Policing the Homeless: Broken Windows ‘On Steroids”

by Lynn Lewis

March 29, 2016, The Crime Report

Cities, towns and rural areas all over the United States are experiencing a housing crisis not seen since the Great Depression. Homelessness is the tip of the iceberg of that crisis; but rather than address its causes, local authorities are treating it as a law enforcement problem.

That has not only led to real tragedies, but violates the Constitution.

In recent years, we’ve seen police officers used to force homeless folks out of public spaces, buttressed by laws that effectively criminalize life-sustaining behavior such as lying down in a park, or by regulations that restrict the ability of homeless people to share the same rights of access to public space as those with homes.

New York City has set an especially poor example.

The New York Police Department (NYPD) recently created a new category to define instances where two or more individuals, assumed to be homeless, congregate in public. In an internal memo, obtained by the Picture the Homeless organization, where I am director, it termed these as “hot spots” where police are empowered to intervene. And such “hot spots” could include parks or other public spaces.

The memo, dated Jan. 19, 2016, was “issued to all commands” with the subject line: Re: Homeless Encampment Procedure.” [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][A copy of this memo is available on request from Picture the Homeless.]

Substitute race, age, gender or any other category in this definition, and it would be considered blatant discrimination.

Most city residents know that rents are becoming increasingly exorbitant, stretching the budgets of low-income, working and middle class individuals. For those earning a minimum wage and who rely on fixed incomes of social security or disability benefits, it is becoming more difficult each day to afford rent.

Too many are one missed check, medical condition or emergency away from losing their home.

In New York City, San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, Los Angeles, and many smaller cities, the impact of failed housing policies that do not provide affordable living options for residents go back decades. But instead of correcting these policies, local authorities have empowered police departments to pursue strategies of homeless removals, sometimes in conjunction with Business Improvement Districts and other civic groups.

Mandates that force the homeless go somewhere else, with police ordering them to move at any hour of the day or night, have become all too common. The impact of such police actions can be catastrophic. Clearing the homeless in sudden police sweeps often means that they lose their personal effects, ranging from medications and IDs, to clothing and family photos.

The real goal is humiliation and harassment: It sends a message to disappear out of public sight into the shadows.

This is “broken-windows” policing on steroids.  It’s not just mean or bad policing; it is also unconstitutional.

Being homeless is not a crime. But the strategies that criminalize the homeless are authorized by local laws and policies that violate anti-discrimination laws and rights to due process—and which people with little-to-no legal resources are ill-equipped to challenge in court.

For example,  NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, who is considered one of the country’s foremost proponents of the broken-windows policing strategy, recently announced that homeless New Yorkers found sleeping will be removed from  subway trains and platforms—regardless of whether they paid their fare.

Editors’ Note: In other reports, Bratton insisted the NYPD would wake individuals up in order to protect them, claiming that 50 percent of reported crimes on the subway “involve sleeping passengers.”   

This announcement flagrantly undermines New York City’s own laws.

In 2013, it became the first jurisdiction to prohibit police from profiling individuals based on housing status. Local Law 71, passed as part of the Community Safety Act, bars police from using factors such as actual or perceived housing status as the determinative factor in initiating law enforcement action.

That law, while evidently not stopping police abuse, was a start in the right direction.  But there’s a lot more to be done.  Under Local Law 71 for example, a homeless person who experienced police eviction must prove he or she has been the victim of profiling—which requires the kind of legal assistance unavailable to most homeless.

During the administration of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has made affordable housing a key part of his platform, we’ve also seen the NYPD collaborating with other city employees to confiscate and throw away the belongings of homeless people—a clear violation of due process and property rights.

An incident in East Harlem in October was captured on a surveillance camera. In that incident, no one was arrested, but homeless people were physically abused and had their property thrown away as part of a broader police initiative meant to harass, intimidate and force people to “leave the area.”

Elsewhere in the country, the increase in the use of “move on” orders by local police in order to disperse  and dismantle  what have loosely been called “encampments” has drawn some opposition from the Department of Justice in a legal filing, and policy recommendations opposing such approaches to “encampments” have been issued  by the White House Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Yet Bratton bulldozes on. He recently indicated in a speech at the Manhattan Institute that “courts have barred officers from shooing people sitting on the sidewalk or lying on a subway grate — though the rules are so complex that if someone is lying in a box instead of a piece of cardboard, forcing them to move along is OK.”

Bratton has a long history of targeting and stigmatizing the homeless.  In his first term as police commissioner under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Bratton declared soon after his appointment in 1994 that ”we are going to flush them [homeless people] off the street in the same successful manner in which we flushed them out of the subway system.”

But the struggle to oppose such stigmatizing is also gaining traction. Homeless folks are not only asserting their rights, but promoting real solutions to homelessness in many of their communities.

Picture the Homeless in New York, the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) in several western states, the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, and Denver Homeless Out Loud are just a few examples.  In both Denver and San Francisco, sweeps of homeless folks and their belongings have been met with resistance.

Grassroots organizing, led by the homeless, is the only way to end these abusive practices and educate the broader public that homelessness is directly connected to bad housing and community development policies and practices.

Discriminatory broken-windows policing exacerbates homelessness. It destroys lives. And it undermines our values as a society.

We are better than this. We need to advance real housing solutions, not the status-quo, politically expedient approach that designates law enforcement as the first responder to homelessness.

Lynn Lewis is the director of Picture the Homeless In New York City.

 

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September 3, 2019

Capitalism and Racism: Conjoined Twins

By Marjona Jones, Co-Chair of Funders for a Just Economy and Senior Program Officer at Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock

Marjona Jones speaking at a podium.

A few weeks ago, Democracy Now! aired a segment with Ibram X. Kendi, author and founding director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University, where he discussed white supremacy, anti-racism, and the increase in mass shootings. What struck me about the segment was his illuminating statement about the origins of capitalism. Kendi views capitalism and racism as "conjoined twins" and that “…the origins of racism cannot be separated from the origins of capitalism… the life of capitalism cannot be separated from the life of racism.”

Kendi continued by discussing how the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade allowed for the massive accumulation of wealth in Europe and the Americas. Centuries of wage theft, trading in human bondage, insurance claims on "lost" cargo, and reparations for slave owners after emancipation entrenched this capitalist system with inequities based on race built into it. Slave owners protected their concentrated wealth by shaping our socio-economic and legal systems to benefit themselves and the industry of slavery, as well as limit democracy.

As I celebrate the worker movement’s victories on Labor Day this year, this segment and past conversations with grantees has triggered an important question for me: What does the notion that capitalism and racism are inextricably linked mean for our work as funders of racial and economic justice? Our grantee partners tell us how workers are implicated in the entangled web of these “conjoined twins” of racism and capitalism. Many worker-based organizations state that the best vehicle this country has in pursuit of economic justice is through organizing workers, but traditional labor hasn’t always been the best vehicle for racial justice. As Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin discuss in Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice, while many unions integrated in the 1920s, some unionists decided to resist integration to ensure wins and job quality for white workers. These traditionalists understood the idea of “conjoined twins.”

Racial and economic justice movements have exposed exploitative and extractive practices within capitalism, making it less secure to accumulate wealth through those means. However, as Michelle Alexander points out in her book, The New Jim Crow, exposing capitalism for what it is forces it to transform and evolve. For example, following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, agriculture was still the main economic engine, and free exploited labor was needed for this industry to survive. Capitalism evolved while maintaining its racist and exploitative roots through policymakers passing the Black Codes of 1865 and 1866, making it easier to imprison recently freed slaves to continue that supply of free labor.

We are catching up to the fact that capitalism was never meant to work for everyone. What will the next evolution in capitalism bring as our movements fight even harder for racial and economic justice in the face of harm to workers and marginalized communities?

Funders for a Just Economy (FJE) has created an intentional space to begin discussing what these questions mean for our work and the grantees we support. Capitalism’s origin story is a critical part of analyzing how this system operates. By acknowledging the “conjoined twins,” we acknowledge the role of race and the legacy of slavery. FJE believes that there is a renewed opportunity to support a working-class movement that builds the power of all workers, especially Black, Trans and LGBQ workers, women, and immigrants—and lift their role as the main strategists to change the system. If we believe another world is possible, then so is another system that bakes in justice, equity, and respect.


  

Join FJE for these conversations and more at the upcoming Racial Capitalism, Power and Resistance event on October 17 & 18 in Brooklyn, NY. More information and registration link here.

Stay tuned for an upcoming Power Building Study Group for Neighborhood Funders Group members, and the Disrupt the System: How Labor and Philanthropy can Build Worker Power in a New Era event co-convened by the AFL-CIO, the LIFT Fund, and FJE on December 11 in Washington, DC. More information coming soon!

 
August 15, 2019

Beyond Outrage: A Clarity of Purpose

Dimple Abichandani, Executive Director of the General Service Foundation, urges grantmakers and the philanthropic sector to take concrete actions to defend democracy and speak out against racist attacks on people of color. This post was originally published here on the foundation's website.

Dimple was part of the first Philanthropy Forward: Leadership for Change Fellowship cohort, a joint initiative of Neighborhood Funders Group and The Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. General Service Foundation, which partners with grassroots organizations to bring about a more just and sustainable world, is a member of NFG.


  

Dimple AbichandaniWe live in dangerous times, and every passing news cycle contains another outrage, another violation of norms, another threat to our democracy, another threat to our planet.  

In the face of escalating racial attacks, (be it imprisonment of kids on the border or the racist rhetoric being tweeted from the white house) many have noted, rightly, that philanthropy as a sector has been too cautious and too quiet.  The Communications Network, in it’s recent piece, Silence Speaks Volumes, calls on foundations to use their voices in this moment.

Yes, it’s meaningful for people from all sectors of our society to condemn the Administration’s attacks on people of color.  And, for those of us working in the philanthropic sector, these times call on us to use all of our tools in defense of our inclusive, multi-racial democracy.  We are more than commentators or observers– as funders, our role is to resource a more just and equitable future. What we do in this moment will be far more important than what we say.  

As painful as this moment is, it is also a time in which the work to be done has become more clear. The vulnerability of our democracy has become more clear.  Racial anxiety and social divisions are being stoked in order to prop up a reckless system that benefits only the wealthiest. As we condemn the most recent of a long list of outrages, can we also use this moment to deepen our own clarity of purpose, and ensure that our funding will bring about a more just future? 

As funders, we can not only speak out but also take action to bolster our inclusive democracy.

  1. Support those most directly impacted by injustice. Instead of wielding of our own voice and power as a foundation, we can support those most directly impacted by injustice to build their voice, power, and leadership. They must lead the way to a more just world; it is our job to uplift and resource their visions and voices. National organizations such as Color of Change, New American Leaders, and National Domestic Workers Alliance, regional and state-based organizations such as Western States Center, Black Voters Matter and Workers Defense Project and so many others are seeding a future in which racial, gender and economic justice will be the norm.
  2. Invest in the creation and dissemination of narratives that reshape cultural attitudes around belonging in our country.  The recent escalation in the use of racist and sexist rhetoric is not happening in a vacuum– rather it builds on broader public narratives shaped by white supremacy and male dominance.  We need to normalize new narratives that humanize all of us, that value all of us. Organizations such as the Pop Culture CollaborativeReFrame, and the Culture Change Fund, for example, build capacity for narrative equity and culture shift.
  3. Question the default funding habits and practices that limit us from making a bigger impact in this moment. As funders, we sometimes have a blind spot for how our internal practices create unnecessary burdens and barriers for organizations that do the important work we support. This moment calls on us to question our practices, shift to ways of working that account for the gravity of the problems we face, and center the people who are leading the social change efforts we support. Could your foundation increase its payout, provide more general operating support, increase the length of grants, and minimize busywork for grantees? Could you shift your grant strategy to more boldly meet the moment or more directly address the imbalances of power in our society? The Trust Based Philanthropy Network has tools and stories of inspiration from foundations who have increased their impact by changing their practices.

So many of us in philanthropy are eager to do something meaningful in this tumultuous time.  Let’s challenge ourselves to use this moment to put our institutional values into practice. Let’s walk the walk as boldly as we talk the talk.