Broken Windows Is Not Our Enemy
Oct. 13, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — It goes a little something like this. Cops roll into a predominantly poor, minority community. Cops hand out tickets or arrests for infractions (real or imagined) that only seem to be regulated in those particular communities. When the cops clear out, liberal pundits like to raise the battle flag of oppression, calling out the main culprit of these oppressive police tactics – broken windows theory.
But broken windows is not the enemy. This 33 year-old sociological criminal justice theory is just that, a theory. It is not the cause of the constant harassment black and brown communities live with on a daily basis at the hands of the police.
When cops walk into a courtyard and arrest six black teenagers because one of them has a little weed on him, those armed state actors are not furthering some complex plan of societal betterment. They are taking the easy way out and figuratively (and sometimes literally) putting their boot on the neck of the powerless. These are cops being assholes, plain and simple.
Last week, a video surfaced of police in Brooklyn ticketing two adult males for playing dominoes. This video was taken in the Putnam Triangle public park in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn. While names like “Putnam Triangle” and “Clinton Hill” may not mean anything to most people, they mean a great deal to me. I live right next to the Putnam Triangle in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn and I have spent a good deal of time in that very park.
As Rosa Goldensohn of DNA Info reported:
Two men were ticketed Sunday night for loitering and gambling during a dominoes game at the pedestrian plaza on Fulton Street and Grand Avenue in what locals say is part of a larger police crackdown in the area.
Ernest Stroy, 60, of Clinton Hill, and his nephew Waymon Jones, 24, who was visiting from New Jersey, were slapped with tickets for illegal gambling during a dominoes game they said was harmless fun.
If you ask anyone around here, they will confirm that people play games all the time at the tables set up in this park. Chess, dominoes, cards. The most popular game is an almost daily game of checkers that has some of the best dressed old-timers Brooklyn has to offer. The game is ritualistic, but the stars of the show are the bright yellow and fire-engine red 3-piece suits, the hats, and the eye-catching accessories adorning the players. These men are this park.
In spite of potentially real problems out there, though, last Sunday night, at least seven NYPD officers decided to disrupt a simple game of dominoes. Mr. Stroy and Mr. Jones were ticketed for loitering and gambling. First, there may not be a public space in the entire city where loitering would be less of an issue. This is a public space, with tables set up for the sole purpose of people gathering and remaining there. In other words, loitering. That’s what parks are for.
The cops who stood cowardly shoulder to cowardly shoulder with the ticket-writer, were not interested in repairing small rips in the social fabric before they became large tears (a la broken windows theory). Each one of those cops is an asshole who decided that it was more important for them to walk back into their precinct having handed out some citations than to allow law-abiding citizens to live their damn lives.
And gambling? Seriously? In the video, Jones can be heard telling the observers that he just gave Stroy $2 to buy him something from the nearby bodega. But what if Stroy had won those $2 for a well-played hand of dominoes? Who the hell cares? In the time it took me to write the first half of this paragraph, I’ve endured 173 advertisements by Draft Kings and Fan Duel, two companies making millions off people who think normal fantasy football lacks the potential to induce a pathological gambling addiction. Gambling happens all the time, but it only appears to become a problem demanding a fix when it makes white people uncomfortable.
The cops who ticketed those two black men for gambling were not trying to unbreak any windows and they certainly were not protecting my community from anything that posed a threat to our security. Each made a decision to shake down a couple of powerless individuals for the sole purpose of not having to tell their bosses that they did not shake any one down that night.
Crime rates have been on the decline for decades. But like so many other government agencies, police departments do not have to abide by supply and demand principles. Crime goes up, we need more cops. Crime goes down, we better add some more cops to make sure we can maintain the hard fought peace that the police, and nothing else at all, have won.
This has left many cops with simply no real crime to fight. But when it comes time to justify their billion dollar budgets to the city council, they must point to numbers that support their bloated existence. And in the world of policing, numbers = arrests. And that is why we see the harassment of Stroy and Jones, and in the extreme, the death of Eric Garner.
As a theory, broken windows has valid points. But some who oppose the current state of policing in America choose to attack the theory itself instead of the armed bullies who hide behind it. There are so many ways to fight against the encroachment of blight and crime. One way is to build a public space that allows people to gather and connect with each other. Like the Putnam Triangle. Oh, the irony.
Don’t believe me? Just ask George Kelling, who, along with the late James Q. Wilson, penned the theory back in 1982. In a recent Politico post entitled, “Don’t Blame My Broken Windows Theory for Poor Policing,” Kelling recognized that “a lot of sins have been committed in the name of ‘broken windows.'”
In the wake this domino-crackdown, the rallying cry was broken windows run amok. Untrue. Broken Windows theory is not inherently racist or oppressive. In its most simple form, the theory posits that if blight is allowed to take hold in an area, then people will lose respect for that area. With the loss of respect comes further blight and increased crime follows.
If we are ever going to change the course of oppressive policing in communities of color, we are going to have to start breaking some windows by being honest. Drop our campaign against broken windows and begin calling out the police who have become the window breakers.