crackdown began with "petty crime," but soon expanded to the homeless, vagrants and drunks--and then expanded further to peep shows, street vendors and cabbies.

But the logic of the program couldn't just stop there. The NYPD began putting undercover officers in the subways to crack down on drunks and turnstile jumpers, and, throughout the "liberal '90s," vastly expanded the number of cops on the streets.

When the program appeared to be working well (from the police and white liberal establishment perspective), it expanded into the now-infamous Street Crimes Unit. This involved packing four (almost always white) undercover NYPD thugs into an unmarked car and allowing them to drive around Black and Latino neighborhoods all day and all night to harass minorities.

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.

BROKEN WINDOWS itself rests on a racist premise: "That shit doesn't go on in my [white] neighborhood. Why do 'those people' act like that? They're so uncivilized. They need me to go in and fix their shit because they're too lazy to do it for themselves."

One can see this mindset from white liberals pervade other areas, like the whole concept of charity and Teach for America (but this is fodder for another article).

But one can paint over the graffiti, and the same shitty building will still be there underneath. You can fix the broken windows, but the fact that you'll still be living in a building without adequate space, without adequate heat and air conditioning, and without adequate electric will still exist underneath. You'll still wake up in that same building day after day, dragging yourself into work at a job that pays just enough to keep you alive, but not enough so you can actually enjoy life.

In other words, one may fix the surface while not actually addressing the underlying inequities which exist--the lack of a living wage, quality health care, etc.

But this is the way the white liberal establishment has always thought. "If we do away with slavery, all will be better. Just take the chains off and we're all good, right?" A radical demand after slavery was abolished was for "40 acres and a mule." It was never implemented, however, because no thought was given to actual justice. In the modern era, justice at a minimum would provide people with an adequate job, adequate housing and a decent way of life.

"Broken windows" is the soft oppression meted out by police which remains acceptable to the white liberal establishment. Its results are the same as conservative policies like stop-and-frisk--intimidation of minority communities, the jailing of as many as possible and the oppression of the people with military-style occupation. What it won't do is provide a living wage, schools on a par with suburban schools and a decent living.

To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., true justice is not flinging a coin at a beggar. Justice is questioning why we have beggars in the first place.

It may seem an amazing statement, but demanding true equality for racial minorities is a radical agenda. White liberals like Bill Maher may accept Blacks sitting at the lunch counter, but won't accept having to spend billions to ensure all Blacks and minorities can (in the words of King) "afford a hamburger and a cup of coffee."

As radicals, we need to reject and challenge the liberal establishment any time they put forth policies like "broken windows." It only leads to further racism and oppression--and away from the truly just society we seek.
David Bliven, Bronx, N.Y.

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