Friday, March 6, 2015

A Tale of Two Tompkinsvilles

My apologies to all zero of my followers for not maintaining this blog more regularly.  I had some posts in the works, but as is my habit, a terrible habit for blogging, I tried to make too much of them. And so they lay dormant--for the time being at least.  

I'm going to try to break this habit and work to make this a blog that will be useful, at least for my students, if for no one else.  I think it will also prove to be good for me.  I love blogging--well, I love the concept of it at least.  It's high-risk: you may say something stupid that you'd wish you never said, much less to have it eternally memorialized on the World Wide Web.  Yet, the risk is not without reward.  So I say something stupid?  Surely, I will if I keep this up--if I haven't already.  The beauty of this form of communication is that someone out there can, at least in theory, correct my stupidity much more easily and much more quickly than would be the case if I said something stupid in an academic article; or if what I'm saying is somewhere in the range of half-sensible and half-stupid, we can engage in debate that might otherwise not be possible and, together, maybe even reach a more sensible way of thinking.

So much for that--for now.

At the moment, I merely want to post some photos that I took a few months ago of what I'm calling the "Two Tompkinsvilles."

Tompkinsville, of course, is the neighborhood in Staten Island where an NYPD officer choked Eric Garner to death.  It is also, to my surprise, a place where one (though certainly not the Eric Garners of the world) can live quite comfortably, as you'll soon see, with brilliant views of the the NYC skyline.

That is so long as you're living on the "right side" of the neighborhood.

A couple of quick points as background: (1) almost no homicides have occurred over the past several years in Tompskinsville, which calls into question the kind of Broken-Windows logic that supposedly justifed, in the eyes of some, the aggressive policing of low-level offenses like selling loose cigarettes; and (2) as far as I know, the photos you see below--and the stark inequality between those who have and those who don't, even in one little Staten Island neighborhood--have not been a big part, if a part at all, of the discussions and debates about policing the poor in New York City and in the U.S. more generally.

There's so much more to say, so much more I wish I had time to say, but I'll hope, in this instance at least, pictures will speak much more loudly than words.  

I took the photos you see below on the second of two trips to Tompkinsville to see what the neighborhood was like. What you see below are different scenes from the neighborhood, showing what some once talked about as "The Two Americas." The homes you see with the view of the NYC skyline are just a few-minute walk from where Eric Garner was killed.  There is even a concrete path  (pictured below) connecting the two Tompkinsvilles.

The pictures surely do not tell us the whole story--in fact, some photos that I'm holding back for now suggest a more complicated story than many might expect--yet they do raise crucially important questions, not just about policing, but about what, and who, we are as a society.  

More words to come later.  For now, the pictures:

Friday, August 15, 2014

"Broken Windows": A "science"? And who bears the burden of proof? And what does the burden relate to? In short: what really matters in the end?

The so-called "Broken Windows Theory" is back in the news in a big way.  The main reason is only what any reasonably decent human being could think of as the senseless and horrifyingly unjust death of Eric Garner.  

If you haven't seen the video, I'd venture to contend that it's your responsibility as a human being and as a citizen to see it.  And here it is:

And all of this, at the very most, over the selling of an untaxed cigarette?  If only it were a joke, but sadly and shamefully, it is not.  

Far from it. 

A man is dead. And no amount of additional explanation or video footage could possibly demonstrate that his death was anything but grossly unjust. Indeed, the notion that anyone could think otherwise, by my lights, is nothing less than outrageous and reprehensible.

Cover-up? Eric Garner, 43, died after being held in a 'chokehold' by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in Staten Island   Who's the culprit? Who's responsible and what ought to be done about it? Let's say a year or two from now, the officers who killed Eric Garner are behind bars. Is that "justice"? I'd venture to say: no. In my estimation, meaningful justice is a long, long way from here or anything that seems likely to happen, or even to be seriously discussed, anytime soon.

In a sense, the reemergence of "Broken Windows" and an incident like the one that led to Eric Garner's death should come as no surprise, as history's cruelities have, yet again, repeated themselves. Almost two decades after his first stint as commissioner of the NYPD, under then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani ("America's Mayor"), William Bratton is now, once more, commissioner of America's largest urban police force, and no differently than before, he is championing and aggressively implementing the approach to policing known as "Broken Windows." 

And Bratton is currently doing so, even--or perhaps especially--in the face of the senseless, horribly tragic, and unjust killing of an unarmed, and otherwise nonviolent, African-American man whose real "crime" seemed, more than anything else, to be talking back to and resisting those who have been taught and trained to expect and demand docility from those to whom they routinely require docilility or else.

Sound familiar? To anyone who knows their history, I should think it ought to. Most Americans have never, and perhaps never will, come to terms with real American history--fantastically ugly warts and all. If we knew what we ought to know, not just about history, but about the way in which American society and the world around it is structured, I can't fathom how shame, embarrassment, outrage, and guilt--the sense, at the very least, that a tremendous debt is owed that has yet to be paid--could not follow. But perhaps even this very modest musing is naively optimistic. 

Oh yes, through more than two centuries-worth "Independence Day" celebrations, we've come along way!!! There is no slavery in the United States as there once was. There is no segregation by law. Lynching is not condoned as it once was. Congratulations America. How far we've come and yet how little has changed. Against current fashions, no empirical hyperbole is necessary to make the case that we ought to feel something far less than pride or patriotism over how little moral distance America has traveled over the past few hundred years. 

To anyone who is genuinely interested in knowing what's going on today in this place we call America, the context--both historical and social--is so clearly essential. Yet, context is something that we have been conditioned to ignore, if not to proudly reject as weak-kneed sentimentalism that only "liberals" or "socialists" or "Anti-Americans" could ever countenance. The end result is what the sociologist David Riesman called "historical amnesia" or what the great Stanley Cohen referred to as "collective denial."  As Cohen brilliantly put it: "Organized denial works best when people prefer 'not to have an inquiring mind.'  Slow cultural forgetting works best when powerful forces an interest in keeping people quiet."  More on this another time.

For now, it suffices to say that, whether as a consequence conditioning (e.g., "education"), willful ignorance, or plain-old "bad faith," Americans are most certainly not "#1" when it comes to historical memory or sociological imagination.    

Back to Bratton and "Broken Windows": the commissioner's persistent commitment to the philosophy is, in a sense, not at all surprising, as he has always, by his reckoning, been an aficionado of the tactics it counsels and legitimates--so much so, in fact, that Bratton claimed to have affection for such tactics even long before he became aware of James Q. Wilson and George Kelling's seminal article in Atlantic Monthly, way back in 1982, when the two scholars first introduced the world to "Broken Windows." As Bernard Harcourt notes in his book Illusions of Order, Bratton claimed that Wilson and Kelling's essay "articulated and put into beautiful words what I had found from experience. I supported what [Wilson and Kelling] wrote, because I had already lived it . . . ." 

Of course, Bratton has never truly lived it. He is surely not living it now.  Men like Eric Garner have lived it. And every now and again, but all too often, to be sure, men like Eric Garner die as a result of it.

What was surprising--and positively depressing--to me and to others is that Bill De Blasio, the current mayor of New York City, opted to appoint Bratton as his police commissioner. This is the same Bill De Blasio who not only dubbed himself the "progressive choice for mayor" not all that long ago, but more to the point at hand, was the only viable mayoral candidate who unequivocally declared that he would end the NYPD's stop and frisk program, a program which, the candidate De Blasio rightly pointed out at the time, "targets minorities."

This was, to say the least, a breath of fresh air for progressive New Yorkers and many other progressives who (like myself) live outside of New York City, but who have some connection to the city, or simply do not want hundreds of thousands of people being stopped and frisked by the police for no good (or legal) reasons, particularly when the overwhelming majority of people subjected to the unjust and illegal stops are African-Americans or members of other historically disadvantaged minority groups. That is: constituents of the very groups who have been, for the better part of American history, subjected to racist and often brutal policing strategies and tactics. 

I never understood--and still don't quite understand--what the controversy about the "stop and frisk" policy was all about. It struck me, and still strikes me, as a no-brainer if there ever was one.  The high point for the total number of stops-and-frisks was in 2011, under then-mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly.

The numbers were mind-boggling, particularly in a city that many conservative Americans imagine as some kind of bastion of "liberalism." In that year, the NYPD made 685,724 "stops." Of this number, an overwhelming majority of them--605,328 or 88% of all those who were stopped--were not issued a summons or arrested and thus, as a legal matter, were perfectly innocent; 350,743 people, or 53% of those stopped, were African-American; 223,740, or 34% of those stopped, were Latino; and only 61,805, or 9% of those stopped, were Caucausian.

I don't see now--and I have never seen--what there is to debate in the face of such numbers.

In any society that truly values anything like freedom and equality--as politicians of various political and ideological persuasions have long boasted of as principles that are uniquely prized and protected in American society--such statistics ought to, in theory, supply plenty cause for outrage and indignation, regardless of whether the policy "worked" to reduce crime or "worked" in any other manner. The principle could not be simpler or more straightforward: people who have done nothing wrong should not be subjected to state violence or to the threat of state violence.  And consistent with Mayor De Blasio's campaign promise, stops and frisks have declined dramatically during his term as mayor. 

Amen to that.

And yet, quite clearly, as the death of Eric Garner attests to, all is not well in the "Big Apple" (to say nothing of places like Ferguson, Missouri).

"Giuliani-Time" may be a distant memory, but "Bratton-Time" is here again. When I first heard the rumor that De Blasio would appoint Bratton as his police commissioner, I shrugged it off; it made no sense to me, politically naive as I apparently was. Then, as it became plain that the rumor would become a reality, my theory was that appointing Bratton would simply serve as political cover for ending the NYPD's aggressive stop-and-frisk policy. Maybe I was right at the time. But now, quite clearly, we know that Bratton Redux has amounted to much more than mere political cover. 

And yet, as Bratton, among others, have been so hell-bent on reminding us, crime has been historically low for a very long time in New York City. So what's the point of "Fixing Broken Windows" at this point? To get a bit more academic about the matter, neither the "theory" nor the data are up to snuff.  To make a very long story short (for now), part of the problem, as far as the the theory is concerned, is that the goalpost keeps shifting on us.  In the beginning, the "Broken Windows" theory of policing was really not a theory at all (certainly not a "scientific" theory), but rather, at best, a philosophy of policing.  Then it pretended to science, focusing in particular on the connection between: (a) "disorder" and low-level illegal behavior; and (b) serious crime.  Now, the latest is that, perhaps, the disorder-crime nexus is not so central or even relevant to the "theory" after all.

Surely no serious adult debate should work like this.  

When I first began to study crime, policing, and punishment systematically, my understanding of "Broken Windows" policing was pretty much what I imagine most people who are aware of the term think about it these days; what the media has tended to say about it; and what many, if not most, proponents of the approach think of it: it's premised on the notion that "disorder" or marginally illicit behaivor (say, for instance, selling untaxed cigarettes) leads to more "disorder," more and more "disorderly" and marginally illicit behavior, and then, eventually, to serious crime.

Yet, contrary to the conventional wisdom, one of the more interesting facets of Wilson and Kelling's original articulation of the "Broken Windows Theory" is that it wasn't much of a theory at all (see Jock Young's analysis in an earlier post on this blog). Wilson and Kelling don't predict much of anything in their seminal essay. Rather, the following line was typical of their analysis: "failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community" (emphasis added). Of course, lots of things may happen in any given context. A "score of drunks" or " hundred vagrants" may also make for one helluva good time or the beginnings of a social movement.  Who knows?

In "science," claims about what "may" or "can" happen are usually not deemed to be up to snuff, at least not without specifying the conditions under which the dependent variable will occur or not occur. There may be a god. There may not be a god. There may be 10,000 gods. There may be a million gods. There may be 1/4 of a god. We may exist in some giant's dream. For most matters, unabashed agnostic that I am, I happen to like the language of "may" and "can," but it's not the language of "scientific" assertion. 

And, more importantly, the standard of "may" is also not a sufficient threshold for authorizing state violence in a society that genuinely values freedom or that has long prided itself on being wary of the potential excesses of "state power." 

Don't get me wrong: there's nothing wrong with speculation, particularly if it's informed and not driven by crude political calculations or spite or the like. This seems to me to be, in general, a pretty good rule for individuals and societies to live by. Often times in life, we can't do any better than to make informed guesses. Yet, when it comes to the coercive powers of the state, much more, it seems, should be demanded, even by the logic of a bunch of dead, old, white, male slaveowners from a few hundred years ago, who we Americans have long been in the habit of revering. Consider what no less than James Madison had to say in one of the most famous passages from the Federalist Papers
But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.
Wow. You don't say?

Here's a translation for today: if you charge some people among our numbers with the task of repressing acts like selling untaxed cigarettes or drinking in public or plenty of other offenses that, in and of themselves, do no appreciable harm to anyone, and, in the process, routinely deprive people of their freedom, guess what? The repressed sometimes resist. As did Eric Gardner. As would I if I were in his position.  At least I hope I would.  If I didn't, it would not be out of principle, but probably out of plain old-fashioned fear. 

And men like Eric Garner, I suspect, are especially likely to resist repression if they sense, on some level, that the "laws" to which they are being subjected are some brand of "bullshit." Selling cigarettes? That's what authorized the police to approach the man, to threaten him, and to humiliate him in front of others? Are we for real? And whether or not this man's death was justified or unjustified is taken as a serious question?

It's not--I dare say--a serious question for anyone who values life and liberty. 

Facts are not the central issue here. If there's any doubt to be grappled with, it's to be dealt with through serious soul-searching, not by sifting through facts. The facts are plenty clear enough.

Still, there is, however, the question of who, on the ground level, is charged with treating the Eric Garners of the world as broken windows. What do we know about them? To be honest, I don't have much of a clue. My best guess, though, is that many of NYPD's "finest" are scared kids or the equivalent of as much. They want to be something like cowboys but never will be. Their cause is not much of a cause. And so, naturally enough, they're insecure. The Eric Garners of the world challenge them, not just with words, but on an existential level, particularly when the NYPD and other departments who employ these officers don't, perhaps by virtue of some malleable and rudimentary philosophy called "Broken Windows" or this or that, let them, much less encourage them, to treat human beings as human beings. And then, no surprise: bad shit happens. And every now and again, someone's life comes to an end for no good reason. Blame the individual cops if you must. My aim, however, is not so focused. At a minimum, I blame a stupid, senseless policy that puts people--the police and the policed alike--into terrible, often unworkable, situations that once in every who-knows-how-many-times ends in an utterly indefensible tragedy.  

Eric Garner died. He is no more. His family and others who cared about him will suffer immeasurably. And for what?

What sayeth the architects of "Broken Windows"?  James Q. Wilson has passed on, yet George Kelling is still among us. What does the latter have to say?

Here's an excerpt from a New York Times article from a few days ago in which the now-retired Kelling stays true to what, at the moment, he apparently thinks of as the "science" of "Broken Windows":
“It started as an observation, but since then there’s been science,” Professor Kelling said in an interview, citing studies by criminologists in the Netherlands and Lowell, Mass. “The burden’s on the other side to say there is no link between disorderly conditions and serious crime.”
Well, Professor Kelling, studies from the "other side" have been done and they have shown "no link" or, at best, a very weak link. That's the easiest point to make here and it's been made far too many times for the New York Times or anyone else to ignore.

But I think there's a much more important and fundamental point to be made in response to Kelling and his ilk. And that is this: in a society that values liberty and that (as Tea Partiers, among others, would have it) worries about entrusting the state with too much power, we ought to, at a very minimum, limit the power of state actors (police officers and such) to use violence to achieve only very particular, carefully defined, ends, only perhaps those ends that are justified by the most compelling of reasons and supported by the most compelling evidence. All mays and cans notwithstanding, the so-called "Broken Windows Theory" does not get us there--not even close.

As a matter of "science," Kelling is rather wrong (see below for a simple illustration). The "burden" was--and remains--on Kelling and other proponents of the "Broken Windows Theory" to demonstrate clearly and unequivocally that low-level disorder or marginally illegal acts lead eventually (and inevitably?) to serious crime. They have never done so. 

And as I hope to make clear soon enough in some combination of a book and articles, as this all has played out in my own corner of the social universe, lots of low-level disorder and illicit behavior happens daily, but does not lead to serious crime. This, of course, does not prove that low-level disorder and illicit behavior never leads to crime or never will. Such a claim would be silly for me to make. 

Yet, if we must speak of "social science" as science, consider this: I lift the keyboard upon which I am currently writing and I release my hands from it; rather than falling to the table or to the ground below me, the keyboard remains where my hands left it, suspended in air. Well that would be front-page news and enough to call into question our theory of gravity as we presently understand it. While I think it's probably a bit of a fool's errand to think about "social science" in the same way we think about "natural science," if theories of the social pretend towards the science of the natural, I don't see any reason why the standards of proof should be any less rigorous.

And I know from plenty enough observation that low-level disorder and illegal behavior (even defined in the most conventional of terms) does not necessarily lead to serious crime. So, taking Kelling's claim of "science" seriously, where does that leave us? No serious scientist would ignore a keyboard floating in mid-air, would they? Why then should we insist upon some theory that posits a connection between low-level crime and disorder, on the one hand, and serious crime, on the other hand, if we know that there is at least one space (and very possibly a great many more) in which that predicted relationship does not hold true?

And here comes the kicker: some commentators are suggesting these days that "Broken Windows" policing is not, in fact, about the linkage between low-level offenses/disorder and serious crime.  Wait, what? Since when?  That's not how "science" works, does it?

Consider the following segment on WNYC's Brian Lehrer show from a few weeks ago:  The guests were New York Times reporters Matt Flegenheimer and J. David Goodman who co-wrote an article about the NYPD's crackdown on subway performances and, in particular, its crackdown on "acrobatic" dancing on the subway.  Their piece was entitled "On Subway, Flying Feet Can Lead to Handcuffs."

Like Lehrer's show in general--and recent episodes in particular--this segment was extremely instructive, though incredibly annoying at times, so annoying, in fact, that, very uncharacteristically, I felt compelled to call into the show and say my piece.  Before I had called in, every single caller had congratulated the NYPD for their crackdown on subway dancing, not because anyone has been seriously injured as a result of such performances, but rather, because they feared as much or just because they found themselves "annoyed" (no more, I assure you, than they annoyed me, just hearing them on the radio).  One woman called in and complained that she had been kicked in the shins once, but who hasn't been kicked in the shins, pushed in the back, or shoved around on the subway?  Welcome to New York City--the tamest as perhaps it has ever been--but still a place where your expectations should clearly not be the same as what you might reasonably expect walking through a shopping mall in Iowa or some other such place.

When I called into Lehrer's show, I had hoped to make several points, but only had the chance to make two: (1) before we arrest or incarcerate anyone, let's get our evidence straight; and (2) my own research has shown that deeds we deem "disorderly" do not necessarily lead to serious crime, if they ever do.  It was at that point that the two New York Times reporters emphasized that Bratton and the NYPD are not justifying their crackdowns on the theory that subway performances will lead to serious crime.  That, apparently, is no longer the fashion in the pseudoscience of "Broken Windows"--or, perhaps, it is only the fashion when it's convenient to be.

Once more: really?  

What is more, getting down to 'brass tacks,' we're not talking about inanimate objects here.  When it comes to matters of policing and punishment and other issues of social importance, facts and values cannot be so easily separated. 

As I see it, if we are indeed living in a society that truly values liberty, and in which individuals are not subjected to the violence of the state absent the most compelling of reasons, Kelling, Bratton, & Co. might as well be living in an altogether different universe.  Even if they were able to show in a million or more studies that there is a strong--and, if you will, "statistically significant"--connection between disorder, low-level illegal behavior, and serious crime, we should still not be satisfied.  If we took liberty seriously, the analysis would not be terribly different than it is when it comes to the right to "free speech." With speech, however odious it may strike us and whatever may come of it, it is generally protected constitutionally, and is thus not subject to sanction, so long as the harm it causes is not so harmful that "the state" has a "compelling interest" in regulating it. And even then, using the violence of the state would be a last resort, certainly not a first resort. 

And if our standard in general for subjecting our neighbors to state violence and depriving them of their liberty is not similarly onerous, let's be honest: R.I.P. any notion of the "America" we hear about ad nauseum from political candidates of all supposedly different ideological persuasions. R.I.P. "liberty" in any meaningful sense of the term. And, certainly, to say the least, R.I.P. that precious notion to which many Americans hold dear, which goes by the name of "limited government" or some other such thing. 

There is no bringing Eric Garner back--not to this world.

From the stories I've read about the man, he meant a lot to people in his life, and wretched as this world and this society may prove to be in the end, his memory will live on. And I have a faint hope that his death might yet stand for much more.

I desperately hope that Eric Garner's death will prompt us, finally, to take seriously that which, for centuries now, America has pretended to take seriously but never really has: liberty and, hell, even life itself

Enough is enough already. No?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

R.I.P. Jock Young ("let's get on with it")

This blog--from the start to the present moment--came about through conversation with the late great William "Jock" Young: a father, a husband, a friend, a mentor, a teacher, a scholar, and an inspiration to all of us who find the conventional wisdom lacking about crime and punishment and many other things besides.

I resurrect the "blog" now--and am committed to maintaining it from here on in---for many reasons, but if ever I needed added incentive, I surely have it now.  This blog, now and forevermore, is dedicated to the memory of Jock Young.

At this point, this blog hardly deserves to be called a "blog" or anything else for that matter.  Truth be told, I fell asleep at the wheel--and, then, things happened.  I still have hope for it though.

I had grand plans for this blog when I first had a mind to get it started.  A few years and a bit of change ago, I had the impression that "critical criminology," as I understood it and still understand it, lacked a popular audience, at least in the good ol' United States of America. So I pitched the idea of a "blog" to Jock, who, as anyone who knew him well, was a great many things, but not exactly technologically adept.  No big deal.  I told Jock: just send me your thoughts and I'll post them for all the world (or for our limited audience) to see. I got the sense that he liked the idea, but then fate--ugly, horrible, old fate--had its way.  

Surely, Jock Young would never have been blogger.  And, personally, I wouldn't have had it any other way. Still, as far I knew--and as far as I know now--Jock did not wish, nor would he ever want, for critical criminology to be a purely academic or elite enterprise.  What good would it be if it were merely that?  And so, in memory and in honor of Jock, I recommence this blog in the spirit of what I imagine Jock would say: "get on it with it already!"  And so I--and perhaps we--shall try.  

Cliched as it may read: Jock is gone in body, but remains with with us in in spirit and inspiration.  It feels that way to me, and I know it feels that way--and then some--to those who were fortunate enough to be closer to him than I was. For them and for me, a Jock Young doesn't come around too often--maybe, if we are lucky, only once in a lifetime.  To say the least, we are fortunate to have known the old guy.  

Thus, let's honor him, not just by pointing to his epic work, but also by carrying on with the important tasks of thinking about crime and punishment--and other things--in the most critical of terms.  That is, I am absolutely certain, what he would have wanted.

Hence, I desperately hope, a new chapter begins.  And, in that spirit, this first entry in the recommencement of a blog dedicated to one of Jock's life missions shall begin with a dedication to his memory. I start with what Jock had to say about those he admired the most--those, that is, who passed on before him. 

The "New Criminology" began Jock's odyssey (and ours) along with Ian Taylor and Paul Walton.  It was and remains an epic account.  I never had the pleasure of meeting Ian Taylor or Paul Walton, but Jock talked so much about them that I feel I know them better than I know many people I ought to know.  Here's one bit of a much larger obit that Jock wrote for Ian: 
[T]hat was Ian, one man in 10,000, sticking to his beliefs, enthusiastic about the game, critical in his judgments - a flair that characterised him throughout his life.
From my perspective, the point is, not that one necessarily identify as "critical," or this or that, or that one stake out an identity as a critical criminologist or as any other kind of critical academic, but that one live life, as Jock certainly did, and as Jock saw Ian as doing, in a critical spirit, which, one might think, should be true of any criminologist or any other -ologist, as a simple manner of habit.  And yet, as Jock knew all too well, things in this world of ours are not so simple as that.  

If this little blog turns out to be half of what I hope it will be, there will be plenty enough time and space for such discussions.  What's critical?  Why does it matter?  And so on.  For the time being, though, let's honor the memory of a man whose memory very much deserves to be honored.  He was brilliant.  He was good. He was kind.  He was sweet.  He was decent.  By my lights, he could be one helluva a pain in the ass. He was Jock.  And here's what some folks have had to say about the 'old bird' . . . 

Ken Plummer:
He was a major influence on my life – with his  extraordinary enthusiasm and energy, wry wit, he often seemed half crazed and slightly mad. A kind of cheeky passion sort of exuded from his fast-talking, fast-moving body. Jock’s lecturing mode – strutting, listing, shouting, laughing with only the scrappiest of notes – was inspirational. 
When he was young  Jock always said he wanted to be a zookeeper;  when he became a sociologist in the 1960′s, he wrote  about criminology as  ‘the ‘zoo keepers of deviants’. All his life he worked to break down this  cage in which we are all trapped. He remained to the end uneasy about the whole tradition of criminology; and saw the problems it dealt with (very badly) as symptomatic of much wider and deeper problems requiring much more profound social and economic change. His combination  of Marxism , Critical Sociology and Humanism always shone through. He will always be an inspiration to me.
Roger Matthews and Keith Hayward:
Jock was the leading light of an intellectual movement inspired by the radical political currents of the 1960s that questioned conventional ways of thinking about crime and its control. Despite subsequent shifts of his perspective, this radical sensibility remained undimmed throughout his career. He was instinctively sceptical of organised coercive power and consistently took the side of those affected by it. In later work, he was a fierce critic of short-sighted "get tough" policies and a vigorous opponent of defeatist claims that "nothing works".
He was born William Young in Vogrie, Midlothian. When he was five, his family moved to Aldershot. His grammar school education in the Hampshire military town was a formative experience, not least because it furnished him with the nickname Jock. The school enforced mandatory attendance in a uniformed cadet force. The regimentation and hours of "square bashing" did not sit well with Jock, who, along with a motley group of conscientious objectors, rebelled. It was the first salvo in a career characterised by dogged resistance to unquestioned authority.
Jock always maintained an endearing humility and was indifferent to the trappings of status. He enjoyed London, particularly his beloved "Stokey" (Stoke Newington). He remained at Middlesex for 35 years before moving first to New York City, where he took up a position at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York in 2002, and later to the University of Kent.
Jock was also known for his charisma, humour and a famously warm and relaxed manner.
Prefacing an interview he had with Jock not long before his death, Rene Van Swaaningen had this to say: 
In that time I have represented the Erasmus University Rotterdam and Jock successively Middlesex, CUNY’s John Jay College and Kent. Jock had just undergone hip surgery. He looked somewhat fragile and pale, but in all other aspects it was absolutely the Jock I knew: quick-witted and ironic, with a slightly roguish, expressive look. Sitting quietly in the hotel bar with a glass of dry white wine, we had a rather serious, nocturnal conversation about all the NDC comrades who had sadly passed away over the past year. I could not have imagined then that Jock would be the next hero to ‘fall’.
A hero indeed.

Jock on Jock and those who influenced him most (in the interview with Rene Van Swaanigen):
The older I get, the more interested I become in biographies. Someone’s academic work becomes so much more interesting when you know how someone has lived. Today, I think in a much more appreciative, positive way about a great many theorists I have criticised in my younger years, for example in "The New Criminology." The first ‘significant other’ that comes to mind is Charles Wright Mills – for the reasons I mentioned before. The subversive 
attitude and the imagination he embodies is today more needed than ever. I have tried to capture this in my latest book "The Criminological Imagination."  
Second, I need to pay my tribute to Robert K. Merton. Al Gouldner has, already in the 1970s, opened my eyes to the political Merton. Merton’s reinterpretation of Durkheim’s idea of anomie is much more Marxist than most people realise. Merton’s lessons lie at the basis of "The Exclusive Society" and I have described his significance for cultural criminology in "Merton with energy, Katz with structure."
Third, I would like to mention David Matza. He perfectly understood the limitations of a pathological and static vision of delinquency and was one of the first to point at the role of romance and anger in the understanding of crime. Matza and the subcultural criminologists of the 1950s and 1960s are so much more interesting than the textbook versions of their work suggest. Cultural criminologists should really re-read their classics and bring criminological research back into the heart of sociology.
Wow.  Sage advice, to say the very least, especially,  from my vantage point, with respect to Matza--perhaps the most underrated, underappreciated, and underutilized sociologist in the last few generations.

I hope--and expect--that the same will not be true of our old friend Jock.  To that end, let us begin a conversation about the guy who, in so many different ways, knew what was up, yet never had the arrogance to think he had it all figured out.  He was a "gadfly" in the very best sense of the term and that doesn't come along too often.  Let's remember him.  

I've asked some of Jock's closest friends to offer what they regard as their and others' most poignant remarks about our old, dear friend.  When they come, I will post.

For now, I'll just just end this post by excerpting a bit of what I had to say at a memorial for Jock at the CUNY Graduate Center way back in December.  To say the very least, it's far from the best that anyone has had to say about the man, but for whatever it's worth, it's the best I could come up with at the time:
Jock was an iconoclast in so many different ways; an intellectual in the very best and most unpretentious sense of the term; a great friend; a wonderful teacher; and a loving, devoted, and proud husband and father.  And for me, Jock was an intellectual guide, a mentor, a confidant, and a cheerleader, and I am—as I know, many others are—forever in his debt.
There really wasn’t much of anything that I felt I had to hide from Jock.  As we sociologists know, much of life is about “presentation of self,” and this, it seems to me, is particularly true of academic life.  Among other things, we pretend to be sure of ourselves even when, or perhaps especially when, we are, deep down, very unsure of ourselves. With Jock, I didn’t need to hide my insecurities.
I remember telling him how nervous I was presenting a paper at the Common Sessions [the critical criminology conference, which was held in Barcelona that year]. I was deeply embarrassed about it.  Jock assured me that I was far from alone. To my great surprise, he told me that he still got nervous before presentations and even before his classes.  And that’s the kind of guy Jock was. An intellectual giant, a legend in his field of study—and yet, he got nervous before his classes and wasn’t afraid to admit as much, especially if it would be of help to someone like me. The lesson, I think, was to take our jobs seriously, to put our best feet forward in all that we do, but never lose sight of the fundamental fact that, in the end, we’re just human.
Some of my most cherished memories over the past several years were of times spent with Jock. No one was more generous with his time. “Let’s get a drink” often translated into many drinks—well, at least many drinks for me and nearly always just three, or sometimes four, Pinot Grigio’s for Jock. Conversations with Jock and other graduate students often lasted well into the night. There wasn’t much we didn’t talk about.  Certainly, no point of discussion was ever off-limits for Jock.
While Jock was a committed leftist and radical in nearly every way, he had no patience for easy sentimentality. Some of our best conversations . . . were about the ways that one could be a radical in this world without ignoring obvious social realities. And here’s one of the things that I admired most about Jock: as remarkably brilliant as he was, he never pretended that the answers were easy. He was still searching.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve heard stories from Jock’s students and colleagues about how he worked until he couldn’t work anymore. In the face of a terrible illness, Jock continued to write. He continued to teach. He even continued to hold office hours. 
In celebration of Jock’s remarkable spirit and courage, I want to add my own story to the mix:
This past August [2013], I defended my dissertation. A couple of weeks before the defense, Jock invited me to one of his favorite spots in Brooklyn to deliver my dissertation [in hardy copy form!] and discuss my work with him. As always, Jock’s insights were invaluable. He was as smart, funny, and charming as ever.  But something was very wrong. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what it what was, but it was clear that Jock was very sick.  At my defense, Jock was, again, in many ways, himself, but he looked even sicker than before. Not long after that, I learned of his diagnosis. No one in his or her right mind could have blamed him if he had withdrawn from my committee. He certainly could not have been blamed for not meeting with me before my defense. And, surely, Jock had every reason not to physically show up for my defense.  And yet, sick as he was, he did all these things.
And that I think was the essence of Jock. He gave so much to all of us, even when he clearly had nothing to gain himself. I know that perhaps the best we can do to honor the life of such a fundamentally decent human being is to try to do unto other as he did unto us.  And I know many of us will try. And we should.  But the simple fact is that Jock was, in so many ways, one of a kind.
If I had to sum it all up, I'd say that, for me, Jock was an inspiration.  He was a friend.  He was, as so many people have rightly pointed out during his life and since his death, an absolutely brilliant man.  He was decent. He was honest.  He was so many things that to me and to others that we should strive to be.  I hope we'll always remember though--as I certainly will and, I have no doubt, others will too--Jock was a great teacher and a great mentor.  I don't know if this was the best part of who he was.  Who can say, particularly with a man who did so much, so brilliantly well?  I must say, though, that this is what has stuck with me the most.  And I don't think it'll become unstuck to me anytime soon, if ever.   
R.I.P., Jock Young: you're an inspiration.  As as you'd surely advise, let's get on with it!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Kissinger Cables & Bradley Manning

This is by way of Common Dreams (by way of

What's there to say really?  I think the implications from a critical-criminological perspective are obvious enough.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What is "Broken Windows Theory"?

First of all, I am hoping that this will be the first of many posts to come--soon, and hopefully not just from me, but from other critical criminologists too! 

I want to get things started again by briefly discussing the latest problem that I have been working through in my dissertation. Hopefully, it will be of interest to someone somewhere. 

First, a bit of background: My dissertation is based on more two years worth of research in which I examined, among other things, how the poorest of the urban poor are policed in an urban public space in Jersey City, New Jersey. Contrary to claims about the "containment and criminalization" of the urban poor, I found that, for the post part, the police tended to indulge the disorderly and illicit behaviors of the urban poor. Most of my dissertation consists of a critical engagement with the likes of Loic Wacquant and other scholars who, in my estimation, focus only on the most repressive aspects of the American criminal justice system, while, in the process, ignoring some important complexities, nuances, and contradictions in the system. Perhaps I'll say more about this in a later post. 

For now, though, I'd like to talk about what I'm working through at the moment.  In one of my last chapters, I discuss my finding that the space I studied manages to be a safe one despite the fact that: (a) homeless and other "street persons" consistently engage in disorderly and illicit behaviors in the space; and (b) the police tend to indulge, not repress, such behaviors. 

Initially, I thought that this finding might count as evidence against the (in)famous "Broken Windows Theory."  However, after revisiting the theory, as it was originally laid out in an Atlantic Monthly article written by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, it quickly became clear that I was operating with a faulty understanding of the theory. I begin my chapter by noting as much and then laying out the questions that I think arise in light of what Broken Windows Theory actually says, rather than according to how it has consistently been misread (assuming it has been read at all): 
How does [the space] manage to be a relatively safe [one]? When I first began thinking about this question, it occurred to me almost immediately that my findings might count as evidence against the claims of James Q. Wilson and George Kelling’s Broken Windows Theory of crime causation. This thought, however, was based on the widely held, but not altogether correct, notion that the quintessential characteristics of the broken windows approach are highly aggressive policing tactics, such as “sweeps” of the homeless and crackdowns on the likes of squeegee men and panhandlers. Translated into theoretical terms, Broken Windows Theory seemed to be saying something along the following lines: where there is disorder in a neighborhood, serious crime will eventually follow, unless the police intervene by aggressively policing low-level crime and disorder.

To be sure, homeless sweeps and other similarly aggressive policing tactics have been carried out under the banner of Broken Windows Theory, and one of the progenitors of the theory served as an advisor to New York City’s Transit Police Department during a period in which the department developed and implemented a much more aggressive strategy for dealing with behaviors like farebeating, panhandling, and graffiti writing on the subways. There is certainly a case to be made, too, that aggressively policing disorder and low-level crimes is not inconsistent with Broken Windows Theory. However, if we take our guidance, not from how Broken Windows Theory has been interpreted by both the theory’s proponents and critics, nor from how policymakers or police officers have translated and implemented the theory over the past two decades, but on the theory’s own terms, particularly as it was originally formulated, it is clear that, while aggressive modes of repressing low-level disorder and crime might well be consistent with Broken Windows Theory, other much less aggressive modes of policing are also consistent with the theory.

Indeed, as I revisited Wilson and Kelling’s seminal article on Broken Windows Theory, I was struck, on the one hand, by how indirect or even tenuous the connection was between the theory and modes of policing that have become virtually synonymous with the theory and, on the other hand, by how closely some of their descriptions of “good policing” resembled what I had observed in [my research]. Thus, I could hardly, in good faith, conclude that my findings contradicted Broken Windows Theory.

One of the difficulties of Wilson and Kelling’s theory is that it is not entirely clear what it predicts in terms of the relationship between disorder and crime. Contrary to some interpretations of the theory, Wilson and Kelling did not say that disorder, unless aggressively policed, will always lead to crime. Rather, they were very careful to stop short of such “strong causal reasoning” (Rein and Winship 1999; Thracher 2004). Of course, though, this begs a number of important questions. Under what conditions does disorder lead to serious crime? And, perhaps more interestingly, when doesn’t disorder lead to crime? I believe that my research enables me to offer some tentative answers to at least the latter of these two questions.
To avoid making this post too long, I will save discussion of how I think my "case" of a "high disorder/low crime" space might shed some light on the potential connections between disorder and crime.

To conclude, though, I'd like to give some major props to Jock Young who, in  my view, gets Broken Windows Theory exactly right in his now-classic work The Exclusive Society. The funny thing is that, despite having recently read Exclusive Society, I had forgotten (or, perhaps more accurately, only subliminally remembered) his very nuanced treatment of Broken Windows Theory in the book.  Anyway, here is an excerpt (pp. 127-28): 
Wilson and Kelling's insight was that the control of minor offenders and disorderly behaviour which was not criminal was as important to a community as crime control. Incivilities, ‘quality of life’ crimes caused a major part of the citizens’ feeling of unease in the city. And to this absolutely spot-on insight they added two more contentious propositions. Namely, that the police who were ineffective in the control of serious crime would be easily effective against disorderly behaviour. Indeed that that was their traditional role. And that control of incivilities would, so to speak, kick-start the community out of despair and disintegration and such a revitalized community through informal controls and citizens’ vigilance would in time reverse the spiral of decay and reduce the incidence of serious crime. I do not want to enter into a critique of this philosophy; my point is that it is scarcely a programme of zero-tolerance against all crime which believes that the police are the key actors in the creation of orderly society and which views the ‘sweeping up’ of the streets as producing miraculous and immediate results. It is a more subtle theory, it has a more marginal role for the police and it situates the wellspring of social order in more fundamental parts of the social structure. Finally, it talks not of zero-tolerance but of discretion bordering on realpolitik.
One of the things that is so refreshing about Jock's analysis here is that he sees the theory for what it is really saying, regardless of whether or not he thinks the theory is right or whether or not he counts himself as a proponent of the Broken Windows "philosophy" (and, incidentally, I think that "philosophy" is a better way of describing Wilson and Kelling's argument than "theory" is).  Similarly, while I don't count necessarily count myself as a fan of the broken-window approach (for me, it depends on how it's interpreted and implemented), after taking a much closer look at the theory, I can't help but recognize the absurdity of conflating it with the notion of "zero tolerance" (as if there could ever be such a thing).

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Friday, September 7, 2012

Assigning "The Wire" for Criminology: An Experiment

I'm sure that I'm far from alone among sociologists and criminologists in desperately wanting to teach a course around "The Wire."  Some people have been lucky enough to do it, including, not surprisingly, William Julius Wilson who, along with Anmol Chadha, discusses his reasons for teaching "The Wire" in this short piece from a couple of years ago:

One day, maybe I'll get the chance.  For now, what I decided to do is to assign my criminology students this semester to watch one episode of the first season every week and to write memos on each episode connecting themes from the show to course themes.  I am really excited about this.  If students give me the permission, I am hoping to post some of their best insights on this blog.