The Disorder of Threat

Part 2: Broken Windows, Workfare, and the Battle for Public Space in Giuliani’s New York

In March 1982, conservative theoreticians James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published a brief article in The Atlantic entitled “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety” that was to drastically alter the scope of policing. As opposed to previous ‘community policing’ stratagems in which police officers were encouraged to play an active if not collaborative role in building relationships with the community in their designated location, Wilson and Kelling advocated for the deployment of heightened police aggression—‘zero tolerance’—towards small-time offenders.

The central thesis in “Broken Windows” is that petty crimes inevitably lead to serious, potentially violent ones. Only by cracking down most intensely on low-level offenses, they argue, can order be restored to society. Citing the conduct of an exemplary police officer in Newark, New Jersey, Wilson and Kelling note, “Persons who broke the informal rules, especially those who bothered people waiting at bus stops, were arrested for vagrancy.” They continue, “Arresting a single drunk or a single vagrant who has harmed no identifiable person seems unjust, and in a sense it is. But failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community.”1

Like the Black Codes over one hundred years prior, quality-of-life policing hinges on the rhetoric of vagrancy and the disruption of orderly public space as a means of ensuring community safety. As lawyer and theorist Bernard Harcourt explains, however, the broken windows rubric rests on white, middle-class norms of orderliness, in turn criminalizing those who deviate from the juridical standard: “The approach privileges the law abider who cares for his home, his lawn, and his children, and the neighborhood merchant. It frowns on the unattached adult and the kids hanging out on the corners. It privileges order, regularity, and predictability. It frowns on the disorderly, the obstreperous, and the unpredictable.”2

Wilson and Kelling likewise assert that by policing deviant, disorderly conduct, the crime rate will recede. In addition to a lack of supporting statistical evidence, this strategy provides police with extra-legal power to monitor and act with hostility towards anyone guilty of vagrancy, homelessness,3 or engaging in alternative economies. Taking into consideration the racial and spatialized deployment of police across urban centers, it is unsurprising that broken windows-style policing would disproportionately affect low-income communities of color.

Despite the conflicting opinions surrounding the broken windows theory immediately following its inception, it also received significant support. Influential neoconservative eugenicist Charles Murray, for example, argued that without zero-tolerance controls, aggrieved communities would be transformed into a permanent underclass unable to care for itself.4 In conjunction with Wilson and Kelling, Murray details “the ‘interlinking of welfare dependency,’ single parenthood, undisciplined children, and crime in an unbroken causal chain,” while promoting “a gendered imagery of ‘disease and infection,’ providing a popular front to the underlying reactionary theories of moral degeneracy and social pathology.”5

In his 1984 libertarian opus Losing Ground in particular, Murray contends that past federal welfare incentives have contributed to the alienation of the poor by providing them with perverse disincentives to work. Once the poor were allowed access to means-tested programs, Murray insists, “it became socially acceptable within poor communities to be unemployed, because working families too were receiving welfare.”6 Murray’s historical interpretation undoubtedly engenders the racialized trope of the ‘welfare queen,’ while decrying the presumptively dead ‘work ethic’ that convened a level of stigmatization on the poor powerful enough to prevent crime and instead seek a substantial working class job. Herein lies a crucial distinction between the Black Codes and the broken windows theory: whereas the Black Codes punished Black people for failing to contribute to an economy that needed their labor, broken windows punishes them for limiting the potential efficiency of others (namely, the white middle- and upper-class gentry) to contribute to the economy. Here one may begin to trace the linkages between the transformation of the US welfare state in the mid-1990s and the implementation of the broken windows theory. While Murray represents a particularly extreme voice on the Right, the extent of his influence is not to be dismissed. In fact, the prefigured causality between an imagined dependency on welfare, disorderliness, and violent crime largely determined the criterion for the governing paradigm that would be effectuated after the election of former star federal prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani as mayor of New York City.

Twin Paradoxes of “Urban Renewal”

Giuliani entered his mayoral tenure amidst severe economic turmoil in New York City. Even by 1994, the city was experiencing the effects of the 1987 stock market crash and subsequent depression that further paved the way for retrenchment policies and economic restructuring programs across the country, including on the local level. New York in particular bore witness to the mass transfer of public funds into private corporate coffers. Neil Smith explains, for example, that as “hundreds of millions of dollars in tax abatement ‘geo-bribes’ flowed regularly to attract or keep megacorporations in the city, the official unemployment rate soared to over 10 percent. Public fear replaced self-centered optimism in the early 1990s and it was this fear that Giuliani skillfully played upon.”7 Welfare services were rapidly decentralized along with the popularization of the broken windows theory, as the search for capital investment necessitated the mass ethnic cleansing qua gentrification of the city’s most disorderly areas so as to clear room for development plans that would revitalize the city. Such a project necessarily entailed the kind of fear mongering alluded to by Smith; safety and security of the citizenry became synonymous with financial speculation and profit.

Here one may identify a critical paradox: that though the economic restructuring by way of urban renewal under Giuliani had the effect of exacerbating poverty through cuts to social services, it produced new spaces that were epistemologically contingent on the constant threat of poverty.8 Sociologist Loïc Wacquant expands this paradigm to identify a “paradox of neoliberal penality,” in which “the state stridently reasserts its responsibility, potency, and efficiency in the narrow register of crime management at the very moment when it proclaims and organizes its own impotence on the economic front, thereby revitalizing the twin historical-cum-scholarly myths of the efficient police and the free market.”9 Giuliani’s New York is exemplary of both paradoxes, with the latter compounding the former through the fortification of law enforcement to maintain the security of newly fashioned enclaves perpetually under the threat of impending disorder to white middle-class life primarily aggravated by capital investment in those very spaces.

To be fair, the transformation of welfare programs was not occurring solely in New York: it was largely a federally initiated phenomenon perhaps best typified by the elimination of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program in 1995 and the ratification of PRWORA in 1996. From a bird’s-eye view, this act was characterized by the decentralization of welfare through federal defunding, the bureaucratic erasure of political dissent in Washington through the transference of federal responsibilities to the state level, and the intensification of competition for increasingly scarce resources on the state and local levels.10 New policies have also increasingly focused on low-cost targeting programs that yield unsustainable yet politically expedient results.11

Though PRWORA is emblematic of restructuring according to neoliberal free-market ideology, however, it is crucial to understand that these market relations are not “outside, separate from, or above state action, just as relief systems are not ‘external’ to the labor market.”12 Rather, the state and the economy are “fundamentally and irretrievably linked…their structures and dynamics mutually constitutive.”12 The process of neoliberal welfare reform, then, can only be explained as one of statecraft, through which the state remolds itself according to the legitimation of new regulatory institutions and their intersections with the depleted labor market. As geographer Jamie Peck laments, the “principal victims” of this restructuring “are the poor, who repeatedly pay the price for their structural position at this pressure point in the job market.”12

The twin defunding and decentralization of federal welfare has been concurrent with the rise of corrections-based spending. It is important to emphasize that this trend is not necessarily zero-sum, but that it is representative of the state’s priorities with regard to the chronically unemployed post-Fordist working class. By the time AFDC was eliminated, “the United States was spending twice as much to incarcerate ($46 billion) as to support destitute single mothers with children ($20 billion), and as much as AFDC and food stamps put together.”13 Likewise with public housing: by 1995, corrections budget appropriations exceeded funding for public housing by a factor of three, resembling the inverse relationship of 1980 funding allocations.13 “Considering that inmates are overwhelmingly drawn from the lowest fractions of the working class, who are for this very reason most likely to resort to welfare, food stamps, and housing support,” Wacquant avers, “this trend suggests that incarceration has de facto become America’s largest government program for the poor.”14 Quality-of-life policing may thus be understood as a correlate to welfare decentralization, as the newly re-empowered police force is imbued with extra-legal authority to discipline the poor for presumptively disorderly behavior, either forcing them into the emaciated labor market or warehousing those who must turn to alternative economies. Within this model, the ‘deserving’ poor are construed as proper citizens bearing a productive work ethic in a largely desocialized, de-industrialized economy, while the ‘undeserving’ who fail to adequately insert themselves into the state-legitimated market exist under the constant threat of legal discipline or worse.15

  • Read Part 1.
  • Next: Part 3: “Workfare National and Local.”
    1. George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” The Atlantic. []
    2. Bernard Harcourt, Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 127. []
    3. C. R. Sridhar, “Broken Windows and Zero Tolerance: Policing Urban Crimes,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 41, No. 19 (May 2006), 1843. []
    4. Phil Scraton, “Streets of Terror: Marginalization, Criminalization, and Authoritarian Renewal,” Social Justice, Vol. 31, No. 1/2 (95-96), 140. []
    5. Scranton, 141-142. []
    6. Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 185. []
    7. Neil Smith, “Which New Urbanism? The Revanchist 90s,” Perspecta, Vol. 30, Settlement Patterns (1999), 99. []
    8. Chris Parenti, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (New York: Verso, 1999), 70. []
    9. Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), xviii. []
    10. Jamie Peck, Workfare States (New York: The Guilford Press, 2001), 70-71. []
    11. Ibid, 71. []
    12. Ibid, 44. [] [] []
    13. Loïc Wacquant, Prisons of Poverty (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 68. [] []
    14. Ibid, 68-69. []
    15. Wacquant, Punishing the Poor, xvii. []
    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.