Wednesday, August 27, 2014

New York's Cultural Memory of Crime And Its Current Abuses

Growing up out on the Nebraska plains in the 1980s, I always thought of New York City as a singularly lawless and dangerous place.  I still remember seeing a commercial for the Friday the 13th sequel Jason Takes Manhattan, which shows a character running scared into a convenience store screaming about how a madman is trying to kill her, and the jaded clerk just huffs and says "welcome to New York."  That image was also reinforced by more benign entertainment like Barney Miller, where the crime-ridden streets of New York were played for laughs.  I remember news stories about the Central Park jogger and the panic over "wilding," the racist attacks in Bensonhurst, and Bernard Goetz blowing away muggers on the subway.

Of course, the raw numbers show that violent crime was indeed a lot higher in the Big Apple back then.  There were 2245 murders in the city in 1990, compared with 332 in 2013.  It is arguably the safest big city in America.  It is curious then, that today brought news that the NYPD's police sergeants union had written a letter to the Democratic National Convention telling them not to have the party's 2016 convention in Brooklyn because it was getting too dangerous.  This brazen action, which is appalling in that it goes so much against the city's economic interests, was intended to spite new mayor Bill de Blasio.

De Blasio has not been a zealot when it comes to putting a leash on the police, and he has even endorsed the controversial "broken windows" strategy.  However, he did campaign against stop and frisk, and has been critical following the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the police.  This force, so used to acting with impunity in the last two administrations, would rather harm the city's quest for an economically beneficial convention than be held accountable in any way for its actions.  (Today also brought news that the NYPD's internal review board is throwing out an increasing number of citizen complaints of wrong doing.)

Critics of de Blasio have a very powerful cultural memory on their side: the jump in crime that affected New York from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s.  Essentially, the cops are telling people "unless you give us free reign to do anything we want, we'll be headed straight back to the bad old days."  It also hurts de Blasio that periods of high crime are associated with other liberal mayors, like David Dinkins and John Lindsay, despite the fact that crime was already going down in the Dinkins years before Giuliani showed up.

There's another element at work here, one that those pushing back against police oversight are well aware they are using: racial fear.  Lindsay, Dinkins, and de Blasio all came to power with the overwhelming support of black voters, and all came into office promising to heed the voice of that constituency, the one historically worst protected and served by the police.  What the police sergeants union is really saying is "don't put the leash on us, because "those people" will run wild given half a chance."

Time will tell if this strategy works, but the fact that many supposedly "liberal" people in NYC voted for Bloomberg, a staunch defender of stop and frisk, is a sign that it just may be successful.  The murder rate is actually down this year, but the lenses of racial fear can very easily obscure reality.

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