Podcast: Broken Windows and BID Business: How Big Businesses Use Broken Windows Policing to Gentrify and Exclude

 WRAP panel On Broken Windows Policing, Sept 30, 2015. Photo by Jess Clarke
WRAP panel On Broken Windows Policing, Sept 30, 2015. Photo by Jess Clarke

Panel Discussion 
Recorded by Jess Clarke
Business Improvement Districts and business associations such as the Chamber of Commerce are very powerful lobbies that advocate the criminalization of homelessness and the use of police power to maintain the core fabric of racial and economic segregation in many cities across the United States.
Real estate owners, developers and large retail businesses are the biggest beneficiaries of the “Broken Windows Policing” and “Stop and Frisk” approaches to maintaining order in public spaces. Segregation of the poor and people of color out of areas where property values are increasing or already high, is typically accompanied by methods of police enforcement that criminalize poor people of color’s very presence.
As police murders and abuse stir a popular movement for police accountability, corporate interests continue to preserve and expand their investments in urban centers by shifting police responsibility to private-public entities where corporate interests rule more directly. Business Improvement Districts are one such mechanism.
At a panel discussion organized by the Western Regional Advocacy Project speakers address the links business improvements districts increasing power in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and other cities to how policing is connected to racial and economic segregation, gentrification and mass incarceration.
The raw transcript of the event is below.
Raw Transcript
[*] Due to editing time stamps in the audio player are not exactly equivalent but can be used to skip ahead to the approximate time.
JoJo: I’m JoJo Smith and I’m with the Los Angeles Community Action Network, which we call LA CAN. A little background on myself: I was a unhoused resident of Skid Row for 10 years. Originally I was a street hustler, illegally selling stuff.
Occupy happened. I went there to just get the free stuff and keep my tent up and saw how white folks and so-called liberals treat the homeless.
I knew about LA CAN because they had helped me with some tickets [citations from the police]years ago before Occupy happened. At Occupy, we formed what we called Occupy Town Street, where we took the community and gave them “know your rights” training, how to know the rights of the streets because we know that these BIDs—I call them bicycle babies [the BID security patrol the streets on bicycles]—try to tell you what to do.
So we showed the community how to resist them. One way we showed how to resist them is they would come and tell us that we had to take our tents down, and we would tell them, “Ya’ll do not own the sidewalk. We do not have to do that.” So they would call LAPD and we’d drop our tents when we see the LAPD coming just to show them that we don’t care what they say because they don’t own the sidewalks.
So after about a month five or six blocks started doing the same thing because of the resistance that we showed them they could do. Now, myself, General Dogon, and several other folks that live in the community, we’re on 24-hour community watch. We got out and we’re constantly monitoring LAPD. We’re constantly monitoring the BIDs. Sheila will talk a little bit more about the legal side of why we have our community watch.
For us, we have to document. We have to get documentation showing how these folks are trying to control our streets. We pay taxes. We pay taxes for these streets and they try to take our streets from us, so we have to keep giving resistance and we’ve got to keep showing resistance. We got to show other communities what resistance looks like. They do not control us. They work for the businesses. Their job is to secure the inside of businesses, not the sidewalks, but they make people think that they have control of the sidewalks, which they do not. So we have to keep telling them and we have to keep our communities knowing that the sidewalks belong to us.
Ben: I got my start around homeless advocacy with Occupy Denver. There was a physical encampment for about eight months that lasted specifically because we had such a large homeless population participating in it. And it’s destruction came about because of the BIDs, specifically one BID, the Downtown Denver Partnership which lobbied with prewritten legislation for a camping ordinance which they’d been trying to push for a long time but they finally had the momentum through Occupy in order to convince city council members to pass the ordinance. They passed it within a month with very little community discussion and very few public meetings and successfully disseminated the camp and began harassing the homeless on a wide scale throughout the city.
They have already previously established several other ordinances that were fairly weak in comparison to the camping ban, and they never made any arrests on it for quite a while because they knew it could be challenged constitutionally. So they use it as a homeless stop-and-frisk and they use it as a mechanism to essentially approach any homeless individual and then subsequently search them for warrants and check their pockets for contraband or whatever. So it was becoming a big problem.
Anyway, I ended up leaving after the camping ban was implemented and then coming back and finding Denver Homeless Out Loud had organized its way out of Occupy and formed into its own independent group and was doing a lot of amazing work around the intersectionality of housing justice and several other issues. Unfortunately, the Downtown Denver Partnership continued to grow in strength and they currently hold a lot of weight and just recently funded—I think—every city council candidate that came into office this year. They all got funded by the developers and by the business alliances, so it’s a pretty big problem. They’re taking over the city. Ideally, we can do something to stop it.
Ibrahim: My name is Ibrahim Mubarak from Right 2 Survive and (unintelligible 6:12). I come to you via way of Portland, Oregon. I got involved in helping the houseless community when I first became houseless. I was a snob. I was an aerospace technician and I would go to work and the houseless people would say, “Hey, you got a quarter so I can get this or that,” and I’d say, “If you’re going to ask me for a quarter, you can get up and go look for work.”
When I became houseless I found out that what I was implementing on them was a lie. It wasn’t true. So I got caught up in that system where you’re given limited resources to become successful to get back into the mainstream of things. They’re stopping you from getting the knowledge on how you can get back successfully because it’s a cross between imperialism and capitalism. They want you to become dependent on the government so they can dictate your life to you and you stay in that vicious cycle of street shelter and jails.
That’s what Benjamin was talking about: intersectionality and how we have mass incarceration. The new shelters are becoming the prisons and the jails. So I figured that what taught me to get successful, the first thing a houseless person looks for, is rest, a nice, safe place to sleep where they won’t be disturbed and criminalized for exercising a human right, so we started forming encampment sites with 10 of us and the tents. They said there’s a camping ban. I said, “What? People can’t go camping?” That’s how naive I was.
I think the general public is naive to the situation till they become involved or affected by non-affordable housing. So we started looking at the coding, the zoning, and the laws and started planning till they’re fragile, and not break them. So we said, okay, it’s a camping, but is there a village ban? So we started calling our tent cities “villages” or a “rest area,” and they don’t have those laws against having a village or a rest area.
After we became successful with many protests and demonstrations and direct actions, we started educating the houseless community on their constitutional, human, and civil rights on how to fight back because you cannot—I don’t care how hard you try—outdo God and stop the people from falling asleep—that’s a human right. You cannot stop people from using the restroom—that’s a human right. Each time a houseless person does that, they’ve been criminalized, so we have to educate our people, our community, our brothers and sisters on their rights and that’s why we go to different cities and states throughout this country consulting them on building rest areas, villages, and tent cities.
With this, bringing this in, that’s why we’re in a campaign with the Right to Rest Act deal. That’s unconstitutional by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in Article 25 that everybody deserves a right to rest or right to sleep, but this government (unintelligible 9:45) with the BIDs, they have a God complex and they’re saying, “You can’t sleep because you don’t live in a house. You can’t use the restroom because you don’t live in a house.” That’s so absurd and ridiculous. As Mike Tyson said, “It’s ludicrous.”
So we got to come together and fight this form of discrimination, oppression, and repression, then let them know that we’re going to exercise our human right—it’s constitutional.
Shayla: My name is Shayla Myers. I’m an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. I have the privilege and the honor to work in partnership with the Los Angeles Community Action Network as part of my day job, so I feel really lucky to be able to do that. I’ve been at the Legal Aid Foundation for about the last year and a half. Most of my time has actually been taken up suing a business improvement district, which is a little bit of a dream come true, and that is in large part because of the work that the Community Action Network, LA CAN, community watch and everyone who was on the ground did in documenting the abusive practices of the business improvement district in Skid Row.
Skid Row is overlapped with a really powerful business improvement district, the Los Angeles Downtown Industrial District. Because of the work of folks collecting documentation, the Legal Aid Foundation was able to partner with and represent LA CAN in this lawsuit. This lawsuit is really unique for one, I think, really important reason: we made the strategic decision, our clients made the strategic decision, to sue the Downtown Industrial District not as private actors but rather as government actors for violating the constitutional rights of the citizens of Skid Row.
For us, that’s a really, really important distinction because I think we’ve largely thought of business improvement districts as private actors who don’t have any authority under state law who are sort of out there operating on their own, but unfortunately the tragic reality is that they are operating with the permission, with the responsibility, and with the authority that’s given to them by the city of Los Angeles under state law. They’re operating with a different level of authenticity and, unfortunately, without the accountability of a state actor.
Under the constitutional principles, the constitution protects all of us, not against private people, but against the government. It protects us against the governments infringing on our constitutional rights. So by bringing this lawsuit against them as a government actor, we were able to say that the business improvement district was violating the Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to be free having your property taken without due process, and to be able to stand up and say that business improvement districts can’t, on the one hand, get the benefit of the government collecting taxes, requiring property owners, like LA CAN, like the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, to pay into the processes, to pay into their actions, and at the same time to be able to say, “We’re just private. We don’t have any authority. We’re just operating like private citizens.
So that’s what we’re doing at the Legal Aid Foundation, and I think it’s a really exciting opportunity. It’s a way in which LA CAN and other folks are really fighting back and using some of the BIDs own rhetoric to really fight back in court to say that what’s going on is not okay.
Suleman: So I don’t want to actually draw the parallel because I was introduced under the Black Lives Matter grouping. Even though I’m going to speak a lot about race, I don’t want to just be like, “Oh, he’s from Black Lives Matter. Of course he’s going to speak about race.”
You see, the reality about it is that if race is not spoken about within the system, then there are major faults and fallacies into solving the problems that we’re dealing with. When we speak about what’s actually happening with the city and how BIDs work and how the city restructures itself and how that can be pulled back to capitalist structures of how it creates classes and underclasses, we also have to look at the intersectionality of race. It’s very important right here, especially being in the city of San Francisco. I’m sure some of you know where I’m going to go with this.
Before I go on with that, how many people are from San Francisco? How many are from the East Bay? Okay. That’s a lot of other people then. (People chime in on where they’re from: LA, Sacramento, Portland)
The reason why I ask that is I can kind of gauge the depth I want to go into with this San Francisco story. See, San Francisco used to be known as the most chocolate city west of the Mississippi. It was the blackest city west of the Mississippi. It used to be that way. I think we’re now down to four percent, but what’s interesting: one day I was actually looking through the minutes of the city council meeting. It’s interesting that The Fillmore actually has gone through several street-widening processes in which it was intended to disrupt the black economy that was there.
And this isn’t the first time, nor the last time, this was actually done. It was done in LA, it was done in Oakland, it was done in San Jose, it was done in Sacramento, and it was done in many places in California, in addition to many places across the nation. So it’s a very close familiarity, especially with black people, dealing with the city actually attacking the community and disrupting the economy.
I see this one cat right here, for example, wearing the shirt. That was when the organization was bombed with the helicopter, correct? Yeah, the MOVE organization, that’s right. There’s also, for example, Black Wall Street, which was destroyed. I don’t want to go too far in-depth with that, but the main point I want to address though is that if we’re not actually examining race with the removal and the dispersal of black people then we’re not actually addressing the real solution to things.
I’m going to stop right there for a second and bring up another point around police and how policing and institutions of the police and mass incarceration actually work, and then I’m going to tie this into the very last thing, which was a report that was put out by the Ella Baker Center. It was last month that this came out. It was called “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families.” It’s a very, very important thing and I urge you to check out this report. What they did was they actually went and surveyed people who were incarcerated, people who were formerly incarcerated, and the families who were involved with those who were incarcerated.
I’m going to do a real quick exercise with people. What I want you all to do is to try to relax, if you’re not already relaxed. I’m sure you are. Close your eyes. You don’t have to, but it’d be nice if you did because I want you to really use your imagination right here. I want you to dig in deep and think of what it means to be safe, of what that smells like, of what food may be around, what that tastes like, what it sounds like. What are you in, or what are you not in? Who are you around? Is there family around you? What is around you? What are the sounds that you hear? Go ahead and open your eyes and I’m going to ask you a quick question. Did any of you think of the police?
I’m very, very certain nobody thought of, “I have Officer McKinney right next to me keeping me safe at night.” Nobody probably thought about that. I don’t think so.
Woman in Audience: They don’t keep you safe at night.
Suleman: No, they don’t, that’s right. People probably thought about a nice food. For me it’s macaroni and cheese. I love macaroni and cheese. People probably thought about family: a grandmother, a mother, a father, a sibling—something like that—that keeps them safe. You see, the reality is that community keeps us safe. A strong community keeps us safe. The institution of the police is not around to keep us safe nor do they function as a safety mechanism for the community. It’s false, it’s fake. There’s no evidence to prove that.
What we do know, and I know I’m speaking to the choir here, is that the police function as a mechanism in society when you have a split between those who have and those who have not. They’ve always functioned this way. When you begin to couple this with mass incarceration, with the 2.4 million people inside, not even including those under monitoring right now, and then you also couple this with a criminal justice system that is intent on feeding these two entities, then you begin to understand the creation of these underclasses that are created: both people without homes, people who are impoverished, and as Michelle Alexander states in “The New Jim Crow,” a prison class of people who are perpetually in prison.
I was very dumbstruck with this, and I’ll end with this right here because I know my five minutes are up. I was really dumbstruck with this. I was at a city council meeting and I was listening to the chief of police in Oakland, as they are under federal investigation. I was listening to the chief and this is what he says: “To everybody in the audience,” there’s maybe a hundred people there and he goes, “so we’ve discovered it’s a problem when we start arresting people who are under the age of 16.”
So he goes, “Statistically speaking, when we arrest people under the age of 16 there is an 80 percent chance we will rearrest these people by the time they’re 18.” Then he goes onto say, “The reason why these statistics are so high is because if we’ve already arrested the bread winner in the family, there is a 90 percent chance that that next person who will get arrested is that person, is that child.” So he says these are our problems right here.
Then he goes onto say the most profound thing ever. He says, “So then we’ve noticed throughout all of our policing of Oakland that when we disrupt the family unit by taking out the bread winner and the next in line bread winner, that we begin to chip away at the community.” This is something that is very profound right here. We begin to destroy the community. Why? Because we create a cycle of incarceration in the family. We’ve broken the family. We’ve broken the community.
And I’m looking at him as if this is the true definition of what’s called cognitive dissonance. My thought process was, “Do you know the line of work that you’re in?” To point to the study that was done by the Ella Baker Center, families outdo faith-based organizations, government agencies, and non-profit organizations for coming back into society combined. Combined. If you combine all those things, families actually outdo those entities in providing jobs for their own loved ones who have come out of incarceration. They provide more resources in terms of jobs, housing, food, and shelter than all those organizations combined.
Why is it that the prison industrial complex puts such a weight on these families? All it does is it breaks families. There are numerous stories about this that are scattered around—that study—which shows how families will actually give up their homes just to travel to go see their loved one in prison. Just traveling and communication. If you all know what it is like to call somebody in jail you’ll understand what I’m talking about with this. They lose their housing, they lose their cars, and they lose their jobs. They lose so much.
The sad thing about this is this right here: The vast majority—I’m talking about 80 percent and up—are actually beared by women. One in every four women has a loved one in jail, but in the black community it’s one in every two have a loved one in jail. So the normal case for this is that it’s usually a grandmother, a mother, or a spouse that is actually holding you down while you’re inside and when you come out. That breaks the community and it then creates a positive feedback loop to put people back into prison, and I can go into that a little bit later but I wanted to stop right here.
Liz: Hi, I’m Liz Brown. I come from an academic perspective, so probably much more boring than anybody else up here, so I apologize for that in advance. I do love that you brought up the police because that’s what I also would like to talk a little bit about. Many of you probably know this, but of course broken windows is not new tactics of police, it’s kind of a historical tactic of the historical role that police have played in communities, as Suleman said, playing the role, the arbiter, of the “haves” and “have nots.”
So I really just wanted to bring up a couple of points about how surprised I was about George Kelling’s stance that he thought that it’s the application that’s been wrong, it’s not actually broken windows policing since, if anybody’s actually read that article, it’s very clear that he’s actually lamenting a time when police could play the role of, as he puts it, “kicking ass” without the oversight of the court. So he’s actually lamenting a couple of changes that went on in the 60s and 70s that brought things like the 4th Amendment right to local citizens and the relationship between the police and local citizens. I find that really surprising to me, especially when he, at the very beginning of the article, Wilson and Kelling both point out that, in fact, broken windows is not meant to solve crime. It’s actually just meant to decrease people’s fear of people that they find disorderly, people that he identifies very explicitly as people who are not violent, people who are not criminals, but people who are loiterers, people who are gang members, people who are homeless.
So it seems very clear to me that the logic of broken windows is not meant to decrease crime. It’s not meant to make us safer, but it’s actually meant to exclude people that are dispossessed by a capitalist society, by a racist society, by a white supremacist society. So I found that very shocking. I also found it very shocking that it’s actually been used in any way to say that it should decrease crime when almost every single study that has been done of police, and this is actually cited in the Wilson and Kelling article, shows that, in fact, increasing police has no effect on crime.
There’s an excellent study of Kansas City that shows that when they divided up Kansas City into three different districts, they increased police in one, they decreased police in another, and they kept police the same, and none of those strategies had any effect on crime rate. So the turn towards police, the turn towards broken windows as a crime control measure is a fallacy in itself, and I think if you read “Broken Windows” it is doing exactly what it was intended to do, which is to harass the poor, which is to harass communities of color, and to create the cycle of incarceration that we see so present in American society.