Homeless Opponents of ‘Broken Windows’ Protest Think Tank

Ale Murphy, an activist from the Upper West Side, holds a sign equating "Broken Windows" policing with the death of Eric Garner, who was arrested for selling loose cigarettes. Murphy was among the protesters outside the office of the Manhattan Institute yesterday, where some taped red hands with the names of people killed by the NYPD to the door. (Photo by Caroline Lewis for Voices of NY)

Ale Murphy, an activist from the Upper West Side, holds a sign equating “broken windows” policing with the death of Eric Garner, who was arrested for selling loose cigarettes. Murphy was among the protesters outside the office of the Manhattan Institute on Dec. 10, where some taped red hands with the names of people killed by the NYPD to the door. (Photo by Caroline Lewis for Voices of NY)

The theory of Broken Windows policing argues that the early prevention of small crimes will eventually prevent larger crimes from happening. If a building has broken windows, this signals to potential lawbreakers that nobody cares; more serious crime will result.“- Heather Mac Donald, Manhattan Institute fellow and New York Post opinion writer, via email

 

“It’s an aggressive approach to policing where the police come in and they intimidate and harass people in the community with the intent of controlling behavior, instead of coming in as the police force should and responding to crime. We don’t believe that it’s permissible, in terms of civil rights, to proactively prevent crime by turning people into criminals.”

– William Burnett, board member of Picture the Homeless, standing outside Mac Donald’s office building

The evening of Wednesday, Dec. 10, in the first snow of the season, members of the advocacy group Picture the Homeless and other activists formed a crowd a few-dozen deep outside 52 Vanderbilt Ave. in Midtown, the office building that houses influential conservative policy think tank the Manhattan Institute. Holding signs with indictments like “Broken Windows Kills, Manhattan Institute = Murderers,” they wanted to discuss policy but it was clear they weren’t looking to do it from behind a podium.

They have made that request in the past, however. Two years ago, Picture the Homeless took to Twitter to challenge Heather Mac Donald – a conservative pundit and public face of the influential Manhattan Institute – to a public debate about the merits of “broken windows,” the controversial philosophy behind NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s hard-on-petty-crime law enforcement strategy.

The “broken windows” theory – alternatively called “quality-of-life enforcement” and “proactive policing” – has been used to justify both “stop-and-frisk” and the rising number of summonses the NYPD has been issuing, primarily to people of color.

At the time, Mac Donald’s colleague, James Copland, declined the debate on her behalf, asking of her proposed opponent, who happened to be homeless, “Is this guy really the right person to debate this topic with a legal scholar like Heather?”

Protestors from Picture the Homeless said housing and jobs would help curb petty crime better than "Broken Windows" policing. (Photo by Caroline Lewis for Voices of NY)

Protestors from Picture the Homeless said housing and jobs would help curb petty crime better than “broken windows” policing. (Photo by Caroline Lewis for Voices of NY)

On Wednesday, a few demonstrators ventured into the building to speak to Mac Donald directly.

Lynn Lewis, the executive director of Picture the Homeless, said she and three others entered the building without incident and headed up to the think tank’s office, where they were immediately buzzed in. Once inside, Lewis said, they did some redecorating.

“We taped red hands that had the names of people killed by the police all over their office,” Lewis said.

After discovering that both Mac Donald and George Kelling – the Manhattan Institute fellow who co-authored the original article on “broken windows” back in 1982 – weren’t in, Lewis said they voiced their message to whoever would listen.

“We said that we believe that ‘broken windows’ policing kills and ‘quality-of-life’ policing kills,” Lewis recounted back on the street, “and that since they’re promoting these policies that end up killing people, they should be held accountable and see the bloody hands and the names of people that have been killed because of their policies.”

Manhattan Institute staff promptly called the police, but the protesters agreed to leave and no one was arrested. The think tank did not respond to requests to offer their version of the incident in time for publication.

The kinds of petty crimes associated with “broken windows” – loitering, public urination, open containers – are often associated with homelessness.

“We’ve had, over the years, a number of our members who spend a lot of time in Penn Station and they were repeatedly harassed by police and taken to Central Booking,” said William Burnett, a 44-year-old homeless board member of Picture the Homeless. “I guess, in this scenario, the homeless people would be the broken windows.”

Clean-shaven, white and in possession of a stylish black briefcase, Burnett said he believed he was rarely the victim of police harassment himself because he could “pass.”

Addressing police harassment of homeless people was only one part of the protest. The rally also dovetailed with the other recent protests that have wracked the country, decrying the deaths of unarmed black men, like Ferguson’s Michael Brown and Staten Island’s Eric Garner, at the hands of white police officers

Ever since New Yorkers saw the video of NYPD officers using what proved to be a fatal chokehold while arresting Eric Garner for selling untaxed cigarettes, or “loosies,” back in July, everyone from activists to City Council members have been drawing connections between “broken windows” and fatal police brutality.

But a week after Garner was killed, Mac Donald wrote a New York Post opinion piece arguing that, while Garner didn’t deserve to die for selling loosies, “There is no connection between quality-of-life enforcement, on the one hand, and Garner’s death, on the other.” She called protests of “quality-of-life enforcement” “pure opportunism.”

Mac Donald then echoed the oft-repeated argument that “broken windows” is responsible for the drastic decline in crime New York City has experienced since Bratton put it into action the first time he was at the helm of the NYPD in the mid-1990s.

“The theory has no scientific basis at all,” Scott Andrew Hutchins, a Picture the Homeless member, called to the crowd through a bullhorn.

Scholarly studies conflict on how much “broken windows” policies have contributed to the decline in New York’s crime rates, if they have contributed at all. But the disproportionate criminalization of New Yorkers of color for minor offenses as a result of “broken windows” policies is well documented.

Members of Picture the Homeless may never come face-to-face with Manhattan Institute fellows to discuss “broken windows,” but the public debate rages on.


One Comment

  1. Pingback: Homeless people protest the Manhattan Institute, racist architects of "Broken Windows" policing - Picture The Homeless

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