And a broken-windows policy of policing is exactly what it means:
The property matters. The people can stay broken until hell freezes over.
And the ejection of these ill-bought philosophies of class and racial control from our political mainstream — this is now the real prize, not only in Baltimore, but nationally. Overpolicing and a malignant drug prohibition have systemically repressed and isolated the poor, created an American gulag, and transformed law enforcement into a militarized and brutalizing force utterly disconnected from communities in which thousands are arrested but crime itself — real crime — is scarcely addressed. To be sure, there are a great many savage inequalities in our society — no doubt we could widen this discussion at a dozen points — but now, right now, overpolicing of the poor by a militarized police-state is actually on the table for the first time in decades.
And don’t for a second think that stabbing a fork through the heart of zero tolerance isn’t job one. Nothing else changes, nothing else grows in the no-man’s lands of a war zone, and our inner cities have been transformed into free-fire battlegrounds by this drug war and all of the brutalities and dishonesties done in its name.
Yes, the charges came for the Baltimore officers and the city is now relatively quiet. But step back for a moment from the immediacy of each individual outrage — from Ferguson, from Staten Island, from North Charleston, from West Baltimore — and realize that while this systemic overlay of oppression will offer a moral exemption or two when the facts or the digital video demands it, charging an officer here or implementing a new training course for police there, the game itself grinds on. Even as they acknowledge an atrocity or two, the same voices of seeming reason continue to suggest that we needn’t abandon all the good that zero-tolerance enforcement has done for us.
Why look at New York, can’t you? Safest big city in America. Zero-tolerance works, goddammit. It makes us all safer, and our cities governable. Fix the broken windows, write up all the small infractions, punish every minor offender and soon, you’ll see, the city becomes liveable again. If you have money, quite liveable indeed.
Meanwhile, in Baltimore — as in every other city that doesn’t happen to be the recapitalized, respeculated, rebuilt center of world finance — zero tolerance has been a disaster. And the levels of police violence and incarceration that spring from this policing philosophy are proving more lethal to the American spirit and experiment than even race fear and race hatred, as ugly and enduring as that pathology is. No, this is now about class. This is those who have more using the levers of governance to terrorize those who have less, and doing so by using damn near nothing to keep the poor at the margins of American life.
Four men in four separate cities are dead over a shoplifted cigar, a single sold cigarette, a legal pocket knife and a domestic order for child support. Do any of us feel appreciably safer for the cost? Do any of us still want to talk about breaking a few eggs to make that omelet? Do any of us still want to defend the absurd and brutalizing notion that by using our police officers to stalk our ghettoes heaving criminal charge upon criminal charge at every standing human being, we are fixing, or helping, or even intelligently challenging the other America to find a different future for itself?
Why yes, yes we do. Incredibly, we do.
* * *
As much as the best slogans and the purest ideology wishes it otherwise, this astonishing edifice of American repression, built carefully, brick by brick, over decades and sustained by a paper-thin, 24-hour-a-day media culture that traffics only in fear and shock value, is not going to fall with a riot. Exactly the opposite is going to happen if rightful civil disobedience gives way to civil unrest.
When the very demand is an end to wanton and brutalizing overpolicing, a riot and all the imagery that a riot conjures is in fact the most useless thing in the great arsenal of civil disobedience and rebellion. Yes, if you want to argue anyone’s right to a burn and loot, to declare that America’s dispossessed have been violently targeted, that they are desperate, that they deserve all the violence that these state-sponsored murders elicit, then you can present yourself as a fairly sublime fascimile of Patrick Henry or Malcolm X for our time. Death or glory. Liberty or death. Your rhetoric will no doubt inspire those who are like-minded, and maybe even the folks risking all in the street, as well.
And then you — and they — will lose.
Me, I’m fucking tired of losing. For decades now, American governance has carefully leached the overt racialist sentiment from its calls for law and order. Just as carefully, with the rise of a black and Latino middle class, that governance has secured some healthy measure of minority participation in a crackdown that now targets the underclass overall. No? Look at the faces of those charged with failing to travel Freddie Gray from street to lockup without severing his spine; ebony and ivory, beating down the poor in perfect harmony. And finally, to fully insulate and institutionalize the brutality, our government has deployed it against us in post-racial fashion. If you don’t think so — if you believe that this is still merely about race — you need to spend some time in places such as Baltimore’s Pigtown or O’Donnell Heights, watching white people of little means getting their asses kicked and their rights violated with as much gusto as in West Baltimore. This war is on the poor.
And they are good at this. They understand the optics. And they believe that in these moments when the systemic nightmare that is now American policing reveals itself in a choked-to-death arrestee or a hellish wagon ride, that they can wait out the outrage, that the small bone of a singular indictment or even conviction can be thrown, that eventually the indignation of the oppressed will slip in either its intensity or its discipline, that the street theater will dissipate, or even better for their purposes, lurch into open, CNN-engorged violence. In the end, they expect any uprising to underplay or overplay even the strongest hand.
You don’t think so? One word: Occupy.
Yes, the street is essential, and more than that, the hands-up ballet that exposed the militarized police response in Ferguson was brilliant, honest disobedience. Those images — far more than anything burned or anything thrown in Missouri — moved this cause forward. Just as fundamentally, the Baltimore imagery of young men standing their ground and claiming North and Pennsie for their own, or marching peacefully in anger toward City Hall against a line of helmets and riot shields, has profound power. Stakes are high and now, with one lethal encounter after another lined up to prove the rule and not the exception to Americans who have little clue about police violence, some moral high ground is there for the taking. But Occupy proved that the street is only the opening act, and the second act of this drama — of any popular movement — has to be political.
And for a second act to even begin to happen, the optics don’t merely matter — they are everything.
The demand here is not merely to punish some police, much as some police need to be held to account. The substantive victory — the one for which there is now actually a window– is for our governance and law enforcement to take its hand from the throat of the other America, to finally and forever abandon the cruelty of an unrestrained drug war, of zero-tolerance policies, of mass incarceration. The demand has to be systemic reform: Governance must allow the dispossessed of this country to stand up and venture unmolested into the same shared future with the rest of us: This is wrong. Let them be. They are Americans. They are us.
Shame is some powerful shit, and there is so much for all of us to be ashamed about after buying into this repressive dynamic for so long. And for as long as the optics and the discipline of the uprising allow, shame and the grievous sacrifices of Brown and Garner, Scott and Gray are doing hard and essential labor here. Those who live only by the slogan, who want to assert categorically that power only yields to force, that no one ever achieved a real measure of freedom without violence — they talk as if the imagery of violent civil unrest has ever done anything in this country other than push middle Americans into the arms of fearful, authoritarian repression, or even more naively, as if the political middle is somehow unnecessary to political victory in a republic that when it governs itself at all, governs by rough consensus. By any means necessary? As fine a phrase in the cause of liberty as has ever been uttered, but in actual application, it will have to be employed as if the urban poor are not already at the margins of American life, as if their numbers are such that they can find political consensus in this country once rioting becomes the predominant visual. By any means necessary sounds great until you realize that there aren’t actually a lot of means available to the underclass, that bricks and fire will have to suffice against a policing and civil defense apparatus that is already militarized and weaponized beyond anything seen in 1968.
To embrace a riot when circumstances offer a real prize for the first time in decades — this would be a triumph of self-defeating anger, however justified or worthy of empathy, on the part of the underclass themselves. Or worse, in the case of those claiming to support the aspirations of the popular risings in the streets of Ferguson or Baltimore, it is armchair revolution, a celebration of perfect ideology ready to street-fight tyranny at the cost of someone else’s blood, someone else’s skull. To argue such desperate extremity, you have to scrub clean every lesson of the last half century that argues for organization and discipline, for mass non-violent civil disobedience and the victories won at the hands of that ideal. Selma, Gdansk, Robben Island — the transformational moments come not when the popular will indulges in violence, but after the state itself indulges in shameless violence and repression against its own people, when the tactics of brutality are overplayed and when the threat or actuality of violence reveals as hollow the moral standing of a bad government.
You think the presumption is mine, that I’m speaking for the poor from a position of affluence, or white entitlement? Perhaps. Or perhaps the presumption is yours in declaring that many, or even most of our urban poor are not themselves fully aware of the stakes, that they are too battered and enraged by years of authoritarian violence to achieve anything bigger or more lasting than a riot. Perhaps when a Baltimorean of any stripe argues against other Baltimoreans giving in to the rage of a riot when still other Baltimoreans are risking so much to actually reform something — maybe this isn’t actually as much a function of race as you think. And perhaps, too, infantilizing those participating in this uprising by rationalizing the rioting, by implying that the poor and dispossessed can’t instead organize and maintain a disciplined and unrelenting mass protest for real results — perhaps this is an ugly condescension all its own.
Real results? Not here, you say. Not now. Are you sure?
* * *
A few weeks ago, I swallowed hard, put on a tie, and drove down to Washington D.C. to eat rubber chicken and directly engage with people who are said to have some hand in pretending to governing this country. For an old reporter, and one well-versed in certain time-tested newsroom cynicisms, this was a close call. I told the organizers of the event that I didn’t want to be on some damn panel discussing everything from deindustrialization to educational equality to family values. I didn’t want to waste my time sitting in meeting rooms over five-year plans and new slogans for programs that never come. I didn’t want to be used to validate more inertia and failure.
“We can’t promise an outcome,” an organizer conceded, “but this time, it’s not just the liberals. Gingrich is a cosponsor aloing with Donna Brazille, and some of the funding comes from Koch Industries.”
“There’s honestly a chance that some movement on this stuff can happen, actually.”
Maybe I’m a chump, but I signed up. No panels, no back-and-forth on all of the global issues in which an actual attempt at reform can be lost, but yeah, I agreed to vent ten minutes on an aspect I guessed probably woudn’t be covered by people on either the left or the right: The drug war had fucked up policing. It was brutality without purpose, save for the mass incarceration of people who don’t really need to be in prison. It was, to be exact, the same set-piece rant I’ve been giving for more than a decade, but I reheated it again because I thought for once I was talking to a group that all had some feathered piece of the same agenda: The libertarians don’t care about any sense of a shared future, but hey, they see the drug war clearly for what it is, and the lefties know the smell of brutality and repression when it’s in the room. The conversatives? Hell, they can see that the costs of locking up this many human beings for all manner of infraction is more than the country can bear economically.
After I signed on, the White House called. Rather than tape his own remarks to the gathering, the President wanted to talk with me (yeah I know, WTF) and send the bipartisan symposium a 10-12 minute video arguing further the disaster that mass incarceration and an unwinnable drug war had brought the country. Huh.
So that too.
And a few days later, I’m sitting with my chicken plate between Newt fucking Gingrich and some vice president for Koch Industries listening to the sitting Republic governor of Georgia — that’s right, good old red-state Georgia — explaining how this essential reform is already happening, that in his state, for fiscal and humanistic reasons both, they are closing prisons and dramatically reducing the prison population by walking away from the notion of zero tolerance, and making a very sensible, very human distinction between “those things that we wish people wouldn’t do and those things that we can’t allow you to do.”
Still think that there isn’t a window here? This is the actual, on-the-ground statewide abandonment of zero-tolerance by a conversative Republican governor of Georgia; not a proposed change, not an argument undertaken at the fringe of a political campaign or by some gadfly critic or academician. Georgia, of all places, has just abandoned mass incarceration, broken windows and zero tolerance.
The governor’s keynote received standing applause, and why not from a bipartisan coalition that had been brought together to pursue a goal of reducing the national prison population by 50 percent? Georgia is doing it, on her own. Go figure.
I used my ten minutes as planned, arguing that even if you value public safety above all things, you needed to abandon zero tolerance. Then I sat down again, only to have Mr. Gingrich follow me and declare that while Mr. Simon makes good fictional television dramas, zero-tolerance and broken-windows policing had a real future in our country, that they have in fact claimed a great victory in making New York one of the safest big cities in America.
Yeah, this shit will not die easy. Once a myth becomes the truth, it stays true.
Mr. Gingrich came back to the table and, God help me, I can never resist a good piss in the wind: “I’d agree with you,” I assured him, “but then we’d both be wrong.”
He laughed, and I proceeded to argue to his increasing irritation that comparing New York, or London, or Los Angeles or any other world city to half-hollow, second-tier post-industrial cities was incredibly specious, that what had worked in New York had not worked because Guliani filled Rikers, or because the civil rights of every black or brown citizen walking the streets had been made to disappear in the name of public safety.
He smiled, but he wasn’t listening. Dessert had arrived.
* * *
This window is eighteen months.
After that, the Obama administration ends and whatever follows it — Democratic, Republic — will not likely have the standing or fortitude to argue on behalf of the underclass, to risk the Willie-Horton baiting that can come when a prison is emptied, to expend limited political capital on the most demonized, feared and politically disenfranchised element of our society. The poor, and largely the urban poor at that, will be reconsigned to oblivion when the new administration transitions to power and the affluent who have paid for large chunks of the election victory will have their own notions about how the new president ought to use his political capital.
If a Republican wins the White House, he will have done so by yet again promising the party base that he will be tough on crime, that small-town values are an elemental truth despite the fact that America is forever more a big-city society, that he is a law-and-order kind of guy, that drugs are bad and that whoever the Democratics send at him is weak and vacillating when it comes to keeping our streets safe.
If a Democrats wins, it will at worst be because he maneuvered to the American center and abandoned any primary-season talk about the poor, about urban policies, or emptying prisons or getting soft on crime. At best, even a Democratic president who stays true to a moral course on this issue is likely going to be denied the necessary legislative victories by a Republican congress maneuvering for the next mid-term and presidential election cycles.
At the earliest, with either party, nothing happens to help the poor or mitigate the violence directed at the poor by our government until a second term, as it was with this administration. The next window after this one will be, at best, another eight years away.
But right now, this president — as a matter of conscience, perhaps, and with no more political worlds to conquer — is speaking words that have not been heard in decades. And willing, perhaps, to grant a legacy of reform to an administration that is of no further threat electorally, his opposition is actually joining the chorus, or — as in the case of Georgia — acting unilaterally to bipartisan applause. Now, in the last years of the last term of this presidency, there is a chance to undo decades of warfare on the poor. Now, right now, the pendulum very much is in swing.
* * *
There are a lot of people who misread “The Wire” as being cynical about the possibilities of populism or political change; that’s an easy read, in my opinion. Superficial, too. Yes, the drama is a dystopic vision of an ungovernable American city trapped in a rigged game. That’s not accidental: It seems important, I think, to first call a rigged game by its true name, and for the other America, as represented in “The Wire” by certain quadrants of Baltimore, the game is truly and prohibitively rigged.
But so was pre-civil rights America a rigged game. And the economic landscape of the country in the industrial age, prior to the Haymarket and Teddy Roosevelt and the the rise of collective bargaining, was also a mug’s game for many. The Communist satellites of Eastern Europe were rigged for decades before Solidarity sat down in that shipyard, just as apartheid was its own circular argument until a growing international isolation and economic stagnation forced an illegitimate, authoritarian government to see the man on Robben Island not as their prisoner but as their only possible chance for non-violent transformation. Every era of bad or illegimate governance is rigged and rigged tight. Until it isn’t.
The last time Baltimore — and the rest of urban America — burned for the television cameras, it brought nods of understanding and empathy from the left, and it left the urban poor and their communities even more isolated and vulnerable than before. It is tempting to argue otherwise — to point to community block-grants and UDAGs and say, look what progress did follow the riots in 1968. Or to read the Kerner Commission report and think that what happened in Detroit a year earlier brought the country to some new understanding of the fire next time and how to avoid it.
But no. The greater wisdom of the Kerner report lays there on the pages still, untouched by anything resembling comprehensive political action. And as for whatever money was tossed into American cities that were leaching population and tax-base after 1968, well, the government has always been okay at regilding ghettoes. Bricks and mortar is one thing, and hey, wherever you go, a developer is always a developer. But people? Where was the grand initiative to reconnect the isolated, urban poor with an economy that was already on the move, that was increasingly rendering them irrelevant to the American future?
The hard truth is the only comprehensive and lasting urban agenda that followed the rioting of the 1960s is law and order. A healthy chunk of the DNA of our current militarized policing dynamic and unrestrained use of arrest and incarceration is there, latent, in the fear that those long summers of civil unrest produced in middle America.
And Detroit is still Detroit. And the parts of Baltimore that burned on Monday have never quite made it back from what happened in 1968. A riot in London or Los Angeles — and such events were actually used for comparison this week, often by dillettantes from London or Los Angeles — is not going to implode those cities. Damage to a world metropolis can be papered over within a year or two by virtue of the incredible economic engines that guarantee the health of such extraordinary places. What does East London or Crown Heights or South Central mean to vast, monied landscapes that are the now the fixed centers of the accumulated financial health of their entire societies?
But Baltimore? Gauging what can happen to a Baltimore or a Detroit or a St. Louis in the wake of serious, prolonged riot by referencing a world city is as specious an endeavor as say, explaining all the good that zero-tolerance policing did in a city that was soaking luxuriously in the quarter-century run up in the financial markets. New York has busied itself for three decades completely rebuilding itself and recalibrating the wealth of its population to an extent that the poor were not only priced out of Manhattan, but much of the outer boroughs as well. The only thing that is going to mug someone in Alphabet City or Astoria nowadays is the bill from a two-star restaurant.
That’s why zero-tolerance worked in New York — because one of the richest cities that humankind has ever built soon enough had many more rich people and much less poor people overall. Put Wall Street where North Avenue is and drop West Baltimore where the financial district now sits in Manhattan and see the magic happen. If the financial markets were in Baltimore or St. Louis, and decades of Wall Street bonus money was scarfing up and restoring those towns block by block, why yes, what shining new Jerusalems would result in Maryland and Missouri. And if New York were an old manufacturing center without its bedrock of financial and artistic primacy?
That civic and political leaders in second-tier cities — without the mass capital to reconstitute themselves as centers of capitalist affluence — actually followed Guiliani and Bratton into this hellhole is testament to the simplicity and easy sloganeering under which our political culture operates. To its credit, the police department in nearby Washington D.C. tried zero-policing on the poorer quadrants in Northeast and Southeast and quickly backed away. They were destroying all semblence of community-police relations and police work itself was becoming brutish and ineffective.
But Baltimore kept going. Incredibly. And “The Wire” was a show made in that time of astonishing and stubborn indifference to the facts on the ground. Our leaders here were willing to fight the theory of zero tolerance to the tune of more than 100,000 annual arrests in a city of 600,000. And while they did, the arrest and conviction rates for every single category of felony crime fell because what is the use of actual police work and crime deterrence when you can sweep the streets of the poor instead?
Crime also fell, too, during that time, or so the cooked paperwork says. But more on that later; the complexity of that lie requires a separate essay, perhaps. Again, suffice to say that this shit dies hard, and if the mass protests in Baltimore and other cities achieve only a handful of indictments or convictions, then it probably won’t end at all.
But a riot? Christ, what could be better for arguing the need for more shields and helmets, more militarized police, more prisons, more omnibus crime bills. And, of course, more unending drug war. At every level, from the federal to the municipal, American government emerged from the maelstrom of the late-Sixties rioting with a mainstream-voter mandate for law-and-order policing, for establishing layers of social control over the poor, and especially the minority poor, that no longer relied on direct racial discrimination, but on a more coded and nominally color-blind drug prohibition.
The blame is bipartisan. Democratic and Republican presidents and governors and mayors competed with each other to spike the new construct with ever greater weaponry and militarization, to make the penalties on even the most minor, non-violent offenses ever more marginalizing and draconian, to demonize and isolate the poor beyond what our bifurcated version of America had already done, to make middle-class and working-class Americans viscerally afraid of and even vengeful against those without. Some of our most populist Democratic leaders traded in this shit for maximum political advantage. I’m looking at you, Bill Clinton. You are one masterful politician, and, well, a self-preserving sonofabitch. As much as anyone, the American gulag, millions of non-violent offenders strong, belongs to you.
But hey, that was then. Right now, in this rare window, Mr. Clinton, along with others — including many Americans who occupy the political center and are necessary ballast for consensus — are today as wary of the police and the overreach of zero tolerance, of the drug war, of the mass incarceration of fellow citizens, as they are scared of the poor. It’s been a long time coming, and but for the brutal overreach of the law enforcement community itself and, perhaps, too, the small wonder of digital camera-phones, we would not be here now.
But again, we have at best a year and a half before this political window closes. Hell, it may snap shut before then if the leaders of the mass civil dissent in Baltimore and elsewhere can’t sustain the civil disobedience and mass protest, if a mere indictment or conviction sends everyone to a warm coda of self-congratulation. And the window will certainly close if those leaders don’t stay organized and in control of the agenda, if they lose the optics to burning and looting. The American center stared at that shit once before and replied with Nixon and Reagan and three decades of omnibus crime bills, mandatory sentencing, and rampant prison construction. A good, robust riot now brings at least a decade more of the same misery.
* * *
The morning after the day when I apparently engaged in the unpardonable effrontery of urging, on this site, fellow Baltimoreans not to diminish and betray the moral authority and power of the ongoing protests by indulging in violence, I took drove to North and Pennsie to spend the morning, along with many other city residents, picking up trash.
It’s too much to claim I was at that point motivated by any hope of communal affirmation — though seeing hundreds of us — most black, but some white — walking the streets and alleys of Penn-North doing the same thing was pretty damn affirming. Mostly, though, I just woke up sick to my stomach at the thought of CNN and Fox reporters doing their Tuesday stand-ups with burnt trash and broken glass as their backdrop. I wanted the images of the previous day and night overtaken by something else.
After the trash was gone, even from many of the rear alleys, I joined the renewed occupation of North and Pennsie for a time. The intersection was closed for the day and the police line in riot gear seemed to have little appetite to push anyone off the real estate. The young protestors stood their ground, some bantering with the police and others glaring implacably. It stayed that way for a good while until some asshole threw a bottle at police and then, some other asshole, safely ensconced behind helmet, Kevlar and shield, replied by firing mace into the eyes of the front row of protestors. The throng in the intersection broke in a spray of shouting humanity.
The worst kind of shit seemed to be starting again, until a cadre of young men came off the corners, arms raised, shouting for peace, telling everyone to calm down. Stand your ground, but keep calm. Peace, they chanted repeatedly, and the moment held, with the protesters and police settling in against each other in tempered hostility for the rest of the afternoon.
I am honestly not sure that I have ever been more proud to be a Baltimorean than at that precise moment. And I am certain that I have never had more belief that right now, for the first time in decades, something real can actually be won.