For the second consecutive week, New York City police have virtually ceased writing tickets and arresting people for many nonviolent crimes, on the order of a 90 percent drop from a year earlier. After perceived slights by Mayor Bill de Blasio, civil protests against police brutality, and the murder of two officers by a deranged gunman, the New York Police Department is fighting back by not doing its job. Or rather, police appear to be using their resentment as an organizing incentive to skip certain non-essential cop duties.
Many of the offenses police have tacitly declared legal are considered quality-of-life (QOL) infractions. Those follow the broken window strategy, a policing philosophy that has been widely discredited since its heyday in Rudy Giuliani's mayoralty. QOL meets small transgressions with arrests and fines—a way, it's thought, to nip more substantial crimes in the bud. Perhaps because QOL policing grants cops near-unlimited discretion in determining whom to sanction, its penalties fall disproportionately on people of color. Between 2001 and 2013, the New York Daily News found, more than 80 percent of the 7.3 million people penalized for these infractions were black or Latino. The vast majority of African Americans and Latinos in all walks of life feel like they're treated unfairly by law enforcement, and consider police discrimination the most endemic form of societal mistreatment. It's unfair, brutal, racist, and financially burdensome, and it often follows such small transgressions as jaywalking, skipping $2.50 subway fares or merely irritating police.
To many of us from these communities, the past two weeks have amounted to a vacation from fear, surveillance and punishment. Maybe this is what it feels like to not be prejudged and seen as suspicious law breakers. Maybe this is a small taste of what it feels like to be white.
Here is my story of two cities. Ten years ago, when I first moved to New York City, some friends invited me out to an afternoon concert in Central Park. This was an event filled with upper-middle-class white people enjoying music and culture—and an occasion, it turned out, to flaunt the city's open-container laws. I was naïve enough to be surprised at how many of my friends were publicly drinking wine and liquor from badly disguised canisters, cups, and flasks. Eventually the party staggered out of the park and on to the Upper West Side, down the streets, and into the subways. Riders greeted us with smiles and laughter, pedestrians gave us you-crazy-kids nudges. Our portable debauchery snaked all the way home to our dorm rooms.
A few months later I was walking around the Lower East Side, on my way to meet friends. I decided to stop into a bodega and get a beer, which I sipped out of a brown paper bag as I blithely wandered near a housing project. A police officer materialized, and when he checked my ID, he seemed surprised that I didn't live in the housing project. He wrote me a ticket me for the open container and let me go. I didn't think much of it. I was, in fact, breaking the law. But what a contrast from my earlier infractions, in a white space with white friends.
When I went to court for my ticket, I noticed that almost everyone there answering summonses and paying fines was black or Latino. The QOL penalties, it seemed to me, were a backdoor tax for the city, and the people feeding that coffer overwhelmingly looked like me. Most stared ahead and mumbled agreements to the judge so they could leave. Some pleaded for leniency or extra time to pay, citing lack of income. Sixty dollars here, $200 there. These amounts would have momentarily inconvenienced Upper West Siders. In that courtroom, those figures were pushing people to tears.
Poor people bear the brunt of QOL fines. Not lower-income folks or working class types—no, the actual underclass, the groups balkanized into narrow living corridors in the city, offered slim opportunities, and suspended in a state of financial anxiety. Unless they are in front of a judge, they're invisible to policymakers. But QOL fines can wreck them, and for what? Recently I lived with a roommate who worked as a housekeeper. He had a couple of small run-ins with the police for issues like noise and arguing with the neighbors, and the run-ins begat fines. He fell short on his bills, and things began to snowball. He borrowed from loan sharks, resorted to cheating friends out of money, borrowed money from family he never intended to pay back and, I suspect, shoplifted. My landlord later confirmed what I'd worried for a while: My roommate had skimmed money from our rent checks (including my share) for food and transportation. While I don't believe QOL fines started him down his shady path, the summons only stoked his desperation. I doubt he's the only one, as I doubt advocates of broken windows policing ever stop to ponder the next steps for people who draw fines and who are themselves broke.
Small penalties can precipitate risky acts when they are not, as a portion of one's income, small. Here's what New York charges people for various minor offenses:
• $25 for an open container of alcohol
• $115 for stopping or standing in a roadway or highway
• $115 for standing or parking on a curb when not allowed
• $250 for disorderly conduct
• $250 for a noise disturbance
Police get broad leeway in determining whether to cite you for such offenses. Take noise disturbances. Some are obvious: a bellowing car stereo, a party, hollering on the street. Or perhaps merely raising your voice to a police officer.
Sleeping or resting in public is another vague standard, used to clear away people who appear homeless or vagrant. Black men are frequently arrested or fined for falling asleep on the train, even if they're simply tired on a long commute. Lewd conduct fines can arise simply from wearing your pants too low. If you are wearing a two-finger ring and happen to be black, you can be arrested for jewelry that reminds a cop of brass knuckles. QOL literally allows police to mete out punishment if they don't like your look.
If none of these fit, the standby is disorderly conduct, the most malleable of the QOL fines. Disorderly conduct can include but is not limited to asking a question of an officer, cursing under your breath, or making people nervous. And if you continue in this so-called disorderly conduct, you could be charged with resisting arrest. As many people of color are aware by now, resisting arrest makes a handy explainer for injuries incurred by arrested and handcuffed individuals in police custody.
The Police Reform Organizing Project, a group that aims to end police abuses against vulnerable people in New York, has tallied some other recent crimes that led to arrests for people of color:
• Walking between the cars of a stopped subway train
• Occupying two seats on a mostly empty subway train
• Putting a foot on a subway seat
• Putting a backpack on a subway seat
• Using a loved one's transit pass to enter the subway
• Asking another person to swipe their pass to get you onto the subway
• Asking people for a handout while holding open a door to an ATM
• Standing in front of or in the lobby of your own building
• Insisting on your rights when stopped and questioned for no apparent reason
• Filming/recording, while not interfering with a police activity
• Being a pedicab driver and parking in an unauthorized space or not properly displaying your rates
• Riding a bicycle on the sidewalk
Now, QOL disparities do not include driving while black, civil forfeiture laws of confiscating property, stop-and-frisk, the illegal (but still used) vertical patrolling of housing projects or the treatment that people of color receive once they are in the judicial system. We are just talking about simple things. Like being able to stand on a street corner and be pretty sure a cop won't start a conversation that ends with him fining you or locking you up.
This work slowdown highlights a low-level white privilege: the assumption of not-guiltiness. People of color have suddenly gotten a peek into this everyday advantage. It comes as a relief. Several of my friends posted joyful Facebook updates when the news made the rounds:
"Keep it up forever, and fire all the cops that would be doing the summonses.”
"And look! No chaos in the streets! Amazing!"
A year after my court date, I was once again with friends, loitering after a rain-soaked evening of Shakespeare in the Park. These friends were white and drunk from consuming alcohol in public. As we filed out of the bleachers one of the guys held up a comically huge bag of weed and asked if anyone wanted to get high in the bushes. Everyone but me joined. Paranoid of the police and decidedly un-high, I walked quickly out of the park, toward home. The following day I asked my friend with the weed how things went. He was nonchalant: They'd found a patch of dry ground behind some bushes and smoked up. When I asked if they ran into any problems, he looked baffled. No, this was his city. What was there to be worried about?
Sometimes when I watch the video of Eric Garner being choked to death by a swarm of officers who suspected him of selling loose cigarettes, I juxtapose that with my friends’ mischievous giggling as they retreated into the park to smoke an illegal drug in public. I wish we could all have that giddy thrill at little transgressions. But to do that one has to feel that he is free.