The Seductive Logic of White Supremacy, Part 2

In part 1 I call “broken windows” policing what it is: fear-based collective punishment in the service of white supremacy. In part 2 I discuss broken windows’ most infamous policy innovations: stop-and-frisk and police militarization.

**Broken Windows Begets Stop-and-Frisk**

Broken windows policing in US urban areas traces its roots to 17th century “pre-professional” urban police forces deployed specifically to imprison the poor. In the rapidly industrializing urban centers of US in the 19th century, the “coppers” were the first line of defense against the poor, immigrant hordes, and waves of black Southern migrants. They were allowed broad discretion in use of force to defend that line. Thus, “fighting crime” has often amounted to little more than preserving nativism and white supremacy through collective punishment. James Q. Wilson and George Kelling formalized broken windows policing in the 1980s, they were mostly re-stating the views of their neoconservative mentor Edward Banfield, who in a 1969 article explicitly called for a return to the “pre-professional” policing style of the 19th century.

New York’s infamous (and now illegal) stop-and-frisk policy, popularized in the 1990s, is just the latest version of these age old contain-and-punish tactics. After years of collective punishment imposed on blacks and Hispanics under the guise of fighting crime (to a degree that European immigrants never faced) stop-and-frisk was successfully challenged in federal court. In Judge Scheindlin’s takedown she essentially ruled that New York couldn’t make a compelling case that stop-and-frisk was ever about anything other than race. The fact that nearly 90% of people stopped had violated no laws precludes even a post-hoc justification for stop-and-frisk, but far more importantly this kind of collective punishment is anathema to American jurisprudence. NYC Mayor William deBlassio withdrew the city’s appeal after taking office, ending stop-and-frisk as official policy. That is a victory for clear-thinking, humane people. It should be acknowledged as such.

Unfortunately, broken windows thinking is deeply embedded in contemporary urban policing. For example, deBlassio, widely viewed as an arch-liberal who campaigned on an anti-stop-and-frisk platform, remains an ardent broken windows devotee. He tapped former Police Commissioner William Bratton to reprise his role as architect of the city’s broken windows policing strategies from the 1990s. Bratton has vowed to continue aggressively confronting minor, so-called “quality-of-life” crimes. So not surprisingly, early reviews suggest that not much is likely to change on the ground for black and brown folk in NYC. deBlassio may be quicker to settle police misconduct civil suits than his predecessors, but he is no more interested in curbing the violent police encounters that are all but explicitly called for in broken windows policing. Even supposedly liberal politicians and bureaucrats either cannot see past broken windows or cannot effectively confront it.

**This Whole Thing in Ferguson Has Gone Sideways**

As you are no doubt aware, Michael Brown was shot down by local police in the “inner ring” St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, MO. In the immediate aftermath Ferguson PD refused to release a formal incident report, or any significant details of the incident. They held out until August 15th–most likely relenting only after pressure from the Department of Justice, who was already consulting on the investigation at the governor’s request. The Ferguson PD’s initial statements appear to conflict with multiple eye witness accounts. Notably, police at the scene collected camera phones from at least some eye witnesses. Yet no law enforcement personnel took statements from anyone on the scene. Darius Johnson, who was a party to the incident along with Brown, and presumably fired upon by the officer, was never detained as a suspect in a crime. Nor was he interviewed by Ferguson or St. Louis County PD as a material witness to a shooting. (He was interviewed by federal prosecutors days later, after giving multiple media interviews.)

By Sunday night into the early hours of Monday, angry residents took to the streets in protest. They burned a gas station to the ground and engaged in other intense but sporadic looting, mostly confined to an area roughly 5 minutes from the site of the shooting. (And coincidentally about 5 minutes from my high school.) A friend and classmate left a message on my voice mail late Sunday that ended, “Man, this whole thing in Ferguson has gone sideways.”


Since that time, things have moved well past sideways. The St. Louis County Police Department took over primary operations from Ferguson PD by Sunday evening (even if the Ferguson police chief mostly appeared on camera). Predictably, St. Louis County PD escalated tensions. For reasons that are to date being seriously under-reported, County PD began to treat the situation as a counterterrorism action beginning on Monday. They donned their counterterrorism finery and began to run plays from their counterterrorism playbook. They started by cordoning off West Florissant Ave., the main thoroughfare, with a mine resistant armored personnel carrier. They followed by teargassing protesters. That was Monday. On Tuesday, Missouri State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal confronted the Ferguson Police Chief at a press conference about being teargassed the previous day. By Wednesday evening, County PD had began a second round of smoke bombs, flash-bang grenades, rooftop snipers and LRAD sound cannon. By late Wednesday County PD was chasing people through residential areas, tossing teargas canisters into front yards without evident discrimination. Notably, the County officers openly harassed journalists. They fired teargas directly at an Al-Jazeera America crew filming on site, dispersing the crew. As crewmembers ran, officers then turned their recording cameras to the ground.

County police also ordered reporters from the Washington Post and Huffington Post to stop filming before detaining them for several hours without charge before releasing them. They initially declined to provide the reporters an incident report naming an arresting officer before relenting to provide a report in 4-6 weeks. This is important, as both reporters allege that the officers were unduly violent when detaining them. County PD also arrested St. Louis Alderman Antonio French as he recorded events from his car and live tweeted while parked at the scene.

**This Ain’t Irony. This Ain’t Even Coincidence**

On my twitter feed I saw tweets of solidarity with the people of Ferguson, MO coming from Palestinians, coupled with helpful hints on dealing with teargas and other so-called counterterrorist tactics. Many people pointed to the irony of a US city reduced to a war zone while people in an actual war zone looked on in shock and horror. But they are wrong to call the events in Ferguson irony. Irony’s defining quality is the unexpected, but willful blindness in the face of the unpleasant does not make the unpleasant unexpected. Ferguson is what collective punishment can look like, and increasingly does look like. What is happening in Ferguson is not irony. It is the burlesque of white supremacy. Extra-legal law enforcement killings and forcefully quelling the rage of those at the bottom of the order is the entirely foreseeable cost of maintaining such an order. Not everywhere, but anywhere. Not all the time, but anytime.

**Posse Comi–What’s That Now?**

Local law enforcement has been steadily militarizing for years now. Much of the build-up of military grade equipment has gone unnoticed, as much of it finds its way to local law enforcement from or through the Department of Homeland Security. This business in Ferguson has put it on full display. Of course, black and brown communities have seen militarization from the gun barrel end for quite some time. The War on Drugs has local police serving simple (and often outrageously broad) search warrants, and even chasing down rumors from informants, with full-on SWAT teams.

The enormous scope of federal agencies with broad authority to operate with local law enforcement on issues like drug trafficking, immigration, natural disasters, and terrorism threatens to render posse comitatus effectively meaningless as local police departments increasingly see themselves as para-military organizations. They are already equipping and training officers as paramilitary soldiers. For example, in a 2011 report centered on the Occupy protests, Raw Story, citing work by journalist Max Blumenthal, noted that Israeli-style counterinsurgency training has become the latest thing in urban policing. Police departments nationwide are sending officials to train with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). These “exchanges” have become a something of a cottage industry. Interestingly, it does not appear that law enforcement from areas of that include white separatist and militia groups known to engage in terrorism are lining up for these exchanges. Rather, law enforcement from the large cities (e.g., New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, Washington, DC.) and college towns (e.g., Ann Arbor, Berkeley) are lining up for counter-insurgency training.

Coincidentally, former St. Louis County police chief, Tim Fitch (who just resigned in December 2013), traveled to Israel for counterterrorism training. Not so coincidentally, County PD serves as the regional counterterrorism “fusion” center, where they coordinate counterterrorism strategy across all levels of law enforcement. As I noted earlier, St. Louis County PD began coordinating operations on the ground in Ferguson within hours of the shooting. So any suggestion that police response to the citizens of Ferguson resulted in any way from incompetence or boobery just doesn’t seem to square with what we know. This has always been a counterterrorism action.


The Seductive Logic of White Supremacy, Part 1

So, it’s been kinda light on the posting in 2013 and 2014. No sense in lying and saying that I’m definitely gonna do better. We’ll just have to see. Lately though, I’ve been thinking a good deal about so-called “broken windows” policing, mass incarceration, and white supremacy. I needed a place to put my thinking on wax, so to speak, and remembered, “Oh yeah. I started a blog about a year ago.”

***Broken Windows Policing***

In a 1982 Atlantic Monthly essay, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling introduce their “broken windows” approach to policing. It is not a very complicated argument. It’s more of a thin intellectual veneer for collective punishment than well-developed criminology. In fact, Wilson and Kelling openly acknowledge that broken windows policing likely has no direct effect on crime but has other important merits. For them “Law & Order” is more properly “law” & ORDER. Big emphasis on order. Grant police a wide berth to establish order, the thinking goes, and crime takes care of itself.

Why don’t you let Nick Nolte ‘splain it to you in this clip from the insanely underrated 1990 film Q&A. Nolte co-stars as Detective Mike Brennan and provides the cliff’s notes version of broken windows. He’s being investigated by internal affairs (played by a youthful looking Timothy Dalton) for murdering several criminals.

It’s no secret. I believe in kickin’ ass… but things got better when I was there… If we lose control over this fuckin’ jungle we’re finished… So I break a couple a heads? You know what we’re fighting out there, and they know it.

Brennan’s language is less polite than Wilson and Kelling’s, but that’s about the only difference. Broken windows is perhaps the best contemporary example of the seductive logic of white supremacy. It generates fear of the other and offers their subjugation to whites as a palliative. Of course, white supremacy can only offer subjugation–and nothing else. Shockingly, that never works for very long. The fear of the subjugated other eventually returns. Unfortunately, white America routinely double down on subjugation. Kickin’ ass is the answer to every question. It cannot fail. It can only be failed.

Jamelle Bouie over at Slate has done a nice piece about doubling down on subjugation. Hit the link. [Seriously. Go read it now and come back. I’ll wait…] What I like about Bouie’s piece is that it doesn’t pander to the white liberal fantasy about racial hostility and xenophobia being limited to NASCAR dads and the small town rabble. Nah. Bouie’s not having that. He cites academic literature that makes a strong case that anti-black attitudes are common among whites in the US and they fuel support for racially punitive policies. Let me be clear: anti-black attitudes are NOT universal, but neither are they rare. They are widely diffused throughout the population, even among the highly educated in liberal bulwarks like San Francisco and New York. Bouie forces the reader to acknowledge that blackness in the white racial imaginary is mostly negative and strongly associated with crime, an association often made below the level of conscious awareness.

If it was just about attitudes I wouldn’t be writing this post. Unfortunately anti-black attitudes constitute the microfoundations of much American policy, to paraphrase social-psychologist Lawrence Bobo. As it concerns crime policy specifically, we can see the dynamics between anti-black attitudes, policing, and mass incarceration. From Bouie:

Tell people that blacks are overpoliced and over-represented in prison, and it triggers thoughts of crime, which leads to fear, which causes a backfire effect as people follow their fear and embrace the status quo of unfair, overly punitive punishments.

These “thoughts of crime” tend to be insensitive to actual crime, persisting even where crime is declining. In their snap judgments the mere presence of black people generates the fear response in whites; not a dispassionate empirical estimate of their likelihood of criminal victimization. Whites then–again, collectively–demand that assuaging their fears be the central objective of public policy.

As a consequence, data on racial (and other) disparities that should indicate obvious and fundamental unfairness instead indicates that the systems designed to assuage their fears are doing just that. At least for a little while.