Mayor Bill de Blasio, with his police-chauffeured rides from Gracie Mansion to his Park Slope gym, recently criticized panhandlers, some of whom, he claimed, may not actually be in need.
If you think you could pull of de Blasio’s mask and find a grinning Rudy Giuliani underneath, you might not be the only one. Giuliani famously went to war against the so-called squeegee men (among others) in the 1990’s as part of an effort to maintain “order” and reduce crime. That was one of the most visible aspects of the dawn of the era of Broken Windows, a theory Mayor de Blasio has continually backed (over and over and over) and that not only sicced police on poor New Yorkers of color, but encouraged New Yorkers to look at each other as nuisances and elements of ‘disorder.’
The mayor’s comments were perhaps surprising to some, given his progressive platform. However, he has stood firmly behind similar comments from ex-NYPD bigwig Bill Bratton who theorized the city’s homeless problem would improve if New Yorkers stopped giving to panhandlers. At the time, Bratton’s comments were condemned by homeless advocates. The mayor backed Bratton anyway.
Bratton, who was Giuliani’s police commissioner from 1994 to 1996, also stirred debate in 2016 when he cited Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for Federal Action” or, as it is more commonly known, the Moynihan report. Bratton’s four decade glance into the past led him to suggest that a decline in moral values among young people today was behind an upsurge in violent crime across the country.
De Blasio, this time, disagreed with Bratton, dismissing the Moynihan report, which, in the opinion of many, was infused with a racist view of Black families. But are the mayor’s remarks about panhandlers, some of whom, he suggested, aren’t even homeless, any less despicable? Can one still be a progressive liberal and rhetorically attack the poor?
Since de Blasio’s election, there has certainly been a concerted effort by right-leaning tabloids to smear the homeless as some sort of indicator of the city’s return to the ‘bad old days’ of yesteryear. Joel Berg of the Coalition Against Hunger pointed out the subtle and not-so-subtle homeless-bashing of media outlets, including the New York Times and the New York Post, for City Limits’ readers. But it was his analysis of our collective disdain for the homeless that underscored a deeper, more inconvenient truth:
But it’s far too facile to simply blame these problem on conservative media outlets or politicians. Many self-proclaimed liberals – who proudly (and rightfully) condemn the hate mongering bigotry of Donald Trump – themselves have demonized their homeless neighbors. They’ve opposed homeless shelters or other forms of affordable housing in their neighborhoods and voted for Giuliani and Bloomberg, under whom homelessness soared. Many more have blanched at paying the higher taxes required to fund the job creation and social service efforts needed to end homelessness once and for all.”
There is an argument to made, of course, that it is precisely the efforts of the media and of politicians that work, over time, to create the environment where a constant demonization of the poor is made possible. The Broken Windows theory, clearly, shaped the city’s imagination of what the source of violent crime was: the squeegee men, the panhandlers, the vendors, you name ’em.
The theory, whose claims have been debated (and to be frank, simply debunked), sent a clear message that the thousands of murders and shootings the city had once endured were because we had grown tolerant of disorder. It was the panhandlers and the beggars, they themselves embodying that dreaded ‘disorder’, who were responsible for the murders, the theory went. The earliest iterations of Broken Windows policing in New York, in fact, took place in the subways where Bratton, once the Transit Chief, ordered his officers to seek out and often eject the homeless.
However, the Broken Windows theory built upon a rich tradition of anti-poor sentiment. For decades, the painting of America’s poor as lazy or lacking scruples has been central to the conservative playbook in attacks on welfare and other social programs. Michael Katz’ 1989 book, The Undeserving Poor, explored the phenomenon of linking poverty to lack of character. Those ideas, in fact, flow from the same source that produced the Moynihan report, which sought to link issues in the Black community back to the family – in other words, back to those suffering the effects of racism.
The mayor quite literally believes in the notion of the undeserving poor and he’s happy to share his thoughts with the public. He, in fact, goes further when he insinuates that some panhandlers are faking it. This parallels the views of conservatives, like the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank who a few years ago, to the roaring approval of those like former Fox News talking head Bill O’Reilly, suggested that many of the 30 million Americans living in poverty aren’t actually poor since they have access to televisions and air conditioners. The implication, again, was that they were the undeserving poor who were, of course, taking advantage of our sympathies.
What’s important to note here that de Blasio, like O’Reilly, have powerful public platforms from which they can spread these messages. That’s what makes the mayor’s comments not only despicable, not only conservative, but downright damaging. When Donald Trump villainizes immigrants as criminals, most of us recognize the President’s sweeping generalizations as not only racist, but dangerous. Will there be “resistance” protests against the mayor’s musings?
In 2017, after three years of protests, the Broken Windows theory is no longer sacrosanct. Some policymakers and prosecutors are now speaking out against it (to some extent). The mayor’s support of the theory and his comments criticizing panhandlers, are under scrutiny. There is simply no evidence to back de Blasio’s panhandling claims. Still, he is asking the police department to be “creative” in how they enforce against begging, which, to his chagrin, isn’t illegal.
If New Yorkers stopped giving to panhandlers, as a callous Bratton suggested, what would happen? It’s hard to imagine anything good.
While de Blasio’s affinity for Broken Windows policing remains a problem – and we’re reminded of it when the mayor bashes the poor – what may be the most despicable and unlikable thing about the mayor is the numerous attempts he’s made to promote his progressive image abroad. Trips to Washington and even Iowa during the presidential campaign were thinly veiled efforts to crown the Mayor the progressive standard bearer among big city Democratic mayors. His recent trip to Germany, from where he phoned in his mistrust of beggars, brought de Blasio to a protest of the G20 Summit around issues of inequality.
The irony, among other things, is painfully cruel.