Trump and the rhetoric of urban order

I rarely weigh in on national politics on this blog, and this post is not intended as an endorsement or a denunciation of any candidate. Although this post responds to recent remarks made by Donald Trump, I’m not interested in joining the pile-on critiquing his overall rhetorical style or campaign message, which seems overly easy and even superfluous at this point. Rather I want to focus on Trump’s comments at the first one-on-one presidential debate last week regarding “law and order” and the “stop and frisk” program. These are topics I’ve thought and written about in regards to the use of “urban disorder” rhetoric in U.S. policy and policing practices. Trump’s positioning himself as the “law and order candidate” and his appeals based on unruly “inner city” conditions recalls previous campaign rhetoric such as Nixon’s 1968 campaign (see the above video). Furthermore, his support of “stop and frisk” policing directly ties his statements to a history of U.S. urban policies based on an order/disorder dichotomy.

Discourses based on a dichotomy of order and disorder have long been applied to urban spaces. In his classic historical survey of urban settlements, The City in History (1961), Lewis Mumford traced the development from early, “organically” developed Greek cities to more structured Hellenistic cities. Mumford describes this process as a transition “from supple ‘disorder’ to regimented elegance” (p. 190). A 2016 opera titled A Marvelous Order centers on the ideological struggle between urbanist Jane Jacobs and mayor Robert Moses in 1960s New York City. This battle of wills between Jacobs and Moses is seen by many to be emblematic of a historical opposition between urban planning schemes designed to order and regiment city spaces and populations, and the disorderly and unplanned activities and interactions that have long been characteristic of city life.

Cities and citizens have been “ordered” not only through planning schemes and infrastructure, but also through public policies and discourses. One aspect of my research focuses on how the term “disorder” has been employed across various discourses and analyses of U.S. cities, and how these discourses have influenced or supported policies of urban development. Through employing the language of disorder, these discourses have functioned pathologically to conceptualize certain citizens, spaces, and practices as either harmful or beneficial.

Writers such as George Simmel, Robert Park, and Louis Wirth wrote about the turn-of-the-century American metropolis as a site of sensory overload and radical diversity. Disorder in these accounts was variously understood as criminal behavior, unregulated or unruly spaces, and perceived failures of integration and communication among different ethnic groups. Park in particular was concerned with broader problems posed by isolated ethnic enclaves and the weakening of social ties among city dwellers, as evinced in his analyses of immigrants and African Americans in U.S. cities. The sociology and criminology of the period was concerned with diagnosing and remedying the causes of disorder, and this diagnostic approach developed into the “social pathology” perspective.

In his infamous report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1965) applied the social pathology perspective to theorize race relations in U.S. urban communities. Family structure was prioritized in Moynihan’s analysis, claiming that at “the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family” (p. 6). Moynihan emphasized incidences of unmarried and divorced women, “illegitimate” births, and the number of women-headed households to support his claim that “the family structure of lower class Negroes is highly unstable” (p. 7). Throughout the report, Moynihan refers to a “tangle of pathology” in which black women and children are ensnared, leading to the dissolution of families and thus the increase of violence and disorder in urban centers.

The Moynihan report has been cited as an important influence on the domestic programs enacted under President Lyndon Johnson, initiatives collectively known as The Great Society project. These programs focused on poverty and racial injustice, and also involved urban renewal and redevelopment efforts. Johnson outlined his vision of the Great Society in his 1964 commencement address at the University of Michigan. The Great Society, Johnson said, “demands an end to poverty and racial injustice,” and “is a challenge constantly renewed.” Johnson placed the state of urban America at the forefront of his Great Society vision, saying “our societies will never be great until our cities are great.”

In response to the urban race riots that occurred in several U.S. cities throughout the 1960s, President Johnson commissioned a working committee called the National Commission on Civil Disorders. The commission is also known as the Kerner commission, after Otto Kerner, chair of the commission and then governor of Illinois. Johnson directed the commission members to answer three questions in relation to the riots (Kerner, 1967, p. 1): What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again? In their report, the authors referred to the riots that occurred in Detroit during the summer of 1967, stating that the riots “again brought racial disorders to American cities, and with them shock, fear, and bewilderment to the Nation” (p. 1). One of the report’s best-known statements is that the nation “is moving toward two societies, one black, one white,” and that the recent race riots had “quickened the movement and deepened the division” (p. 1).

In the recommendations section of the Kerner report, the authors dedicate a section to the issue of housing. In addition to calling for provisions for affordable housing in cities, the authors recommend against the further building of high-density “slum” housing projects. The building of such housing projects represent further attempts to impose rational order onto what were seen as chaotic and disorderly spaces, as seen in the modernist urban planning schemes of the 20th century. This philosophy of architecture and urban design is exemplified by the work of modernist designer Le Corbusier. The architect of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project built in St. Louis in the 1950s was directly inspired by Le Corbusier’s architectural style and philosophy.

While the modernist housing aspirations embodied in the Pruitt-Igoe project ended with collapsed walls and broken windows, students of urban life in America were soon preoccupied with broken windows of another sort. The broken windows theory of urban disorder was a significant influence on urban sociology and criminology for decades, and the implications of its approach to disorder can be seen today. In an article titled “The Urban Unease” (1968), J.Q. Wilson reacted to the U.S. urban riots of the 1960s with a view of cities rooted in the tensions between order and disorder.

Wilson eventually developed these ideas of neighborhood disorder into the broken windows theory, first outlined in an article written with collaborator George Kelling (1982). The authors encapsulate the broken windows perspective by stating “if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken” (p. 2, emphasis in original). As with broken windows that go unrepaired, the authors argue, “’untended’ behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls” (p. 3). Wilson and Kelling are not exclusively interested physical manifestations of disorder such as litter, graffiti, and buildings in disrepair, but present a larger argument that visible disorder (whether stemming from the built environment or from individuals inhabiting it), if left unchecked, will spread throughout a neighborhood.

Wilson and Kelling’s broken windows article proved very influential, and is credited with inspiring the implementation of policing practices implemented in cities throughout the United States. These policing programs have been referred to as “broken windows policing,” “zero tolerance policing,” and also, using Wilson and Kelling’s preferred term, “order maintenance policing”. In the 1990s, order maintenance policies based on broken windows theory were implemented by the New York City Police Department under police commissioner William Bratton and mayor Rudolph Giuliani. These policies were adopted as part of the city’s broader “Quality of Life” initiatives. During this period crime rates in the city decreased, and New York gained a reputation as one of the safest large cities in the country. In a 1998 address titled “The Next Phase of Quality of Life: Creating a More Civil Society,” mayor Giuliani praised the benefits of broken windows theory and zero tolerance policing, saying “broken windows theory works”. Describing the theory as the view that “the little things matter,” Giuliani called broken windows theory “an integral part of our law enforcement strategy”.

Bernard Harcourt has been among the most vocal and persistent critics of broken windows theory. His book Illusion of Order (2001) presents a sustained refutation of the theory’s empirical underpinnings, application in policy initiatives, and ideological implications. Harcourt calls the empirical support for the success of broken windows policing into question, and suggests that factors other than policing practices were responsible for New York City’s crime drop. Harcourt’s theoretical critique of broken windows is explicitly Foucauldian, highlighting the problems of subject creation. The broken windows approach, Harcourt suggests, “fails to pay enough attention to the ways that social meaning may construct the subject and to how our understanding of the subject fosters certain disciplinary strategies” (p. 180). More recently, the broken windows approach and zero tolerance policing have been heavily criticized in relation to the NYPD’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy, and the 2014 death of Eric Garner during an encounter with NYPD officers.

Trump’s deployment of disorder discourses, and his appeals to the virtues of stop and frisk policing, recalls this history in starkly similar ways. A recent Trump campaign mailer includes a close up of Hillary Clinton’s face juxtaposed against images of urban disorder: a brick building with boarded-up windows, and a pile of detritus including splinters of wood and chunks of concrete. The reverse side bears the message: “Donald Trump will strengthen our communities and protect our families. The first step is rebuilding, revitalizing, and reigniting our cities – like yours.” In light of the epidemic violence in the historically segregated areas of Chicago (which Mr. Trump is correct to emphasize), and the recent and ongoing protests against police violence in cities such as Ferguson and across the country, these appeals should be considered within the context of the history of disorder discourses in U.S. urban policy. Much of the strain between vulnerable urban populations and police officers evident today can be seen as the legacy of policing practices instituted under the support of these discourses. With the urban unrest of the 1960s being evoked in political rhetoric and recalled in televised images of protests, we should consider carefully what is being promoted with calls to “reignite” our cities.



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