Broken Windows, Workfare, and the Battle for Public Space

Part 5 of 5: Broken Windows, Workfare, and the Battle for Public Space in Giuliani’s New York

Accumulation by Dispossession, Dispossession by Criminalization

Workfare and broken windows policing are mutually reinforcing political-economic institutions, but they do not have to be. As Smith explains, the level of “revanchism” displayed by the Giuliani administration “was neither a politically nor a socially necessary outcome of economic crisis and restructuring. It was a choice by a narrow group of political and corporate leaders who really do constitute, with others, a ruling class.” ((Smith, Neil. “Which New Urbanism? The Revanchist 90s.” Perspecta, Vol. 30, Settlement Patterns (1999), 105.)) Whereas the Keynesian urban policy in place from the 1930s to the 1970s was rooted in the “broad-based subsidy of local social reproduction that underscored capital accumulation in economic, political, and ideological terms,” the state’s responsibility for managing the stark contradiction between the “reproduction of class and capital accumulation” under liberal social policy has nearly entirely dissolved with the development of post-Fordist globalization. ((Neil Smith, “Giuliani Time: The Revanchist 90s,” Social Text, No. 57 (Winter, 1998), 10.)) In other words, I return to an argument laid out earlier in suggesting that the unprecedented movement of both capital and labor across borders in an increasingly globalizing economy has provided city governments with “an increased incentive to abandon that sector of the population surplused by both the restructuring of the economy and the gutting of social services.” ((Smith, “Giuliani Time,” 11.)) In doing so, the political class is granted new levels of power in determining how to deal with those who, when considered economically, are human surplus. While broken windows should not be read as a necessarily inherent correlate of the gradual defunding and decentralization of the welfare state, it is a logical outgrowth of population management under a restructured workfarist economy. Crisis creates disorder for the political and upper classes. How they respond to it is up to their discretion.

Compounded with workfare programs from PRWORA to WEP, broken windows policing typified a war on the poor by way of the reclamation of public space from the vagrants of welfare. The destruction of viable employment opportunities under the programs of the mid-1990s, rather than encouraging self-sufficiency and eliminating lower-class ‘disorder,’ exported crime from the gleaming centers of the metropolis to its neglected margins, giving rise to greater participation in alternative economies, from drug dealing to burglary. ((Smith, “Which New Urbanism?” 102.)) Whereas business-heavy areas such as midtown Manhattan rarely experience homicides, crime in the most subdued precincts dropped 50 percent during the first three years of Giuliani’s time as mayor. ((Parenti, Chris. Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis. New York: Verso, 1999, 107.)) In less trafficked areas lying beyond the reach of the subway, however, as well as in Harlem and central Brooklyn, homicide rates rose consistently and real danger increased along with the dual implementation of workfare and broken windows. ((Parenti, Chris. Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis. New York: Verso, 1999, 107.)) In this sense one may trace a direct link between the ‘cleaning up of New York’ through the ousting of squeegee men and fare-beaters and the urban decay occurring beyond the city’s core. Facilities such as homeless shelters, free clinics, detox centers, and even welfare offices were relocated away from central locations in the city to significantly more distant areas. “Of New York’s thirteen newest shelters,” journalist Chris Parenti notes, “nine are located in peripheral and impoverished parts of Brooklyn and the South Bronx; one is in northern Manhattan.” ((Parenti, 106.)) Yet, as illustrated above, it is not sufficient to understand this form of capital accumulation by dispossession as intrinsic to capitalism’s quotidian functioning; it is dispossession via deliberate criminalization.

As I have demonstrated through discussing the characteristics and effects specific to workfare programs both national and local, the imposition of both workfare programs and broken windows on the poor resonates loudly under neoliberal capitalism. This is not to assert that the two are inextricable from one another: for instance, workfare programs have not always been accompanied by quality-of-life initiatives, yet social services have continued to undergo defunding since the 1980s. Rather, I suggest that these two mechanisms, when dually implemented, are mutually reinforcing; though they are not co-constitutive, they do share coherence. The affinity between workfare and broken windows in New York City is particularly direct. For example, Giuliani defunded social service spending by 9 percent while increasing funding for public safety by 20 percent during his first five years as mayor, amounting to a “transfer of nearly one billion dollars from social services to public safety, with the brunt of the monies going to pay for the increase in uniformed staff, whose average wages and long-term benefits are much higher than those of civilian employees.” ((Wacquant, Loïc. Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009, 263.)) Unsurprisingly, the homelessness rate grew by 15 percent from 1994 to 1997, while 363,000 people were thrown off the welfare rolls from 1995 to 1998. ((Smith, “Which New Urbanism?” 101.)) In 1998, to the repudiation of even New York State’s supreme court, Giuliani refused to follow legal requirements for sheltering those evicted from their homes, while firing half of the entire staff of the Department of Homeless Services in the attempt to entirely privatize the agency. ((Smith, “Which New Urbanism?” 101.)) Instead of providing people with jobs, those unable to support themselves on workfare were subject to eviction and homelessness, police harassment, or incarceration. Between 1988 and 1998, New York State increased spending for corrections by 76 percent while decreasing its high education funding by 29 percent. ((Wacquant, Loïc. Prisons of Poverty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, 71.)) In a post-Fordist welfare state, the flexibilization of labor necessarily leads to warehousing.

The simultaneous defunding of social services and ramping up of penal expenditures shows where the state’s priorities lie, as it focuses on self-fulfilling punitive non-solutions rather than sufficient benefits and assistance measures. This process can only function properly through the criminalization of poverty in conjunction with severely underpaid wage labor construed as a “civic obligation for those locked at the bottom of the class and ethnic structure, as well as the redeployment of social-welfare programs in a restrictive and punitive sense that is concomitant with it.” ((Wacquant, Prisons of Poverty, 79.)) Such a pattern is emblematic of the transition from Keynesian welfare statism—in which massive influxes of funds were deployed to combat social-economic crises and buffer the standard of living in order to placate tension—to neoliberal criminalization via workfarism. Welfare is now ineluctable from flexible, insecure employment, always one step closer to the penal nexus. The fundamental character of crime has not changed since the mid-1970s, but the “attitude of the society and the responses of the authorities toward street delinquency and its principal source, urban poverty concentrated in big cities,” have. ((Wacquant, Prisons of Poverty, 149.)) Repressing crime while simultaneously redefining it thus serves as a means to the constant regulation of racialized class antagonisms. As welfare has become workfare, “desocialized wage labor in the low-wage service sectors” has become “the normal horizon of work for the deskilled fractions of the post-industrial working class.” ((Wacquant, Prisons of Poverty, 150.)) New York City emblematizes the new neoliberal city, a ‘playground for the rich’ dependent on the pathologization of, and enforcement of paltry wage labor on, the urban poor through the criminalization of poverty.


The Neoliberal City

As Parenti argues, poverty is a sine qua non of capitalism, of the crises of the free market. Capitalism needs poverty to survive, to regulate lower class life. Yet poverty also frightens capitalism. As a “political force, poverty is very useful; it scares and disciplines the working classes, keeps wages down, and provides a platform for moralizing political circus.” ((Parenti, 90.)) At the same time, however, the presence of the poor in public space represents a threat to the political and economic elite. The urban poor is the subject of broken windows policing because its existence necessarily disrupts the quality of life of the white middle class. It calls attention to the violences that are systematically obfuscated. It haunts the subways and Times Square. No matter how many lower-class Black people are extra-legally killed by the police for alleged misdemeanor crimes by a government that has abandoned all responsibility for providing the most minimal amenities to capitalism’s victims, no matter how many are warehoused because they are forced to turn to alternative economies, the urban poor will always threaten capitalism because the free market makes it so. In New York City, this tension has manifested itself in the battle for public space. As Smith proffers, “Criminality is spatialized, postmodernized even, insofar as the sign and the symptom are the same thing; it is identified with certain kinds of social presence in the urban landscape.” ((Smith, “Which New Urbanism?” 100.)) If we revisit the twin paradoxes of ‘urban renewal’ discussed earlier, we may better understand the ways in which gentrification schemes are critical to broken windows policing. The economic restructuring of New York City after the turmoil of the late-1980s and early 1990s rested on the simultaneous decentralization and defunding of social services as well as the provision of attractive real estate for capital investment, all while the Giuliani administration expanded its policing power. Disorder in public spaces (i.e., being visibly poor or Black in spaces designated for reclamation by white middle-class normativity) became the signifier of, in Giuliani’s words, a “city out of control.” ((Smith, “Which New Urbanism?” 100.)) No sooner were the 75 to 100 squeegee men were eliminated from the city’s streets in one of Bratton’s first quality-of-life initiatives than the “police set about evicting the ever larger shantytowns from beneath the FDR Drive and the Williamsburg and Brooklyn bridges. The plan was clear enough: centrifugal police pressures would extrude Manhattan’s poor into outlying boroughs.” ((Parenti, 77.)) Rather than ameliorating the very ‘disorder’ that threatened white public space through public relief, Giuliani, with the help of Bratton, simply exported it while diminishing the capacity of public agencies to respond. This is the neoliberal city, a locale premised on ethnic cleansing through the mutually reinforcing paradigms of workfare and broken windows policing.

Stop and Frisk and Broken Windows Reformism

Giuliani is gone, but broken windows persists. Michael Bloomberg, the thirteenth wealthiest person in the United States, (( “The World’s Billionaires,” Forbes.)) succeeded Giuliani in 2002, serving an unprecedented three terms in the mayoral position until 2013. Throughout his decade-long stint as mayor, Bloomberg gained notoriety for expanding the stop-and-frisk policing program, a logical outgrowth of broken windows. Stop-and-frisk extends the power of police even further, as officers may stop local urbanites for alleged criminal activity, whether they can prove it or not. In this sense stop-and-frisk continues on the draconian trajectory of broken windows by giving the police the authority to stop anyone who might be presumed likely to engage in disorder. Throughout Bloomberg’s tenure, Black and Latino people constituted nearly 90 percent of the total stops (which in peak years totaled nearly 700,000) made throughout the city (at roughly 55 and 35 percent, respectively). ((New York Civil Liberties Union, “Stop and Frisk Data.” )) Moreover, though the proclaimed objective of stop-and-frisk was to decrease the rate of guns in the city, from 2002 to 2011 the number of victims of gunfire decreased by only 71. ((New York Civil Liberties Union, “Stop and Frisk Facts.”)) Only 0.2 percent of stops yielded an actual gun, and nearly 90 percent of those stopped under Bloomberg were completely innocent of any crime. ((NYCLU, “Stop and Frisk Data.”)) And while the murder rate in New York City dropped roughly 12 percent between 2002 and 2012, the murder rate in cities such as Los Angeles and Washington D.C., two cities with significantly less aggressive stop and frisk policies, declined by 43 percent. ((Robert Gangi, “Focused on Crime Numbers, But Not Ones That Count,” The New York Times, July 17, 2014.)) Like broken windows, the efficiency of stop-and-frisk is statistically irrelevant, and the program extends the criminalization of the poor to advance a more intensive racial profiling regime than ever before.

One of de Blasio’s first initiatives upon becoming mayor was to drastically curb stop and frisk. This is one promise de Blasio has held true to: in 2013, nearly 200,000 people were stopped in New York, compared to over 500,000 the year before under Bloomberg. ((NYCLU, “Stop and Frisk Data.”)) Yet though de Blasio’s reformist agenda may initially please liberals appalled by Bloomberg’s tactics, broken windows is back, along with Bratton. Especially in the subways, a haven in which impoverished people routinely perform for tax-free tips, arrests had tripled by early 2014. ((Joseph Goldstein and J. David Goodman, “Arrests of Panhandlers and Peddlers on Subways Triple under Bratton,” New York Times, March 7, 2014.)) By this past summer, over 240 people—primarily young Black men—were arrested for break dancing in the trains, compared with only 40 by the same time the previous year. ((CBS / Associated Press, “NYPD Cracking Down on Subway Acrobats,” CBS News, July 1, 2014.)) And while de Blasio has recently made headlines through his refusal to endorse the New York grand jury’s decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, ((Joanna Walters, “New York Mayor Bill de Blasio Refuses to Endorse Eric Garner Grand Jury Decision,” Guardian, December 7, 2014.)) such acknowledgement is merely symbolic without the dissolution of zero-tolerance policing. The sale of untaxed cigarettes is a quality-of-life crime; broken windows is responsible for Eric Garner’s death. It is unsurprising, then, that as the protests against police brutality catalyzed by the murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in Ferguson continue across the country, the abolition of broken windows has surfaced as one of the critical demands in New York City.

The dissolution of broken windows policing is crucial to reclaiming the streets of New York from the police, but it must be attached to other structural initiatives including the increase of funding to public schools, the creation of more social service providers, the raise of the minimum wage, and the re-envisioning of welfare policies on the municipal, state, and federal levels. The racialized and pathologized notion of ‘disorder’ must be confronted if workfare capitalism is to be substantively challenged in both its repressive and exploitative forms. Sustainable resistance, then, entails bridging the gaps between welfare and policing while creating locally based alternatives such as community defense patrols and educational programs. I have attempted to bridge some of these gaps in this paper. What these bridges will look like in practice, however, remains to be seen.

Read Part 1, 2, 3, and 4.

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.