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Are the recent disturbances in Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere the opening act of yet more race-related urban rioting? Are we about to return to the 1960s when a “minor” traffic stop gone awry can lead to dozens of deaths and urban landscape that resembled Berlin circa 1945?
Such racial turmoil is conceivable. Few people today can recall that troubled era, let alone the more recent LA’s Rodney King riot. For them, a peaceful black population is perfectly natural so why worry about hamstringing police? Further add current government’s timidity when confronting looters and arsonists lest (it is believed) “excessive” force exacerbate the disorder. In cost/benefit terms, today’s protestors falsely believe that violent anti-police outrage is cost-free—clogging the streets, disrupting traffic, smashing windows and setting fires will surely bring “social justice” and this “social justice” can happily substitute for policing to keep the peace—“no justice, no peace” implies that “justice” ensures tranquility
Meanwhile, the Left-dominated mass media happily fuels this anger. Pictures of looters unhampered by police inexpensively fill hours of airtime and there is no shortage of self-designated expert talking heads explaining why “understandable” frustration make this violence almost praiseworthy (sending a message that must be heard, so to speak).
Now for the good news: We will not return to the violent 1960s of long hot summers. Nor will we once more squander billions fixing the “root causes” of the poverty that, supposedly, instigates this violence. America has learned countless lessons from the riotous 1960s though much of it is publicly unspeakable.
Yogi Berra said that making predictions is difficult, especially about the future. But, that acknowledged, let me offer a plausible scenario about any future Fergusons.
Let’s start with the most likely events. Outside of a few professional agitators, disgruntled blacks will not be encouraged to riot beyond what has already occurred. Yes, disruptive incidents still happen, often involving clueless whites, but these noisy, festive marches are a far cry from the violence that plagued Newark, Detroit, and Los Angeles where dozens died and property damage was in the hundreds of millions ( a billion plus in damage and 53 killed in the 1992 LA riot). The old rhetoric of “burn baby burn” and “the long hot summer” will not return.
Instead, black leaders will call for “national discussions on race” and hector whites to fix a “broken system” in which blacks themselves escape responsibility. Cities will probably hire more African American police officers, spend millions on compulsory racial sensitivity training and seminars denouncing “white privilege.” Expensive body cameras will be bought whose purpose, it is assumed, will be to reign in aggressive racist cops (but see here). Whites will also learn how to repress racial stereotyping and avoid offensive language. In other words, the aim will be to reform white society, not destroy cities.
But the most successful, anti-riot measures will be dialing down aggressive pro-active policing such as stop and frisk and, most of all, adjusting the broken windows strategy to reflect community preferences.
Here’s the scenario. According to broken windows, petty violations–public drinking, spray painting graffiti, airmailing garbage out the window, in-your-face panhandling and vandalism and the like– signal a tolerance for more serious criminality. It is therefore essential that police aggressively arrest all law-breakers, no matter how slight the offense even if the crime appears victimless (e.g., drunks sleeping it off in doorways) to cut more serious crime preemptively. Broken windows policing as an added bonus also helps solving major crimes since it is easier to apprehend petty criminals. In New York City, for example, those arrested jumping subway turnstiles, a misdemeanor, were often also found to have outstanding warrants for felonies.
Broken windows policing explains the explosive events in both Ferguson and New York City. Officer Wilson initially stopped Michael Brown for walking down the middle of the street and only then did his convenience store robbery surface. Similarly, Eric Garner was detained for illegally selling cigarettes, a behavior that is only marginally illegal given that hawking cigarettes per se is not illegal; his offense is selling cigarettes on the sidewalk without a New York tax stamp. None of the outrage would have happened if wandering down the middle of the road and peddling individual cigarettes sans a tax stamp were decriminalized.
Now for the big problem: the “quality of life” element of broken windows is inherently ambiguous and constantly evolves. Smoking, for example, has gone from a sign of sophistication to, in many circumstances, a crime. Performing sex for money is technically prostitution, certainly a crime but what about standing on the corner with a sign, “Buy me an expensive dinner and I’ll love you”? In many instances what was once a capital offense is no longer even noticed. New York still criminalizes adultery (and there is a $25 fine for flirting) but imagine the outrage if police took enforcement seriously? Hester Prynne of “Scarlet Letter” fame was obviously born several centuries too early.
Now for the unspeakable: the current broken windows approach assumes universal quality of life standards, that is, every decent person wants clean streets, safe schools, no dog poop, public civility, and drug-free parks, among dozens of other admirable things. Reality, however, is more complicated; no precise consensus exists on “quality of life” and truth be told, today’s law enforcement defined “quality of life” is only consistent with Northern European values. Strict implementation is, to be blunt, cultural imperialism insofar as quality of life standard vary enormously. Behavior acceptable in Calcutta brings a public canning in Singapore.
Given that not every American cherishes Northern European public values, adjustments are necessary. New York City’s Chinatowns abounds with loud venders blocking sidewalks, litter everywhere, pedestrians routinely disregard “don’t walk” signs to obstruct traffic, and so on. In my occasional sojourns to Chinatown, I have never, never witnessed any pedestrian or sidewalk vendor being warned for unambiguously illegal behavior. At most, cops periodically arrest store clerks for selling counterfeit merchandize on behest of manufactures whose pocketbooks and watches are being knocked off.
Chinatown is hardly unique. Elsewhere in New York’s ethnic neighborhoods public intoxication is tolerated provided it is done discreetly via wrapping the bottle in a brown paper bag. In trendy Tribecca, absent a specific complaint police generally ignore inebriated bar patrons congregating outside bars at 2:00AM. On the other hand, all of these activities are unacceptable in, say, the WASPY Upper Eastside. And on and on–each to their own interpretation of broken windows so as to keep the peace.
The bottom line is that police can readily apply these “cultural sensitivity” principles to neighborhoods populated by lower-class blacks even if crimes are committed in plain sight and outrage middle class sensibilities. No law needs to be altered and I’d guess that local police cooperation would be forthcoming. Just pay no heed to petty drug-dealing, hookers soliciting johns, illegal gambling, broken bottles, groups of feral children wandering around past midnight, open public drinking, or motorists disregarding traffic lights.
Needless to say, this “hands-off” policy will hurt countless law-abiding people and legitimate businesses in black neighborhoods. In fact, in cost benefit terms abandoning energetic policing of minor offenses might be judged anti-black, and perhaps correctly so. But, on the other hand, if the price of violent rioting is factored into the equation, the overall negative outcomes of this policy shift are less clear. Would Ferguson be better off today if police consciously overlooked teenagers parading down the middle of the street unless there is an imminent threat of serious bodily harm? How much tax revenue was actually lost from Eric Garner’s sidewalk cigarette business? All hard to say.
And now for the really unspeakable: Abandoning broken windows and similar preemptive police measures is feasible since the African American “community spokesman industry” hardly gains from the benefits bestowed by broken windows policing. The Rev. Al Sharpton and fellow rabble rousers don’t run for office and so cleaning up a crime infested neighborhood or lowering grocery prices adds nothing to their community activist bona fides. More political clout is to be achieved by organizing well-publicized marches against police brutality, real and imagined. Indeed, pro-police elected officials who bring peace and prosperity (e.g., NYC’s Mayor Rudy Giuliani) undermine the self-appointed community activists and are thus despised by them. Promoting prosperity and safety are off the activist agenda regardless of local preferences.
But in all fairness let me add that others beyond the community agitator industry will tolerate relaxing broken windows provided, of course, this occurs only in black areas. Libertarians have traditionally endorsed de-criminalizing public intoxication, small time drug- dealing and similar petty “victimless” offenses. Skin-flint conservatives will be thankful for cheaper criminal justice, especially lower rates of incarceration. Nor are many conservatives threatened by black-on-black crime or gentle giants victimizing Pakistani or Korean run 7-11’s. And let’s not forget opportunistic politicians of all ideological stripes always happy to take credit for declining crime albeit a reduction that only reflects under-reporting crimes.
And now for the best news: Many of the Ferguson protestors got it right. The nearly all-white Ferguson police force is really a “foreign” occupying army, a legacy of the white values that dominated a nearly all-white Ferguson of the 1990’s, not the two-thirds black Ferguson of today. And of the utmost importance, existing demographic trends are minimizing the likelihood of future Fergusons. Specifically, as certain cities and a few suburbs are increasingly dominated by lower-class African Americans thanks to Section 8 housing, and court-ordered school desegregation among other heavy-handed government efforts at diversity and inclusion, the growing political clout of black residents is translated into more culturally acceptable police practices. This progression has long been visible Detroit, MI, Jackson, MS, Miami Gardens, FL, East St. Louis, Il., East Cleveland, OH and countless other sizable cities where blacks now govern or at least exert substantial political influence. To my knowledge, Fergusons-like incidents are unknown is these predominantly black cities.
Let’s be clear: we are not claiming that the blackening of a city somehow enhanced the quality of life for blacks since they can now define “quality of life” to mirror their values. The opposite is probably true as measured by dysfunctional schools, fewer decent shopping options, endemic crime and random shootings killing innocent bystanders. In fact, many residents of such hellholes might prefer to move to localities with fewer blacks, even if whites impose “white” values, but may be unable to afford such a relocation.
Our point is much narrower—Ferguson-like incidents, and even larger racial confrontations, are less likely where blacks enjoy a near monopoly on power. If Michael Brown resided in overwhelmingly black East St. Louis, his shoplifting would probably have been ignored since his thievery was already included in merchandise mark-ups while walking down the middle of the street was judged normal, comparable to residents periodically halting traffic by stopping their cars in the middle of the road to gossip. If he were stopped for blocking traffic, it would be by a black police officer.
There is nothing illegal or racist about these measures that selectively go light on crime. Short of murder and perhaps a few other major felonies, no police department can possibly enforce every law (recall New York’s criminalization of adultery) and there’s no point in being too zealous. What police officer looks forward to take into custody a gathering of elderly men peacefully sipping wine in the park? The issue is one of whose values receive priority, not lawlessness per se.
The selectivity of law enforcement can also go in many directions. White yuppies gentrifying an African American community can certainly pressure the police department to crack down on local now ignored public crap games all the while requesting officers to overlook illegally parked cars at Saturday Farmers’ Market. Imagine the chief of police, invoking broken windows, insisting that, “yes only a few illegally parked cars but this little violation might lead to more serious offenses, things like parents serving homemade, untaxed organic wine to their children, and that is felonious child endangerment.”
What all of this adds up to is that if avoiding large scale racial confrontations is the over-riding aim, race/class segregation is probably the best solution. Moreover, judging by the reactions of most African Americans living in overwhelmingly black cities, such non-coerced segregation is an acceptable cost/benefit arrangement. Such political domination also guarantees well-paying employment in education, law enforcement and public administration that might be less available where blacks were 20% or less of the population. It is hardly accidental that the word “apartheid” goes unmentioned when discussing today’s black dominated cities mired in poverty. Those who doubt black antipathy to racial diversity need only look at their resistance to white gentrification.
Such freely decided segregation is undoubtedly cheaper than past (and failed) solutions like Urban Renewal, Empowerment Zones, Model Cities, Head Start, gold-plated schools and all the myriad efforts at eliminating the root causes of poverty and crime. And contrary to what Mr. Holder and President Obama insist, culturally sensitive policing will certainly out-perform national dialogues on race, mandatory sensitivity training , similar measures to alter America’s racist psychology. In a nutshell, the issue is not one of white police brutality; it is whose laws will be enforced.