Broken Windows, Workfare, and the Battle for Public Space in Giuliani’s New York

Part 1

Daniel Pantaleo, the rogue police officer who choked the unarmed 43-year-old Black man named Eric Garner to death for allegedly selling single untaxed cigarettes, will not go to trial. Garner was murdered on July 17, 2014 in his native borough of Staten Island. A grandfather as well as a father of six, Garner had previously submitted a complaint in federal court in 2007 after an officer conducted a cavity search on him in a public street. ((Joseph Goldstein and Nate Schweber, “Man’s Death After Chokehold Raises Old Issue for the Police,” New York Times, July 18, 2014.)) In his final words (recorded on a videotape by a man who was indicted for filming the murder, ((Arturo Garcia, “NYPD Cop Who Choked Eric Garner Wasn’t Indicted—But the Man Who Recorded the Incident Was,” Raw Story, December 3, 2014.)) Garner can be heard pleading with several officers to leave him alone, voicing his innocence and explaining that he routinely faced police aggression and intimidation. This kind of police harassment was business as usual for Pantaleo as well, having been dubbed “one of the most active cops on Staten Island” ((Robert Lewis, “This is the Face of Broken Windows,” WNYC, September 15, 2014.)) since beginning his career with the New York Police Department (NYPD) in 2007. Pantaleo has been the arresting officer in 259 criminal court cases, all but 24 of them for misdemeanor crimes including marijuana possession and trespassing. ((Robert Lewis, “This is the Face of Broken Windows,” WNYC, September 15, 2014.))

Though the NYPD officially banned chokeholds in 1993, ((Joseph Goldstein and Nate Schweber, “Man’s Death After Chokehold Raises Old Issue for the Police,” New York Times, July 18, 2014.)) the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) reported having received 233 chokehold allegations in 2013, 2.3 percent higher than a decade ago. ((Joseph Goldstein and Nate Schweber, “Man’s Death After Chokehold Raises Old Issue for the Police,” New York Times, July 18, 2014.)) Bill de Blasio, New York’s putatively liberal new mayor who ran an effective campaign premised on condemning the city’s so-called Dickensian wealth gap, has been absent regarding police brutality, or worse. In the same month in which Eric Garner was killed, police choked a subway fare-beater, severely beat a mentally ill man, and dragged a naked 48-year-old woman from her Brooklyn apartment into the street while pepper spraying her baby. ((Ari Paul, “Broken Windows Liberalism,” Jacobin, August 7, 2014.)) In fact, in a shock to his constituency, one of de Blasio’s first actions upon taking office was to appoint Bill Bratton as Police Commissioner.

Bratton himself is no stranger to New York, having served in the same position under neoconservative Rudolph Giuliani from 1994 to 1996 before leaving to work in the private security industry. It should come as ironic, then, that chokeholds were banned in 1993; together, Bratton and Giuliani implemented a new, zero-tolerance policing strategy focused on criminalizing a wide range of misdemeanor activity attributable to what they characterized as disorderly conduct. This zero-tolerance policy, otherwise known as ‘broken windows policing’ or ‘quality-of-life policing,’ rests on the assumption that small-scale misdemeanors—selling untaxed cigarettes, for example—open the proverbial door for serious felony crimes. This policing strategy has been coterminous with revamped police empowerment, as police may now act extra-legally (i.e., in juridically deregulated ways) in deciding whom to apprehend and what for. Not everyone accused of misdemeanor crimes is killed by police, but Eric Garner’s death is hardly an aberration; it represents—along with the impunity with which racist white people may murder Black people in the United States—the effects of a now two-decade long war over public space in New York City. As all corners of the city are becoming gentrified faster than ever, it may be useful now to critically re-examine what Marxist geographer Neil Smith refers to as ‘Giuliani Time,’ an era characterized by the aggressive slashing of social services and implementation of workfare programs, rapid police expansion, and the unprecedented growth of the US penal nexus.

Zero Tolerance for Capital’s Surplus Population

Though the post-Fordist US welfare state has largely contracted its assistance programs to propel individuals into the workforce, it has done so by further obliterating opportunities for working class mobility and cementing an underclass that is unable to procure secure employment that can provide even the most minimal material needs and punishing those who are unable to succeed under such circumstances through intensified policing and warehousing. Within a globalizing, post-Fordist economy in which labor and capital are increasingly mobilized across borders, growing numbers of people—often from aggrieved communities of racial minorities—become unnecessary for the reproduction of capital. In the words of Marx, capitalism produces “a relatively redundant population of laborers… of greater extant than suffices for the average needs of the self-expansion of capital, and therefore a surplus population.” ((Karl Marx, Capital: Volume I: A Critique of Political Economy (New York: Random House, 1976), 781, quoted in Salar Mohandesi, “Who Killed Eric Garner?Jacobin, December 17, 2014.))

As we shall see, this tendency is exacerbated vis-à-vis the redistribution of wealth and power to the political class under neoliberal restructuring through retrenchment policies and workfare programs. Programs such as Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), for example, make clear that these programs are premised on the restoration of economic order to a society infested with ‘overly dependent’ cheaters of the welfare system thought to threaten both the longevity of the free market and the ‘American values’ associated with it. Yet as these populations are construed as surplus and their livelihood hence irrelevant to the functioning of capital, the political class must decide their fate—who will live and who must die. When economic crises hit and municipalities must contemplate recovery schemes, the ‘surplus population’ can threaten the ability of the state to attract capital speculation by inhabiting the city spaces in which they have, as entities of social and capital reproduction, become obsolete.

This series seeks to examine the process through which workfare policies and the paramilitarization of the police force developed as mutually reinforcing political-economic instruments under Rudolph Giuliani’s mayoral regime in New York City from 1994 to 2001. In particular, Bill Bratton’s application of the ‘broken windows theory’ to law enforcement tactics represents one method through which New York’s workfare and policing functions were not solely implemented simultaneously, but substantiated one another in the remaking of New York City into a theme park for capital investment. Through the criminalization of the most minor offenses, Bratton’s police force waged a veritable war on the poor in which social assistance was subsumed by revamped policing and penal policies. As I will suggest, the process of statecraft as constituted through shifts in both welfare and policing took the form of geopolitical warfare against the poor. I will examine workfare initiatives specific to New York City within the context of larger nation-wide legislative trends in order to better trace the linkages between the transformation of the welfare state and the criminalization of poor people of color under Giuliani’s mayoral regime.

From Black Codes to Broken Windows

The Vagrancy of Geography

One could trace the genealogy of the police back to slavery, when white vigilantes would organize to retake and discipline those who had fled in search of freedom. Yet broken windows-style policing may actually have its origins in the passage of the Black Codes in 1865 and 1866 after the official abolition of slavery. Section I of the Vagrancy Law of the 1865 Mississippi Black Code states:

Be it enacted by the legislature of the state of Mississippi, that all rogues and vagabonds, idle and dissipated persons, beggars, jugglers, or persons practising unlawful games or plays, runaways, common drunkards, common nightwalkers, pilferers, lewd, wanton, or lascivious persons, in speech or behavior, common railers and brawlers, persons who neglect their calling or employment, misspend what they earn, or do not provide for the support of themselves or their families or dependents, and all other idle and disorderly persons, including all who neglect all lawful business, or habitually misspend their time by frequenting houses of ill-fame, gaming houses, or tippling shops, shall be deemed and considered vagrants under the provisions of this act; and, on conviction thereof shall be fined not exceeding $100, with all accruing costs, and be imprisoned at the discretion of the court not exceeding ten days. ((Mississippi Black Code, 1865.))

Because the end of slavery signified an economic crisis for the American South, which had been dependent on the perpetual control of Black labor to maintain its agricultural industry, political-economic circumstances dictated the creation of new legal institutions that juridified white dominance over the Black populous. The vagrancy law cited above, though legally neutral, was directed towards Black people who after slavery still enjoyed only severely limited employment opportunities and lived in constant financial precarity. The law pathologizes this condition as a kind of social or behavioral disorder while concurrently qualifying proper ways to spend time and money. Vagrancy, then, characterized by a range of activities from public drunkenness to poor money management to gambling, sets the parameters for a code of conduct that attempts to reclaim the usefulness of Black labor for the economy, ostracizing and punishing those who are unable to comply. Yet though Black people were even mandated to provide proof of employment to the government every January, ((Sandra Bass, “Policing Space, Policing Race: Social Control Imperatives and Police Discretionary Decisions,” Social Justice, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring 2001), 160.

)) secure employment did nothing to neutralize other forms of vagrancy and disorder. If hard-earned money was spent in ways deemed inappropriate by the state, Black people faced fines or imprisonment. If they walked on the street late at night they might be subject to police or vigilante violence. And if they defended themselves in ways deemed ‘malicious’ or ‘disorderly,’ they risked facing further harassment or legal punishment.

Laws such as the Mississippi Black Code were inextricable from geographical segregation. As Sandra Bass notes, “spatial segregation provided a means for differential delivery and distribution of public goods and services to black communities,” ((Sandra Bass, “Policing Space, Policing Race: Social Control Imperatives and Police Discretionary Decisions,” Social Justice, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring 2001), 160.

)) thus economically immobilizing the Black population. Under such conditions it is not unthinkable that individuals would have difficulty supporting their families (despite the law’s endorsement of nuclear family structures), that they might out of necessity resort to alternative economies to try to make ends meet, and that they would therefore be more susceptible to the iron fist of this hard-lined legislation. This is not to preclude the notion that white people were not partaking in ‘disorderly’ behavior as well; rather, it is to assert that the construction of disorder itself was (and continues to be) inextricable from racial identity and socioeconomic position. The police served as the primary enforcers of this racialized double standard. “As the police are essentially a spatially deployed public service,” Bass explains, “the interaction between race and space are central to understanding police practices. Policing in the segregated zones has historically been qualitatively different from that in predominately white neighborhoods.” ((Sandra Bass, “Policing Space, Policing Race: Social Control Imperatives and Police Discretionary Decisions,” Social Justice, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring 2001), 160.

)) In turning to the origins of the broken windows theory it is crucial to emphasize the importance of geography as a political-economic tool, as it is often through the manipulation and control of public space that exploitation and racism as the “specific mechanism which ‘reproduces’ the black labor force, from one generation to another, in the places and positions which are race specific,” ((Stuart Hall et al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, (London: MacMillian, 389), quoted in Bass, “Policing Space, Policing Race,” 158.)) are executed and experienced most severely.

  • Next: Part 2: “The Disorder of Threat.”
  • Jacob Ertel recently graduated from Oberlin College, where he organized with Students for a Free Palestine and studied political economy. Jacob is currently based in New York City and is interested in the BDS movement, anti-gentrification, and internationalism. He has previously been published on Dissident Voice and Cyrano’s Journal. He can be contacted by email at:</a. Read other articles by Jacob.