Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'


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I was born in the early 80s in a notorious drug neighborhood that was one of the first targets of the CompStat system in 1995, where-in former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton added about 6,000 cops to the force and started aggressively going after high crime areas as tabulated by maps and the software under the Broken Windows theory of visible policing, and Operation Impact in 2003, where-in current NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly flooded high crime areas with rookie policemen and a controversial application of the 1971 protocol of Stop, Question and Frisk.

The results were effective and the strategies deemed necessary, though they are not without fault. In my own neighborhood, Washington Heights, the means by which city support and services were withheld during the 1999 and 2003 blackouts was put in direct contrast with how strong the police presence was. The implications were clear: The city’s here to control you, not help you. It’s with this frame of mind that I read the publishing of the latest crime statistics from the NYPD as divided by race and worried about how the narrative would be picked up by news commentators and columnists.

A quick run-down of the numbers shows that, for shootings during the first six months of 2013:

73.9% of victims were Black
21.5% were Latino
2.8% were white
1.8% were Asian

Shooting arrests were about even:

70% were Black
25.4% were Latino
2.9% were white
1.6% were Asian

Similar ratios were evident for all other violent crime. Now, the demographics of the city are as follows:

33.1% are white
28.8% are Latino
22.8% are Black
12.7% are Asian

This says that Black people are both the biggest perpetrators and victims of violent crime. However, there are two notable exceptions in the statistics reported for other types of crime: Grand and petty larceny. For grand larceny:

41.9% of the victims were white
24.9% were Black
20.5% were Latino
11.9% were Asian

However, those arrested for grand larceny were different:

62.1% were Black
22.7% were Latino
10.5% were white
4.2% were Asian

Similar ratios are evident for petty larceny.

This tells me that the statistics as produced present an incomplete picture, and that the wrong numbers are being quantified. Namely, the dividing line isn’t necessarily race but class, and that the behavior displayed is due to poverty and desperation more than culture and heritage. What these numbers are implying, essentially, is that, overall, Black people are poorer than white people. Thus, the police scrutiny presents a different picture entirely. To quote Anatole France, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”

I suppose this is news in the sense that it’s the 21st century and general socioeconomic trends have persisted despite occasional fits and starts at promoting equal opportunity, but it runs a strong risk of misinterpretation. The controversy of publishing statistics in this manner is that it adds fuel for certain interests who will read this and think, “racial profiling is necessary and justified because Black people are inherently more violent,” and while this declaration can be readily dismissed, it does change the public discourse into mutual recriminations that end up going nowhere constructively.

Consider that we’ve been discussing “Black-on-Black violence” for over forty years, framing it in a cultural context and not a socioeconomic one. This continues, often-times, as a means of saying “fuck ’em, let them sort it out for themselves, it’s not our problem” or in some manner confirming bigoted stereotypes about Black behavior. All that appears to have fostered is increased segregation and discrimination, which exacerbates the issue.

We certainly don’t seem to do the same with “white-on-white violence” or attempt to make the distinction that most victims know their assailant (and thus crime in any community is usually internal and segregation only emphasizes that). Nor do we compare racial statistics to socioeconomic statistics to show that poor people everywhere tend to commit more violent crime, no matter the color of their skin. No investment banker, Black or white, is going to rob you at gunpoint (although, perhaps, that’s only because they’ve already invented financial systems to do so without the need for direct confrontation.)

Now, the whole CompStat/Operation Impact idea of pinpointing high crime areas and flooding them with cops is itself technically colorblind and, to me, necessary, and it has certainly worked wonders in lowering the violent crime rate to record lows. I think the problem is that more police presence would indeed reduce crime to a certain point regardless of whether it kept to the letter of the constitution or if it was comprised purely of strong-arming tactics, and the means in which this strategy is currently being implemented is flawed to the point where it is undermining any future success.

The CompStat system’s greatest criticism is that it encourages both over and under-reporting. It encourages over-reporting of stops, and under-reporting of crimes. The police have a vested interest in proving that they are walking the beat (so stops are relatively common) and that no crime is occurring (so investigations are relatively few and, at times, crimes are completely mislabeled). In effect, it means that people tend to view a situation where the police are there when you don’t want them to be, and aren’t there when you do want them to be.

The Stop, Question and Frisk policy’s greatest criticism is that the police have more or less accepted “Walking While Black” as reasonable suspicion, despite statements to the contrary by Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, leading to an undue scrutiny of Black citizens as well as a mutual distrust between their communities and the police. The retort the NYPD have given over racial profiling is that their strategy impacts high crime areas and high crime areas are mostly minority neighborhoods, so to them it is an unhappy but necessary reality. I see this as conflating strategy and tactics.

The current circumstance has, in either case, allowed us to come to a point in the public discourse where we can assess future policy. We are no longer under an epidemic of violence like that which has peaked in 1990. Crime is down, it’s true. However, people will complain there is racial profiling and police brutality so long as there is a general sense that the city is not working in earnest to support local communities. The priority now is to bridge that gap, which is arguably not mutually exclusive with Operation Impact, as the tactic of rookies going out and making judgement calls on who to stop and how is what is coming under fire, not the overarching strategy of where to station cops. We can indeed also, as a society, now come out and say, “good, crime is down now, so can we have some other city services and not just police?”

I remember teaching out in Prospect Heights in the mid-oughts to a universally Black and Latino student body and getting the distinct vibe from the students that, in their eyes, city services were a thing that happened to them, not necessarily for them. Whether the cops stopped them due to racial profiling or because of the simply unlucky circumstance of statistical violence in segregated neighborhoods, it didn’t really matter, because my students’ interactions with white people overall were relegated almost entirely to “social worker, psychologist, counselor, teacher, policeman, shomrim” – either apparatchiks of the state, there to assess, tabulate, and judge, or professional and volunteer gaolers – which colored their entire impression of the social structure and their ultimate trajectory. To them, the cops were racist before they even stopped them, because the system is racist.

I joked at the time that I felt like a colonial officer being sent to the provinces, but it rang true: In my students’ eyes, they were cornered, pinned by the suppressive forces of the police – indeed, in Prospect Heights there were a lot of police, just as there were a lot of police in Washington Heights in the late 90s and early oughts, except this time with added checkpoints and watchtowers – but, thanks to their status and continued social segregation, without any avenues to a better life.

They saw white teachers. When we brought them on a field trip for economics class, they saw white bankers. When we sent them on a jobs program for the fashion and theatre industries, they saw white designers, white models and Asian seamstresses. When they asked those people how they got their jobs, they heard about higher degrees, unpaid internships, and personal connections. Their parents didn’t have degrees. They couldn’t afford unpaid internships, and they certainly had no connections. In fact, none of the people they talked to even came from the city, let alone their neighborhood. It is, then, no wonder to me why some would lash out, even if randomly and impotently, such as with the latest news reports of Black teenagers attacking random white passersby.

Therefore, I see the solution is two-fold: Adjust the tactics within the current strategy to lessen the divide between the NYPD and New Yorkers, and reframe the police work as a supplementary program to what should ultimately be a grand social infrastructure to create and maintain educated, productive citizens.

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio thinks the rookie cops Operation Impact sends out should be replaced with seasoned cops as a means of quelling the backlash, as seasoned cops are arguably more nuanced in how they deal with the public. The court system suggested that lapel cameras would calm both sides of the issue down as a means of reforming the tactics as need be. These are both good fixes, but only a small part of a larger picture.

What needs to happen is not just suppression of crime, but also an uplifting of the citizenry out of the poverty and desperation that engenders crime. Crime is down because we have fostered a respect for the abilities of the police through the constant application of force, but force can only do so much, and the roots of crime are still prevalent. We are still poor. Housing is still a major crisis, there aren’t enough middle-class jobs and our schools are still as segregated and underfunded as ever. Mayor Bloomberg was very successful in attracting talented, educated people to this city, but was not particularly successful in creating talent and educating the people we have.

Let’s make sure that these numbers are read in a way that helps reverse those trends, so that we don’t go back thirty years, as some critics of de Blasio say we are headed, but instead perhaps go back eighty:

Regular Ole’ Hood Shit

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Haven’t blogged in half of forever, so let me get back into the habit by starting small.

I’ve been caught up in a debate on what part of identity politics are nature and nurture (my answer: Aside from acknowledging difference itself, all reaction is nurture) and with that in mind I was considering how I’d describe an event I witnessed while biking home after dark today. Now, I still live in the hood in uptown Manhattan – ostensibly still a drug neighborhood, gentrified in parts so long as you keep west of Broadway, et cetera – and some parts are still flooded with cops as per the CompStat system. Indeed, normally while biking up Broadway I tend to see four or five squad cars breaking up groups hanging out on the corner or stopping motorists who appear to be cruising for drug purchases.

In the gap between two such stops was a fight that was raging up and down a block on Broadway between a barrel-chested Black man with long dreadlocks and a pot-bellied Sikh man with topknot. I don’t know how it started, but when I happened upon the scene, the Sikh man was bleeding from the hairline and was swinging at the Black man with a three foot iron bar.

I pulled over and asked a bartender from a cafe at the end of the block who was watching the proceedings what had happened and if anybody called the cops. “Oh, it’s been going on for some five minutes. It started because of someone disrespecting him or his girl or some shit. There’s cops everywhere except when you need ’em. Look at that girl over there just taping the whole thing.” And sure enough, there was a girl with her smartphone just taping the whole thing.

Aside from the combatants, there were about five or six guys guarding the storefronts, two guys attempting to pull the combatants off each other, four women who were standing well behind, on their phones, and the Black guy’s girlfriend, hurling epithets at the Sikh man. The fight was broken up when the two guys managed to drag the Sikh man into a bodega, close the entrance behind him, and push the Black man away from the door.

The Black man started to walk away until his girlfriend yelled at him, at which point he turned around and started shouting at the bodega entrance until the Sikh man emerged once more and the process started over. It was only when the other women pulled the girlfriend aside did the fight end for good.

It reminded me of a fight between two drug dealers in my neighborhood, one Black man and one Dominican man, where for three days their argument raged up and down the block in front of an audience of some dozen locals. I’d sit in my apartment and hear two male voices yelling at each other for about ten minutes, then die down, then two female voices start up, then the male voices resume their tirades. This would go on for hours. On the fourth day, the Dominican man shot the Black man dead and fled to the Dominican Republic, where he was extradited two days later.

On the face of it, it’s some honor bullshit: Some perceived slight spirals into a whole event. But it wouldn’t have dragged out as long or as bad as it did were it not for the audience, and within the audience the girlfriends specifically, egging them on. Would cops have changed things? Possibly. In the case of the drug dealers, the cops showed up twice in those first three days, which is how the fights actually ended, but no follow-up had been done. What interests me more is how that whole honor thing got to be so important as to matter more than anything else, and the answer to me is fairly simple: There is nothing else.

One of the results of the CompStat system was that violent crime in New York City – assaults, et cetera – dropped to historic lows, but they of course did so at a time of economic buoyancy – the late ’90s – where the unemployment rate was also at historic lows and the employment rate (ie: the percentage of adults employed) was around 65%.

Right now we’re of course in the throes of a jobless recovery following a major recession that itself followed ten years of stagnation, where the city’s unemployment rate is double what it was then and the employment rate is around 55%. And lo and behold, violent crime – over nothing, no less – is sprouting up, for lack of anything better to do.

Murder Death Kill

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The NYTimes compiled the last six years’ murders into a big map of the city, where you can mouse over each instance to learn its details as well as produce statistics over who, how, when and why.

Things I found out:

  • 92% of all murderers are male, as are 83% of all murder victims.
  • 60% of all murders are perpetrated by gun. Only 20% by knife.
  • Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Mott Haven, Morrisania, Harlem and Washington Heights seem to favor heavily, with a preponderance of drug-related killings.
  • the guy I saw get shot four times last year – with the street name of Foca – is really named Lugo Jason.
  • a girl was murdered in my neighborhood a little over a week ago and I didn’t even know.

This Looks Familiar

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The state government is deadlocked because suburbanites don’t like taxes (but certainly like their road and utility subsidies, don’t they?), the MTA is cutting service and raising fares to ridiculous lengths (and the comments on that article hurt my faith in humanity), and people are again antsy about violent crime.

For my part, the mood is prevailing on spring student aggression and teacher dispair. Fights have been breaking out on a daily basis in high traffic hallways, two computers were stolen today by students who managed to get their hands on a master key which, along with other petty thefts, foments a possible crime wave a la about this time last year, where teacher laptops and school equipment were being snatched left and right for two weeks of insanity.

I was in a hardware store picking up padlocks so I could secure my equipment now that the door locks were compromised, and when giving the rundown to answer the cashier’s inquiries, the lady next to me broke out in laughter.

“I’m glad I’m not sending my kid to your school!” said this Asian yuppie in high heels.

That’s okay. No other white or Asian mother does. Not one. There’s a reason they call it a ghetto: Nobody who has a choice stays. It’s beginning to feel like the 70s or the 90s in sense that yuppies are having misgivings about the city again and locals are hunkering down.

The thing I hope for at least in the NYCDoE, given the frustrating nature of the current crop and the limited prospects they’re looking at is the promise that we’re only holding the fort until the Bloomberg generation – ie, the generation of students that grew up entirely within the agency that is known as Dead On Education as compared to Bored Of Education – is old enough for high school. Big hope.

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