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Eye on the News

Clark Whelton
Stand Your Ground, New York
The city should defend its anticrime culture.
12 August 2013

Post-trial exploitation of the Trayvon Martin case remains focused on “stand your ground” laws, versions of which are found in more than 30 states. Though Florida’s statute was not part of George Zimmerman’s defense, the court’s instructions to jurors noted that Zimmerman had the “right to stand his ground” if they found he was not “engaged in an unlawful activity” and “attacked anyplace where he had a right to be.” Nevertheless, President Obama and others have condemned “stand your ground” as a menace to black communities and public safety. One reaches a different conclusion when studying the history of New York City in the late twentieth century. It wasn’t until New Yorkers withdrew from directly confronting crime that lawlessness and violence overwhelmed black neighborhoods and the rest of the city.

“Stand your ground” laws permit individuals to defend themselves from attack, with deadly force if necessary, without first attempting to flee. But “stand your ground” has another meaning. New Yorkers had long protected themselves and their communities with a spirited, “stand your ground” (SYG) culture that survives today only in the archives of Warner Bros. The first line of defense was not the NYPD but the neighborhood. Unappointed, unofficial, and unafraid, the local crime patrol consisted of everyone on the block. It was so effective that, in hot weather, New Yorkers slept without fear on rooftops and fire escapes. A city that had no “stand your ground” law was nevertheless home to millions of SYG citizens. The universal tool was watchfulness, what Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street.” By the mid-1950s, however, New Yorkers were watching something else. “I blame television,” a retired police captain once told me. “And air conditioning. People stopped hanging out on the stoop. They were inside keeping cool and staring at the tube. Tuesday was the worst night for muggings and stolen cars, because the whole block would be watching Milton Berle.”

In the 1960s, crime became a major issue. My wife and I moved to East Fourth Street in April 1966 and were burglarized two weeks later. The intruder demolished the steel gate that shielded our fire-escape window; the police had no interest in the four crisp fingerprints that he left on a freshly painted wall. “Get stronger gates,” a Ninth Precinct detective told me. As burglaries spread to formerly safe neighborhoods, a defensive arms race followed. Tenants bought police locks and pick-proof cylinders. Stores armored their display windows with roll-down grilles and doors. Bus drivers stopped making change. Subway-token booths were replaced by the bulletproof strongholds that we see today. New Yorkers exchanged “stand your ground” for “run and hide.”

But with each new escalation in protective hardware, crime shifted elsewhere and continued to rise. Between 1965 and 1971, homicides doubled. As the streets became dangerous, a private security industry sprang up. By 1976, 100,000 licensed private guards were working in New York—a 1,500 percent increase in ten years—as block associations hired them to patrol public streets once defended by the public itself. City agencies and public-safety experts warned mugging victims not to resist criminals. Keep calm, New Yorkers were told, and let your assailant carry out his business.

John Lindsay made crime a central issue during his 1965 mayoral campaign, but once in office, he seldom mentioned the subject. He seemed more interested in making the NYPD answerable to a Civilian Complaint Review Board, a policy enacted with strong support from minority communities and the Left. In the summer and fall of 1966, CCRB complaints against police officers averaged about 100 per month (half of them from whites). But many New Yorkers were incensed that Lindsay had imposed civilian review on the NYPD just as street crime was spinning out of control. In November 1966, an emotionally charged referendum cosponsored by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association abolished the CCRB by an overwhelming margin.

Lindsay wasted little time mourning his failed initiative. In 1967, his top priority was preventing riots like those that destroyed Watts, Newark, and Detroit. Top Lindsay aide Barry Gottehrer’s job was to spend endless hours doing outreach in community meetings, in Harlem bars, and on the streets. In New York, violence and disorder—along with their “root causes”—had become de facto commodities. A new class emerged: crime brokers, who offered peace in exchange for privilege.

One June evening in 1967, Lindsay convened a gathering of black and Hispanic leaders at Gracie Mansion. Gottehrer describes it in his 1975 book, The Mayor’s Man:

The meeting was supposed to run from five to six, but it went on until nine-thirty. Most of these people were professional politicians or poverty professionals who had a set speech (a long one), the same speech they delivered whenever they were near big money. Everyone was hustling for a slice of the anti-poverty pie. Pleas for funds to support one program or another tumbled out on top of recriminations for white oppression and bureaucratic indifference. . . . Sometime during the third hour, [Lindsay] tried to slip out the door, and all the people who hadn’t had a chance to make their speeches held him virtually captive. They predicted city-wide riot if he dared leave the room.

Gottehrer resolved not to risk any more such meetings and instead to get Lindsay to “concentrate directly on neighborhoods and bypass the traditional power brokers.” The mayor’s well-intentioned efforts made little difference, though, as crime remained high throughout his eight years in office. Nor did the Beame, Koch, and Dinkins administrations make the streets any safer. Between 1963 and 1995, more than 50,000 people were murdered in New York City. It wasn’t until Mayor Rudy Giuliani identified criminals as the root cause of crime that the city began recovering from its long night of violence. Giuliani implemented a strategy of proactive policing that draws much of its effectiveness from the old SYG culture that New Yorkers had abandoned: Eyes on the street; spotting trouble before it happens; protecting the most vulnerable people and neighborhoods first; getting illegal guns off the streets. Proactive policing saved thousands of lives in minority neighborhoods and redeemed a city that had been pushed to the brink of chaos.

That should be the end of the story—except that chaos is now pushing back. On August 12, judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled that “stop-and-frisk” tactics—a cornerstone of the NYPD’s proactive policing—are unconstitutional, and she ordered a federal monitor to oversee reforms. Scheindlin’s decision came on the heels of other setbacks for the department. In June, New York’s city council approved legislation establishing an inspector general for the NYPD and encouraging racial-profiling lawsuits against the city. Supporters include city council members who apparently don’t recall how the city was overwhelmed by crime in the 1960s and power brokers who want their power back. Other proponents have links to the Zimmerman case. Recently, entertainer Harry Belafonte warned the governor of Florida that failure to repeal the state’s “stand your ground” law would render Florida “ungovernable.” It was a classic sixties-style threat, the kind that kept John Lindsay from leaving a meeting at Gracie Mansion.

Given how successfully the NYPD has stood its ground against crime, it might seem puzzling that proactive policing is under attack. But “eyes on the street” is under attack in Florida and New York not because it’s a menace, but because crime brokers prefer passive citizens, to whom their message never changes: If you want security, you must first bargain with us and spend billions on root causes. Decades after the carnage of the Lindsay years, crime remains a political commodity. Those who broker it are selling New York short.

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