One of the more important questions spinning out of the recent confrontation between NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Police Force has been why, in the face of public disobedience by the force, has there been no attempt by the mayor’s office to prepare ground for significant changes in police policies. Instead we have the bizarre sight of Mayor de Blasio accepting public insubordination from taxpayer funded workers. It’s doubtful if those acts, if done by teachers, sanitation workers or MTA employees would have been met with anything but the harshest sanctions possible. Why then is Mayor de Blasio seemingly impotent in the face of the police force? The answer to this speaks volumes about the larger forces at work in an era of neoliberalism and what it will take to challenge them.
An initial read of the situation might cut two ways: A. Governments don’t like to give up their power, even when the instruments of their power are being momentarily insubordinate, and B. The majority of the electorate has not yet called for a major shift in government policy policing policies. These are usually referred to as the logic of state power and politician-as-rational-actor models, and there is clearly some of both in the lack of political will by de Blasio’s administration and other US mayors to do anything to reign their police.
The problem for any proponents of these models are the examples of other states – capitalist or otherwise – around the world with policing standards quite different from our own. Capitalist states are notoriously flexible with what they are able to accept in terms of policy as long as profit accumulation isn’t threatened. If it were simply a question of state power, restraining the police would hardly stop their use when electeds want to repress movements like Occupy. Similarly, though law-and-order is part of the hegemonic ideology in America, there is little reason why a rational-actor politician couldn’t drum up support by reforming police departments notorious for overuse of force and ticketing.
So too, I think, of the police-industrial-complex argument as rational for inaction, though again we cannot forget the profit motive within capitalism as an explainer for what politicians do (or don’t do). Federal and state governments have spent billions on equipping and militarizing US police forces over the past few decades; the so-called War on Drugs and the crackdown on immigration from Latin America are both excuses to make a profit and to atomize, fragment, and terrorize the US working class. Yet the state can learn to live with both a militarized police force and more restrictions on what the police can and cannot do to civilians with impudence. Perhaps this is a fine line, but I don’t think one preventing Bill de Blasio and his fellow mayors from setting slightly less aggressive policing standards and holding cops accountable for their actions. Private corporations and their paid-for politicians will still make oodles of cash if cops can’t get away with strangling a man to death on Staten Island or shooting a teenager in Missouri.
The cause of impotence on the part of elected officials even in the face of public intransigence by their own police forces lies rather within the socio-political landscape of declining US hegemony in the world-system and its byproduct, neoliberalism. The latter is too often a catch all explanation for Marxists and leftists trying to explain the current era, but here it makes sense. Policing in post-1980 America, roughly the beginnings of neoliberalism, are predicated on the “broken windows” theory first put into practice by NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton: crack down on working class behaviors now designated as unwanted or illegal, use the fines and fees from enforcing the criminalization of working class life to prop up municipal budgets gutted by tax cuts, offshoring, and underconsumption caused by wage stagnation. Interestingly the NYC police have essentially admitted as such during their slowdown and refusal to issue quality-of-life tickets over the past few weeks.
In conjunction with this politicians like de Blasio, assuming he actually would want to reform police behavior, find a distinct lack of allies in their own class (and parties) on this issue. Broken windows policing is popular with the financial elites and the ruling class because the money collected and produced by it means more progressive taxation that would otherwise fill the budget gaps of municipalities and states is avoided. It also has the consequence of splitting working people who might otherwise band together to demand – in a class conscious way – better living conditions, wages, and political power. Whites learn to be fearful of minority communities alternatively seen as both enemy and victim of circumstances, all the while needing the police and state to protect them. Of course maintaining this is crucial to legitimizing capitalism and preventing concerted resistance – that’s what the buildup of irrational attitudes of submission to authority do (to quote Chomsky) on the one hand, and on the other the racism inherent in the splitting of the US working class into white and minority groups.
There is, then, an implicit understanding by these mayors that their only allies in restraining the police would be working class Americans, and that to begin to do so would mean to put forward a broadly pro-worker agenda of higher wages, progressive taxation, restoring once-gutted social programs, and expanding the political power of the average worker. Quality-of-life problems will only be eliminated when their cause – ultimately capitalism – is, but by beginning to lift millions out of poverty and rebuilding communities the rationale for broken windows policing would begin to disappear. In another era, one with a faction of big business and finance capital willing to compromise on issues of wages and taxation, Mayor de Blasio and his peers would have found allies in the establishment. Now, the stark choice for the mayors and local pols on police behavior is to either acquiesce in one way or another or to throw in your lot with what would rapidly take on the characteristics of a working class political movement.
Nothing is likely to happen without protests and organization by labor and working Americans who demand not just an end to broken windows policing but the conditions that supposedly necessitated it in the first place. Crumbling infrastructure, decaying housing, bad schools, crappy jobs and low wages, lack of real health care, gutted social programs: these so-called broken windows that have been used to justify police militarization are the symptom of a rotten system. It is very hopeful indeed that protests against police brutality have sprung up across the United States, and could evolve into a movement to reject the neoliberal consensus. Until then we are likely to see nothing but equivocation by local officials and big city mayors.
– Peter A. LaVenia