VISION ZERO: RACISM, POLICING, AND RETHINKING SAFETY


Over the past two years, New York City has erupted in protest over the deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of the police. In 2014, a Staten Island grandfather named Eric Garner was videotaped being choked to death by an undercover NYPD detective. The police had stopped Garner, as they had countless times before, and accused him of selling loose cigarettes. His death prompted criticism of Broken Windows policing, which claims that aggressive policing of low-level or 'quality-of-life' crimes reduces disorder and serious crime.

With the country's largest department at over 36,000 police officers, the NYPD sets the pace for much of American policing. Broken Windows policing was first established as a policy in New York in the 1990s under Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The most influential policing philosophy of the modern era was quickly exported to police departments across the nation and has contributed to the policing epidemic that becomes more apparent every day. Critical research, however, has shown little to no relationship between Broken Windows and reductions in serious crimes. Instead, “quality-of-life policing” merely punishes poor communities of color, generating arrests and summonses for misdemeanors.

Today, in a city presented as a shining example of 'progressivism' and governed by a self-described progressive mayor, Broken Windows policing continues to be a widely accepted tactic. Mayor Bill de Blasio has a mixed record on his approach to policing. He brought back Bratton as a police commissioner, but has also held back from wholly condemning the Black Lives Matter movement. However, he has repeatedly pledged his allegiance to the theory. In fact, the mayor has doubled down and expanded Broken Windows into one of his administration's cornerstone policies: the "Vision Zero" street safety program.

VISION ZERO

Within a few weeks of his inauguration, de Blasio announced the launch of Vision Zero, a program that aims to cut traffic-related deaths in half by 2025 and ultimately reduce the number to zero. It borrows from a similar Swedish program with the same name, and was promoted by prominent advocacy organizations like Transportation Alternatives. Its goal is laudable: reducing traffic fatalities. Its means, as initially proposed, are multifaceted: public education, street design, legislation and law enforcement. Despite widespread efforts to raise awareness, steer design and pass laws, however, much of Vision Zero’s implementation has leaned on law enforcement through police crackdowns and ticketing. De Blasio has described Vision Zero as "an innovation very much directly related to Broken Windows." George Kelling, one of the intellectual architects of Broken Windows policing and co-author of the 1982 The Atlantic magazine article “Broken Windows” that birthed the theory, connected Vision Zero to Broken Windows at a 2013 traffic safety forum. Speaking alongside Bratton, whose reappointment would be announced a few weeks later, Kelling noted that “not all bad drivers are criminals, but a lot of criminals are bad drivers.” He compared the enforcement side of Vision Zero to the NYPD's crackdown on fare-beating, a classic Broken Windows infraction. Some fare-beaters, Kelling argued, carry weapons and have open warrants. Drivers, he reasoned, may also be serious criminals. For Kelling, Vision Zero was a means towards increased police interactions. “I like it when police are having contact with citizens,” he rejoiced. There is some debate about how closely aligned Vision Zero and Broken Windows actually are. Some argue that the approaches differ in that Broken Windows pointed to a hypothetical connection between low-level offenses and serious crime, while enforcement of traffic offenses like speeding or failure to yield targets behaviors that undeniably create unsafe streets. If you believe Kelling, who has met with and consulted two of the city officials directly charged with Vision Zero's implementation-- Department of Transportation commissioner Polly Trottenberg and NYPD Traffic Division Chief Thomas Chan-- then the initiative falls well within the Broken Windows framework. If you believe Mayor de Blasio, Vision Zero is a modern spin on Broken Windows that fits the needs of the city today. For both, Vision Zero and Broken Windows mean increased potential interactions between cops and civilians.

It is precisely this formula that should raise serious concerns among both social justice-oriented urban planners and people of color, who have historically borne the brunt of law enforcement's heavy hand.

RACE, CLASS AND POLICING

It is no secret that urban planning has shown a pattern and practice of racism, going back centuries and continuing today. Go to planning conferences or meet with urban planners and you'll likely be greeted by mostly White faces. What activists term "White supremacy", particularly now amid an expanding conversation on race, describes the broad phenomenon of Whites controlling and influencing policies and institutions. Planning in diverse cities like New York still tends to cater to White and affluent interests, thus perpetuating White supremacy. Urban planner Sylvia Morse, writing last Winter in Progressive Planning Magazine, noted that planning is largely disconnected from issues of racial justice as concerns policing. I agree and go further in suggesting that planning--even 'progressive' planning--can perpetuate racial injustice.

"If you believe Mayor de Blasio, Vision Zero is a modern spin on Broken Windows that fits the needs of the city today. For both, Vision Zero and Broken Windows mean increased potential interactions between cops and civilians."

New York is a good example. To start, we can look at housing. In spite of de Blasio's initial appeal to communities of color, his affordable housing plan--touted by city hall as the most ambitious and progressive in the country--was loudly and vehemently opposed by many residents of those same communities, who called the mayor's plan a “Trojan horse” for further gentrification. The expansion of pedestrian plazas, bike lanes and police crackdowns at the behest of traffic safety advocates like Transportation Alternatives may soon face the same sort of backlash.

Organizations like Transportation Alternatives and other advocates, particularly families of victims, are no doubt sincere in their desire to create safer streets. Despite miles and miles of new protected bike lanes, more bicyclists were killed by cars this year than last. However, the ease with which some have called on the NYPD to carry out even more of the Vision Zero enforcement reflects a certain amount of privilege, and a short memory of the questionable tactics law enforcement has historically employed to achieve “public safety”. This newest call for the police's heavy hand comes on the heels of years of stop and frisks, the overwhelming majority of which were targeted at Blacks and Latinos. That racist effort, driven by former mayor Michael Bloomberg (who also spearheaded bike safety efforts and Citibike, the bike-sharing program sponsored and branded by a bank), was rationalized under the guise of reducing gun violence. Those claims have proven to be unfounded. Similarly, the city (and the country’s) experience of the drug war, which incarcerated massive numbers of people of color, presents another example of law enforcement overreach in the name of public safety. Calls to end drug violence then sowed the seeds of mass incarceration--a terrible legacy we are still trying to undo today. While ostensibly smaller in scope, Vision Zero could echo that history. In calling for more enforcement of drivers, advocates ignore the fact that police already disproportionately stop drivers of color--and young Black men in particular--for the pettiest offenses: dark tints, cracked windshields, and rear-view mirror decorations. Empowering police to make even more stops will accomplish Kelling's stated goals of increasing police interactions. But what does getting pulled over mean if you're a person of color? Philando Castille, a Black Minnesota father shot to death by cops during a traffic stop this year, comes to mind. More generally, these stops can function as fishing expeditions for arrestable offenses (marijuana possession, for example). Most cops don't want to be traffic agents--they fancy themselves heroic crime-fighters--so a minor traffic offense can escalate into further criminalization. Whether it's for fuzzy dice dangling from the mirror or driving a few miles per hour over the speed limit-- or for nothing at all-- stops can serve as a pretext for fundamentally racist policing.

We must also question the design side of traffic safety. Bike lanes and pedestrian plazas were embraced by the Bloomberg administration largely to mimic European trends. These trends may not register as a priority for poor New Yorkers of color who have more pressing needs: housing, employment, education and poverty alleviation. At a raucous community board hearing on bike lanes in Brooklyn earlier this year, one Black pastor questioned how the city could prioritize bike lanes when people couldn't even afford to live in the neighborhood anymore. The answer may be that biking is predominantly, though not exclusively, a White fascination. The White gentrifying biker sees the city as a playground, an adventure worthy of exploration. The proliferation of bike lanes across the city enable this conceptualization and behavior. Meanwhile, poor Black or Latino residents, many whom are simply casual bikers within their own neighborhoods and networks, don't see bike lanes as crucial in their lives. Delivery workers-- many of whom are immigrants-- are notable exceptions.

LIBERAL GENTRIFICATION

Of course, bicyclists’ safety is important. But if Bike Lives Matter for a mayor that campaigned on a progressive platform of income inequality, will bike-friendly streets and pedestrian plazas contribute to other forms of inequality? Samuel Stein, writing in 2011 for this publication's predecessor, Progressive Planning, noted that one of the Bloomberg administration's explicit goals was to "attract international capital and investment… on the basis of livability." Is city planning, which includes bike lanes and beautification projects, therefore in the service of current residents—or wealthier new ones? For neighborhoods once seen as too edgy or dangerous, carefully repackaging them as safer and more livable beckons a new class of residents. De Blasio's affordable housing plan clears the way for this influx of new tenants in newly up-zoned neighborhoods. Amenities like bike lanes and lush new greenery, lure further attention to those rezoned neighborhoods. This is gentrification with a liberal face.

Policing can have the same veneer. Quality-of-life policing is still seen today as a liberal alternative to harsher conservative approaches, like Jim Crow laws. In fact, quality-of-life policing aids in mass incarceration. Just as inclusionary zoning claims to be an affordable housing program but is in fact a gentrification scheme, the stated aims of Broken Windows to lower serious crime are not necessarily the same as the theory's political aims: to cleanse the city of undesirables and to make it more hospitable for business and profit. At its inception, Broken Windows was heralded by Business Improvement Districts that wanted hustlers, addicts and homeless people removed from public spaces like Times Square. Real estate developers want the same effect. In other words, to understand gentrification and displacement, one must understand quality-of-life policing--and vice versa. Developers who see neighborhoods as new frontiers understand that policing for cycling safety can also mean higher rents. A recent Guardian article on bicycling and gentrification pointed to cycling as a "symbol of identity and status", one more closely aligned with "well-paid knowledge economy jobs" and "negatively associated with working class jobs."

"The disproportionate attention given to bicycling as a public policy cure-all for a host of urban city problems (pollution, overcrowded/underfunded public transportation, etc.), ignores the practical needs of working class families who never asked for bike-sharing or miles and miles of bike lanes."

Stein argued that city planning, including the prioritization of pro-bike policies, has “changed the city for the richer and the Whiter", but that this is not the fault of cyclists. Bicycling and bike lanes, according to Stein, do not cause gentrification. That may be true–developers and speculators operating within a capitalist framework do–but it misses the point. The disproportionate attention given to bicycling as a public policy cure-all for a host of urban city problems (pollution, overcrowded/underfunded public transportation, etc.), ignores the practical needs of working class families who never asked for bike-sharing or miles and miles of bike lanes. For many poor people of color and working-class communities, and not simply NIMBY-ing middle-class Whites, a wholesale embrace of biking culture is a telltale sign of who City Hall includes–and who it doesn't.

When it comes to Vision Zero, the collaboration between biking advocates and the NYPD may, for some (including myself), be the final straw. In the quest for zero traffic deaths, criminalization will follow. Car stops in my neighborhood of Spanish Harlem are already a dehumanizing reality. It is a common occurrence for young men of color to be sitting on a curb as police search their cars. But now, ironically, even bikers are subject to being stopped for the most minor of infractions. Immigrant delivery workers in particular, some of whom may be undocumented, get stopped by cops for minor infractions, and are often depicted by “the public and news media as the ‘bad’ cyclists who break traffic rules.” (Emerging research, including Do Lee’s participatory research with New York City’s food delivery cyclists, challenges this narrative). This is Vision Zero, the newest and trendiest arm of a longstanding police state.

ABOUT PROGRESSIVE CITY

 

We feature stories on inclusive urban planning practices, grassroots organizing, and civic action. Our contributors and readers are activists, reporters, practitioners, academics, and community members.

UPCOMING EVENTS

FOLLOW PROGRESSIVE CITY
  • Facebook B&W
  • Twitter B&W
RECENT POSTS
SEARCH BY TAGS