"People aren't signs of disorder" Christina Heatherton and Jordan T. Camp on policing and premature death


Over the weekend, protests spilled out across the U.S. in response to the police murders of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Christina Heatherton and Jordan T. Camp, editors of Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter spoke with "Unauthorized Disclosure" hosts Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola and discussed how incidents of police brutality relate to the everyday life of policing. Far from a race neutral resopnse to criminality, as Camp says, policing functions as "an instrument of state violence and terror."

When you look at Castile and when you look at Sterling, Castile was a working class person. He was a school cafeteria manager. When you look at Alton Sterling, both of these being black men, Sterling in Baton Rouge, he was on a strip hustling CDs so that he could make some of kind of a living in an informal economy. So, I want to put this to you. What’s your perspective on how we got to this moment based on what we’re seeing police do to black people trying to make it in this economy?

CHRISTINA HEATHERTON: We’ve been working on this book for quite a long time before a lot of the Black Lives Matter protests happened. In particular, we start the book with the story of Eric Garner, and we start it for a very specific reason. Of course, the rallying cry that came out of the murder of Eric Garner was, “I can’t breathe!” That, I think, depicted for a lot of people the conditions of racism in this country, the fatal experience of being a black person in American cities. But we were really struck that protesters also took up something else that Garner said in his final fatal encounter with the New York Police Department, and that was, “This stops today!”

When Garner was approached by those police officers, he was responding to the fact that they were coming to harass him again, as they had done routinely for years and years and years for selling untaxed cigarettes just like, as you said, Alton Sterling, who was selling CDs on a street. It was a side hustle [for Garner], and he was continually being harassed and arrested and cited for minor violations by the NYPD. And he said, “This stops today!”

That was something else that protesters, and we thought that was very profound because in that way protesters forced us to think not just about how Eric Garner and how people like Eric Garner were killed by police but how they were forced to live. So, our book, as you said, examines the question of “Broken Windows” policing. So instead of just the question of police brutality, instead of just the question of police killing, we had to think about why are there so many police and why are they authorized to use the kind of force that they do and why are they so emboldened by state and local economies to take up so many of the resources that they do.

JORDAN T. CAMP: I think that one of the things that we really want to foreground in the book is a critique of the presentation of policing and the use of deadly force as a race neutral response to criminality, and instead we want to foreground the ways in which racism, or as one of our contributors, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, describes it, doles out premature death. It is an instrument of state violence and of state terror. It has naturalized, sustained, and legitimated the ways in which policing taking all these other functions of the state and regulated public space.

When you look at the question of Alton Sterling, for example, he’s selling CDs in an economy where there’s barely any work left for working class African Americans, where we’ve had unemployment rates at Depression Era-levels in working class black neighborhoods in Louisiana and across the country for decades; in a context where Louisiana is the most carceral state in the United States, which is the most carceral state on the planet. You have a situation where saturation policing and over-policing has led to these deadly encounters.

The contrast between Sterling and Castile, which media has tried to make, is unfounded. One person has a registered gun, and the other doesn’t have a registered gun. We don’t think that this is a helpful way of understanding what happened. Rather, we need to step back and have an analysis of the big picture, of the way in which these killings are outcomes of shifts in a political economy that are going to consistently and predictably produce these kind of deadly and violent outcomes. So, that’s where the book intervenes. How did we get here? What can we do about it?

RANIA KHALEK: When you talk about “Broken Windows” policing, could you elaborate on that? I liked what you were saying about the new political economy, and it does seem like the “Broken Windows” model is more of a form of population management, like of groups that the economy has either shut out or decided is unnecessary.

HEATHERTON: “Broken Windows” policing is a kind of popular name given to something that is called order maintenance policing. The name “Broken Windows” comes from a 1982 article by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, which was called “Broken Windows.” The concept really comes from this metaphor, this idea that Kelling and Wilson depict in the article, and that’s that if you have a neighborhood and a window gets broken and nobody fixes it, that signals disorder to everybody around. And then small crimes of disorder blossom into bigger crimes. People think no ones keeping an eye, and so therefore criminals are able to roam free.

When that’s translated into policing philosophy, what that looks like is that police are given authorization to control behavior, to control what they see as small signs of disorder, in order to prevent or preempt larger crimes from happening. So, this constituted a fundamental shift throughout particularly the late ’80s, throughout the ’90s, and we’re seeing a vast manifestation of it today. We call the book, “Policing the Planet,” because of the ways in which this policing theory has also been transported around the world as some of its strongest proponents, from William Bratton to Rudolph Giuliani to George Kelling himself, have been hired as security consultants.

The idea of “Broken Windows,” it sounds commonsensical. It sounds almost intuitive. Oh, right, a broken window. That signals neglect. Of course, we need to fix problems in the landscape. But that’s not actually how cities work, how communities work, how people work. People aren’t windows. People aren’t signs of disorder. And so, the persistent refrain, as social movements have been protesting “Broken Windows” policing since it was first inaugurated in force in like I said the late ’80s and particularly the ’90s, was that “Broken Windows” is said to enforce quality of life crimes.

Things like trespassing, loitering, crimes of poverty, the crimes of poverty that we saw come up in the Ferguson report, people wearing baggy jeans, jaywalking—these small signs of disorder. When police enforce quality of life ordinances, when they prosecute those, activists always ask, well whose quality of life is actually being protected? As you’ve said, we’ve undergone such a transformation in our political economy that’s produced such high levels of poverty, of unemployment, of under-employment. When you have so many people who are poor and you spend so much time trying to enforce crimes of poverty, you really have to ask, whose quality of life is actually being improved by “Broken Windows” policing?

CAMP: What we argue here is that “Broken Windows” policing is the political expression of neoliberal racial capitalism at the urban scale. What we mean by that—you’ve read the introduction to the book—we’re engaging with the geographer Neil Smith, who spent his career describing the ways in which the emergence of what he calls a revanchist city was an expression of this much broader transformation of cities in relationship to capitalism. That is, an increasing dominance of finance, the overwhelming influence of real estate development, gentrification of cities, the mass displacement of working class communities of color from the urban core.

What we’re arguing in the book when we say “Broken Windows” policing is the political wing of this transformation or the restructuring of urban space is that it’s the instrument that enforces the displacement of poor and working class communities or banishment of the homeless, LGBT communities, immigrant workers—all those deemed a threat to rising property values. Because what we’ve seen in this context of neoliberal capitalism at a global scale is that cities compete against each other for investment. Who is going to make the city safer and more secure for gentrification so that you can attract more hotels, more loft-dwellers, more art galleries, and the rest?

A figure like William Bratton is instructive. He is not singular in this way, but he was first appointed New York Police Commissioner, as Christina just said, under Rudolph Giuliani in the 1990s, and he oversees the implementation of “Broken Windows” policing. What does this entail? An increased expenditure on the hiring of police officers, at the same time that New York undergoes the largest set of cuts to social expenditures since the urban crisis of the 1970s. So, we have to see this increasing expenditure on policing alongside the gutting of social programs.

And then, he gets hired as police commissioner in L.A. in the early 2000s and implements what is called a “Safer Cities Initiative,” which leads to what one UCLA law school report describes as the most concentrated policing in that period than anywhere in the world outside of Baghdad.

KHALEK: That’s interesting that you mention that because the ’90s itself—I know you don’t want to make it about politics necessarily, but we had a Democratic president in the ’90s, and what you’re talking about in New York is a microcosm of the country. You had the complete gutting of the social welfare state or whatever existed of it, from welfare reform to deregulation. And so, it’s fascinating because on the national scale because in conjunction with gutting the welfare state, it’s like this is supposed to save money. But it all went into building prisons and police.

HEATHERTON: Something that’s been really striking about so many of the recent killings is that you almost see the confrontation that produced. Akai Gurley gets killed by police officers that were patrolling the public housing projects, the Pink public housing projects in New York. Tamir Rice gets shot by police officers that are patrolling a public park. Eric Garner, as we said, killed by police officers regulating a public street. The same with Alton Sterling.

When you think about the spatialities of the public, when you don’t invest in the public infrastructure but you take that money and you put it into punitive measures, you put it into policing, you put into prisons, this is the landscape that happens. One of our contributors—and we haven’t even begun to talk about our contributors—one of our contributors, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, as Jordan mentioned earlier, has a wonderful phrase in her book, “Golden Gulag,” where she says quite simply we have a choice in what we invest in. We can invest in life, and we’ll get life. But if we invest in death dealing practices, this is what’s going to happen. And this is what’s happening.

CAMP: And just a word—It’s not that we don’t have an analysis of politics. To the contrary, we think that having a political analysis of the political economy of policing is vital. A lot of our contributors, ranging from Gilmore to the geographer Don Mitchell to the historian Robin D.G. Kelley and George Lipsitz, all in different ways are trying to locate this unprecedented expansion of policing alongside these broader transformations.

To your point about the 1990s and Clinton, I think this is really an important insight. Naomi Murakawa, who teaches African American Studies at Princeton, in an interview with us explains that for those nostalgic for Clinton’s two terms in office in the 1990s that we need to look at the legacy of his policies in a more focused way. Namely, she says that Clinton—and before him, the Democratic Leadership Council and Joe Biden—decided the Democrats could neutralize discussions of them being “soft on crime” by outbidding Republican punitiveness. So, they jacked up money for police, for state prison construction, for the death penalty, killed Pell Grants for incarcerated people, and so on.

What Murakawa [says] is that in this punitive race to the top, that the Democrats neutralized the crime issue and forged a bipartisan consensus that says we’re tough on crime. And this transformation at the federal level absolutely gave more funding to police departments at the state and at the urban scale. So, these contemporary discussions that try to distinguish between, for example, “Broken Windows” policing, community policing, neighborhood policing, she concludes, have very little meaning when you actually look at the funding. These police departments will call their policing strategy whatever’s on offer so they can get access to these funds. And so, that’s what we’re trying to say. We need to look at the ways in which these budgets are being allocated and what other elements of budgets are therefore drowned out or their capacities are diminished.

People like Arun Kundnani show the ways in which these flows have long histories in counterinsurgency and in colonial violence. So, our response would be that we live in a permanent warfare state. We live in a carceral state, the largest carceral state on the planet. When we want to talk about confronting violence, we need to get serious about what the source of it is.

This transcript is excerpted from Shadowproof. To read the full transcript of the first 25 mintues of the interview, click here.

To listen to the entire interview, click here.

Christina Heatherton and Jordan T. Camp are the editors of Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter

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