from the pages of June 1994


Urban Politics

Urban Militarism

By Christian Parenti


There is a new siege mentality infecting American cities. New York City Mayor Giuliani warns of a "ten to fifteen year war on crime." Every TV network now has at least one prime time "docudrama," chronicling the war on crime such as: Cops, 911, Code 3 or True Stories of the Highway Patrol. The frenzy has grown so wild that Florida State Representative James Kerrigan recently told a rally of NRA supporters, that the ghost of John Wayne visited him with advise. Consequently, our cities are being militarized. Nationally police are slated to receive six billion dollars in federal grants. In Philadelphia and other cities, high school truants are now hunted, handcuffed and returned to school by force. The homeless are being targeted by police from Portland to New York, and metal detectors, attack dogs, and video cameras seem to be everywhere.

The object of this "urban militarism" is supposedly crime reduction. But in reality the creeping fortress culture is an attempt at managing social inequality. Since 1970 the number of people held in U.S. prisons has soared by 250 percent. America is now the world's number one jailer, with 426 people per 100,000 behind bars. Yet homicide is still the second leading killer of young people in general, and the leading killer for African Americans. The FBI warns that 83 percent of all Americans can expect to become victims of crime in their lifetime. And the U.S. is still the most violent industrialized "western democracy," despite a slight dip in crime rate over the past few years. To understand the rise of both crime and what increasingly looks like an anti-crime police state it is necessary to quickly survey America's political economy.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control estimates that only 37 to 56 percent of American two-year-olds are immunized. In some inner cities the rate is as low as 10 percent. In many Third World countries the rate of immunization for two-year-olds runs around 70 to 80 percent. Calcutta, Lagos, and Mexico City all have higher child immunization rates than Washington, DC, New York, or even the U.S. as a whole. Infant mortality for Black Americans is higher than for babies in Jamaica, Trinidad, or Dominica. Unemployment rates for African American teenagers is estimated at 36 percent in some cities and nationally the purchasing power of the federal minimum wage, $4.25 an hour, is 23 percent lower than it was during the 1970s. The U.S. is undoubtedly being "Third Worldized."

Recently, Brooklyn bound B, D and Q subway trains in New York city have been ground to a halt by drug addicts who comb the city's subway tunnels for salvageable metal, sabotaging subway infrastructure in the process. In desperation, these scavengers have taken to ripping up copper signaling cable from deep in the tunnels. Police reported 380 cases of this subway copper theft in 1992. So far one man has been electrocuted the process. The copper, bought for seven dollars a pound by the city, usually fetches only one dollar a pound on the scrap market.



But the news is not bad for all. During the 1980s lavish tax cuts and across the board deregulation, stimulated increasingly speculative forms of investment. Real estate and corporate mergers have become the name of the game. Facilitating this triumph of finance capital is a new, computer-age, comprador class, specializing in conspicuous consumption. Unlike their suburban parents (pioneers of white flight), many of the new urban bourgeoisie have claimed the city as their backdrop. But their city is a revamped, sophisticated, safe "urban lite." Thus the plethora of chic coffee bars, health spas and exotic restaurants. With the new style of class tastes have came new types of urban consumption spaces: the gentrified downtown quarter of most cities, the walking mall, the refurbished seaport, the shopping node.

But gentrified neighborhoods, condominium enclaves, malls and shopping havens only succeed if "undesirable" social elements are kept at bay. In other words the citadels of consumption, must be pacified; secured against those who might come looking for spare change, or larger spoils.


Pacification: Sweeping The Citadel

The first line of defense against undesirable social elements is lack of public transportation from poor neighborhoods to city centers. For example, both Richmond, California and many of Washington, DC's poorest neighborhoods have virtually no public transportation linking them with wealthier areas or even downtown districts. Also young people of color and poor whites can be excluded from malls, theme parks, and nightclubs if they "fit the gang profile." Already scores of entertainment and shopping spots enforce neo-segregation against urban youth wearing baggy jeans, khaki pants, red or blue jackets, hats, bandannas, or shoelaces. For many police and security guards almost anyone under 35 can fit "the gang profile," but the number one qualifying endowment is the color of one's skin.

Truly upscale consumption zones and corporate lobbies rely on subtler defenses. An effective strategy is the "quasi-private" ambiance, complete with video cameras, doormen and patrician cultural references such as high art or piped in classical music, all of which are meant to make the uninitiated feel uncomfortable. But for larger, more general, officially public zones of consumption, such as an entire downtown area, the police must ultimately play a role. The Matrix program in San Francisco is one recent example. Matrix is a "high profile" police operation, involving elite tactical squads, motorcycle cops, and mounted patrols, designed to push the homeless, once and for all, out of downtown. Armed with a battery of new laws and ordinances, banning: camping, drinking, urinating in public, aggressive panhandling, and "intending to lodge," the police are systematically sweeping away or rounding up homeless people and dumping their belongings into garbage trucks. Since the programs inception in August 1993 well over 3,400 citations have been issued and several hundred arrests made. Police officials say they are, "going to stop tolerating illegal behavior." Meanwhile they continually expand and invent new categories of petty illegality. Activists call it the "criminalization of homelessness." Merchants in the tourist dependent town don't seem to mind the social hygiene. With an estimated 5,000 to 16,000 homeless people and only 800 shelter beds maintained by the city, many homeless are ending up in jail or other neighborhoods.

Similar campaigns against the homeless and their supporters are underway in Seattle and Portland. A city spokesperson in Seattle said that the presence of homeless people in a business district touches off, "a vicious cycle that, as many formerly great American cities have demonstrated, can be very difficult to reverse." In Portland, downtown property owners have created a private security force known as "the Portland Guides" to discourage the presence of homeless people. Similar "guide" companies have been set up in Hartford and New Haven Connecticut.

In mid-town Manhattan there is a vigilante force of "outreach workers" commissioned by the Grand Central Partnership, Business Improvement District, an alliance of local business interests aiming to "improve the area." Most of the Partnership's outreach workers are themselves homeless. These sidewalk mercenaries police their fellow street people for the remuneration of a shelter bed at the Partnership's St. Anthony shelter and one dollar an hour. Corporations such as the Tudor Towers and several local Banks have accounts with the partnership, paying regular fees to keep their ATM's and sidewalks clear of riffraff. After roughly a year of "outreach work" serious abuses, such as beatings and intimidation have already been reported. The Coalition for the Homeless is presently preparing a class action suit against the Grand Central Partnership.


Ruddy the Rude Ruler

The battle for mid-town's cubbyholes, bus stops, and corporate plazas is only one part of a much larger war against the homeless in New York City, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has broken new ground in the politics of urban social hygiene. At a New York Post Forum December 9, 1993, Giuliani explained that combating nuisance crimes such as "aggressive panhandling," is actually part of the larger fight against violent crime.

More recently Giuliani thrust even deeper into Orwellian mind games when he suggested that people begin dealing with homelessness "by calling it something else." (WBAI, Radio, 2/25/94) According to New York's mayor, homelessness is really just mental illness and drug addiction. In other words it's the victim's problem.

Among Giuliani's targets are the infamous "squeegee men," a term first coined by Mayor Koch to describe the street level entrepreneurs who wash car windows at red lights. Shortly after he took office Giuliani sent the troops against this new menace. A follow up study confirmed that "squeegee guys," as the Mayor sometime calls them, were no match for the NYPD. Hundreds of squeegee men were routed from New York's grimy intersections in only two months. Richard Schwartz, senior advisor to the Mayor explained the importance of the anti-squeegee guy campaign: "This situation is a barometer for the quality of life on the streets of New York." As in San Francisco, the agenda is clear: sterilize the city center and drive the poor away. The Mayor however softened his war on squeegee men with a figurative carrot. He urged the displaced window washers to: "Go get a job in a restaurant."

Giuliani's war on the poor does not stop aboveground--he has pledged to end begging on New York's Subways. Thousands of anti-panhandling signs now adorn city trains. Innocuous electronic voices remind riders that giving to panhandlers is illegal, and every token booth offers brochures explaining why New Yorkers should rally against the less fortunate. According to homeless people, the anti-panhandling campaign has brought a new wave of police harassment. The net effect of the anti-homeless wars is a steady flow of shopping cart refugees out of hostile central zones and into impoverished environs.


Containment: Lock Down Ghetto

One common technology of police control in the ghetto is "tagging." Tagging is the police practice of picking up all Black men at least once and entering their names into police records. Recently news broke of a rather grotesque example of tagging, when papers reported that the Denver police department had compiled an enormous roster of "active gang members." An estimated two-thirds of all Black men between the ages of 12 and 24, were on the list. Whites made up only 7 percent of the list in a city that is 80 percent Caucasian. Within the narrow scope of the Denver police anyone who is Black and young, wears "gang clothing," or is known to associate with gangs is eligible to make the list. That means if you wear a red Chicago Bulls jacket and your cousin is in a gang, you could be listed as an "active gang member," a stigma bearing serious consequences. Due to recent anti-gang legislation, crimes committed by gang members are subject to more severe punishment than crime committed by the general public.

In Las Vegas, Nevada, like countless other cities, there is a familiar pattern of police repression against youth of color. As poor youth from Southern California and elsewhere swarm into Las Vegas looking for jobs the unimaginable is beginning. The city's population doubled to more than 800,000 in the last ten years and new suburban slums are developing in north Vegas. Nevada's welfare rolls have increased 54 percent since 1991 alone. Simultaneously Police have beefed up their anti-gang activity. Lieutenant Hawkins, of the Las Vegas Police, summed up the situation quite frankly: "We are very worried that it [gang violence] could spill over to downtown and the strip, because tourism is our number one industry here." The goal here is to protect the super profits of Las Vegas from the super poverty of its rapidly growing, impoverished, unincorporated suburban ghettos.


Vertical Bantustans

Some of the worst conditions in this country are in public housing, or publicly subsidized housing. One such example is San Francisco's Geneva Towers. The two towers are 20 stories high. At their base wrought iron "harpoon" fences have gone up. Inside the perimeter armed guards, mostly off-duty police in blue jumpsuits, pace back and forth. Is it a fort or a jail? It's a spectacular monument to security, rising mean and fat over a sprawling valley of bungalows and two story projects, and some two thousand people call it home. It is a scene one can find in any city--the militarized housing project. To enter and exit the buildings, residents must show special ID cards. Guards behind bullet proof glass buzz them in and record all who come and go. Tenant Marie Harris is not pleased. "No one, I don't care if you're rich or poor, has the right to monitor your movements like that."

This elaborate security was prompted by a wave of crime which was brought on by a decade of neglect when the projects were privately owned, federally subsidized low income housing. Housing and Urban Development official Jon Phillips paints a grim picture of the prior situation. "When we took over the units, there were gangs which controlled the elevators with submachine guns. Any police who tried to enter were repelled with automatic weapons." Most residents dismissed such stories as ludicrous exaggerations, but do agree that crime is a problem. However they feel the punitive security measures are uncalled for. "A security guard is not gonna come in here and fix the leak in my roof. What about the asbestos and the elevators? I mean, we got babies here," said Marie Harris.

Among the residents who have been abused by guards is the elderly Elezi Bird. According to Bird, he and his sons came home from a vacation to find four security guards in front of the Bird's apartment beating two cuffed boys. Bird stayed in the hallway and asked why the two youth were being thrashed. According to Bird, chief of security Ely Gray said that if Bird "didn't know what was going on," he [Gray] "was gonna have to teach his old Black ass a lesson." Bird recounting the story in his kitchen, where he now feels like a prisoner, said: "They then proceeded to beat me about the head and back and put my son Obash in a choke hold. Now I am yelling, don't kill my kid! Don't kill my kid!" No one has yet been punished for the beating of these residents in the hallway of their own homes. And Gray refuses to comment on the case.

Another example of a militarized ghetto is Chicago's Cabrini Green housing project. Like San Francisco's Geneva Towers, Cabrini Green residents are required to have special, South Africa style IDs to come and go from their homes. Metal detectors and guards are stationed at all doors. Housing Police randomly stop and search Cabrini youth and force them to "strip to the waist, even in the freezing cold," as one fourteen-year-old put it. Like Geneva Towers, Cabrini Green does not have a health care clinic, but is equipped with an on-sight detention center.

Weed and Seed

Weed and Seed is a national federally funded program which subordinates social service spending to the agenda of the Justice Department. Michael Zinzun of Los Angeles's Coalition Against Police Abuse put it bluntly: "Operation Weed and Seed does nothing but further militarize our communities and criminalize our youth--criminalize an entire generation. It's the system's solution to a shortage of jobs and educational opportunities."

At the heart of this federal program is the coupling of "enterprise zones" with intensified law enforcement. On paper, Weed and Seed is supposed to involve not just a stick but some carrot as well. New federal grants are supposed to be channeled to blighted parts of the inner-city along with federal fire power. But in reality most of Weed and Seeds' social service money is merely renamed, previously allotted federal funds. When pressed, Weed and Seed spokesperson Mark Sackley admits, "Weed and Seed is not a grants program, it's a strategy."

Furthermore, Weed and Seed gives the Justice Department the right to determine whether social service money is being "appropriately" spent. In Seattle eight out of ten social service projects proposed by the city were rejected by the justice department for lacking police involvement. Among these programs was a Spanish language translation program. Many Weed and Seed areas do not even bother with the pretense of having a social service component. Working with police in Weed and Seed zones are members of the National Guard and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. One of the program's most sinister elements is the "FAST" track (Federal Alternatives to State Trial) prosecution system. This program allows for streamlined, high velocity prosecutions and requires lengthy minimum federal sentences for even first time offenders. Possession of five grams of crack in Weed and Seed country will get a person five years in prison, without parole. These rather unconstitutional changes in the legal system are not confined to Weed and Seed sites alone. In many public housing projects, entire families can be evicted if one of its members is caught with drugs. Many lawyers and even a few judges worry that a bifurcated legal system is emerging, one track for drug enforcement, the other for other criminal matters.


Racist Justice

Urban militarism is inherently racist, people of color are the primary targets of the new crackdown. In Baltimore during 1981, just as the Reagan drug wars commenced, 15 white juveniles were arrested for drug sales, compared with 86 Black juveniles. In 1991, thirteen white juveniles were arrested in Baltimore for selling drugs as were 1,304 Black juveniles. In cities such as Washington, DC and Baltimore, between 42 and 56 percent of African American men between the ages of 18 and 35 are under the control of the criminal justice system at any given time. More Black men go to prison than to college. Today African Americans make up only 8 percent of San Francisco's population, yet they constitute 57 percent of San Francisco's county jail population. This mirrors the national trend. Black men total about 6 percent of the population but make up 44 percent of prison inmates throughout the country. A study by professor William Nagel found that there is no significant correlation between a state's racial composition and its crime rate. However there is a correlation between a state's racial composition and its general incarceration rate.


Crime As Social Control

Along with pacification and containment, there is a third major mechanism of control--that is crime itself. The problem with street crime in America is not that it occurs but where it occurs. When confined to the ghetto, crime can be quite useful. To illustrate this point let us consider the following case.

In 1985 members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, (ACORN), took over 25 vacant city owned buildings in East New York. The activists were pressuring the municipal government to address the housing crisis by renovating some of the thousands of abandoned or dilapidated city owned buildings. Eleven people were arrested. But by 1987, after a prolonged campaign of direct action, ACORN won the right to renovate 57 city owned buildings with $2.7 million dollars in grants. Unfortunately the first buildings renovated were in East New York--the 75th precinct--Brooklyn's bloodiest neighborhood and, as the Mollen commission later confirmed, one of the city's most corrupt precincts.

Renovations began in February 1991. With little or no help from police the community controlled development project soon fell prey to extortion and theft. Scavengers routinely stole tools and supplies, while local drug dealers and gangsters demanded regular protection money. And attempts to organize the local community were thwarted with outright violence and threats backed by guns, leveled at organizer's heads. Things were not going well for what had, at first, seemed to be an incredible victory for popular forces against the landlord-dominated city government.

After a few months the situation was critical and it seemed ACORN would have a hard time finding people to occupy its units. Around this time veteran activist, teacher and marshal artist, Michael Dyson, volunteered to do security and develop a grassroots community defense force. At 3:00 <MS>AM on July 14, 1993 Dyson was shot and killed by an unknown assailant. Dyson's death was yet another massive blow against a radical grass roots movement that threatened to become a model of community control and grassroots development.

Often resistance to crime takes a confused and vengeful form, which leaves the roots of crime unaddressed. Traditional civil rights leaders such as Jesse Jackson have sounded a message of anti-crime self help and have taken to attacking "the bad, Black brother on the corner" in an attempt to stem the fratricidal tide of violence in America's cities. Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam have for several years been waging a "stop the killing" camping which is largely devoid of any systemic challenge to existing power relations. Likewise Kweisi Mfume, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, suggests taking on urban crime with an all-out "traditional values campaign." Even Dick Gregory has waded into the fray of combat against phantoms. In late December 1993 Gregory and five others were arrested at The Wiz, a record store in DC, for protesting the sale of gangster rap.

Crime is also useful for the status quo in that it picks up the slack for a system which cannot provide jobs to all and will not provide sufficient welfare. As one young Brooklyn dealer told the New York Times, "Everything costs so have huge families, five or six kids in a home and everybody wants something expensive. So they decide to hustle." If hustling for $30 dollars an hour were not an option perhaps rioting or community organizing would be the only course of action left.

We now know that the FBI used crime as a tool to destroy Black radicals in the 1960s. Earl Anthony, once deputy minister of information for the Black Panther Party, and simultaneously agent provocateur for the FBI, points out in his book, Spitting in the Wind, that one of his main tasks for the FBI was to lure activists into drug dealing, robbery and prostitution.


Drastic Action

Many who normally oppose police state tactics, nonetheless see a locked-down city as the only course of action left. They argue that "drastic situations require drastic measures." They are absolutely right. However the strong medicine needed is not barbed wire, security cameras and more cops. Instead something even more outrageous is called for--serious social reform, such as a massive redistribution of wealth and political power. All other strategies purporting to combat street crime are destined to fail.