Workers Vanguard No. 1057
28 November 2014
De Blasios Police Reform
NYPD Terror Repackaged
Just before midnight on November 20, Akai Gurley, a black man who had turned 28 years old two days earlier, met his end in a very New York way. As he and a female companion were walking down a staircase in the Pink Houses projects in Brooklyn, Gurley was shot in the chest and killed by an NYPD cop. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton lamented the shooting as a “mistake.” The confluence of factors leaving Gurley’s two-year-old daughter fatherless was no mistake. The couple bypassed the elevators (which are snaillike when they do work) and entered a stairwell that had been without lights for months, where they encountered cops conducting a “vertical patrol.” One had his weapon drawn, as is standard practice.
Gurley’s killing is but one example of the cop terror that many city residents hoped would be curtailed by the election of the liberal Democrat de Blasio, who ran as an opponent of stop-and-frisk. Nearly a year into de Blasio’s term, the number of stops may be down but arrests for minor offenses continue unabated, with blacks and Latinos overwhelmingly the targets. The reality of the “broken windows” policing strategy embraced by de Blasio was starkly exposed by the cop choke-hold killing of Eric Garner in July for the supposed crime of selling loose cigarettes. Despite clear video evidence of the killer cop strangling Garner, a Staten Island grand jury still hasn’t decided whether he will even face charges.
City Hall has recently trotted out a new “reform” advertised as putting an end to street arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Such arrests have condemned tens of thousands a year to prison and shipwrecked the lives of many others. Now those found holding less than 25 grams are supposed to be issued a summons to appear in court and pay a fine. The policy directs the cops to abide by a 1977 law under which having a small amount of weed out of sight is a violation—not a crime—while open display or lighting up is a misdemeanor. In practice, the police have followed the letter of this law by accosting black and Latino youth, demanding (illegally) they empty their pockets, backpacks or purses and then arresting them if a joint appears.
The new directive came three weeks after a study reported that such busts increased slightly compared to the last years of the Bloomberg administration, with 86 percent of those arrested either black or Latino. No surprise here, as the prohibition of marijuana has always been racist to its core. Early laws against marijuana were adopted as a measure against Mexican immigrants in the Southwest. The first U.S. government “drug czar,” Harry Anslinger, captured the spirit of the 1937 federal ban with a racist diatribe that pot makes black people “think they’re as good as white men.”
De Blasio’s measure may spare some black youth from getting ensnared in the criminal justice system, an outcome we would welcome. Even so, we recognize that it will not alleviate police terror in the ghettos and barrios, which is endemic to American capitalism, or change the reactionary nature of the drug laws. We call for the decriminalization of marijuana and all other drugs.
What is primarily afoot is a cynical City Hall public relations scam, with enforcement as always at the discretion of the racist cops. Even an editorial in the New York Times (11 November) admits that the policy “does not reach the fundamental problem of discriminatory policing.” Moreover, those who miss summons court dates or are unable to pay the fine can be arrested and held in jail.
We warned from the outset of the “war on drugs” that it would be a war on black people. In the U.S., blacks are an oppressed race-color caste integrated into the American capitalist economy while overwhelmingly segregated at the bottom of society, the last hired (when there are jobs on offer) and first fired. Historically, black workers have been among the most militant and conscious sectors of the proletariat, and anti-black racism serves to divide the working class and keep it from fighting in its own interests. The disproportionate victimization of the black population is integral to American capitalist rule.
and Mass Incarceration
The “broken windows” policing that de Blasio swears by and Bratton brought to NYC in his first stint as police commissioner in the 1990s is straight from the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” playbook of right-wing ideologues. According to the “broken windows” metaphor, failure to crack down on the most minuscule public nuisances encourages the commission of violent crimes. By these lights, Eric Garner was one such broken window fixed by the NYPD. As it stands, the denizens of NYC housing projects are far less likely to have their own broken windows replaced by the Housing Authority than they are to find themselves visiting young relatives behind bars for such “crimes” as jumping a subway turnstile or trespassing in their own building.
“Broken windows” policing is the brainchild of sociologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, first outlined in a 1982 essay in the Atlantic Monthly. Wilson, who died in 2012, was a fixture in the right-wing American Enterprise Institute think tank alongside Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, the authors of The Bell Curve (1994), a racist pseudo-scientific tract asserting black biological inferiority. Wilson coauthored Crime and Human Nature with Herrnstein in 1985 and was considered a mentor by Murray. Wilson promoted the “superpredator” theory, which predicted that an entire generation of black and Latino youth would become inveterate criminals menacing society. This theory gave ideological justification to the “war on drugs,” mandatory minimum sentencing and stop-and-frisk. The crime epidemic never happened; the prison population quadrupled.
That the big-city liberal de Blasio is implementing the policing strategy associated with mass incarceration reflects the fact that the Democratic Party, no less than the Republicans, is a political vehicle for the tiny elite that profits from the exploitation of workers and lords over the oppression of blacks. As we warned prior to his election: “Whatever posture he takes today and whatever palliatives he may dole out, de Blasio as mayor will be charged with managing the finance capital of U.S. imperialism on behalf of the Wall Street plutocrats and real estate barons who run the city” (WV No. 1032, 18 October 2013). And indeed, little has changed since de Blasio took over from the hated billionaire Michael Bloomberg on January 1.
Despite talk of tensions between City Hall and the NYPD, the mayor has resolutely looked after the repressive forces that he commands in the service of capital. When a city council bill outlawing cop choke holds was mooted last week, Bratton condemned it as “part of the continuing effort to bridle the police.” De Blasio backed up his top cop in opposing the measure, positing “extreme situations” where choke holds might be necessary.
As a matter of course, the NYPD flies into a rage at the slightest hint of a constraint on its prerogatives, including when it comes from de Blasio. Not surprisingly, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) is in a lather over the new weed policy. The PBA has also railed against the city’s lawsuit settlement with the Central Park Five, black and Latino youth falsely convicted and imprisoned for the 1989 rape of a jogger. The NYPD, like all cops, constantly pushes to have an entirely free hand in pursuing racist “law and order.”
Grotesquely, top city union officials have embraced the racist killer cops as union brothers. The truth is that cops are not workers but the guard dogs of the capitalist order and mortal enemies of labor. The PBA backlash against an August 23 anti-police brutality demo in Staten Island took special aim at union endorsers. When the PBA tried unsuccessfully to block a federal court ruling that limited stop-and-frisk, this cop “union” claimed that the ruling intruded on their collective bargaining rights. When the cops band together, it is to insist on fewer limits on their terrorizing minorities and working people.
The fight for justice for the countless victims of cop terror demands the mobilization of the working class. Despite widespread illusions that the police are answerable to the public, the fact is that the repressive capitalist state apparatus cannot be made to “protect and serve” the interests of the workers and minorities but must be swept away. There will be no end to police terror short of workers revolution. The Spartacist League is dedicated to building the revolutionary party that is necessary to lead the fight for workers rule.