Anti-police brutality activists in New York City took a trip to a gentrified neighborhood on October 18 to catch white people freely committing the type of crimes that get black and brown people regularly harassed by cops.
The group that organized the action, the Police Reform Organizing Project, or PROP, took to the streets of Park Slope, Brooklyn Sunday afternoon and handed out fake summonses to white people committing small quality-of-life crimes.
"We're out today just giving mock summonses to people in Park Slope," said Josmar Trujillo, a member of the Coalition to End Broken Windows, one of the groups that joined the action in Park Slope. "White people are not used to getting any kind of police enforcement around low-level offenses."
The action was intended to highlight the racial disparities in the New York Police Department's practice of Commissioner Bill Bratton's signature "broken windows" policy. According to the policy's reasoning, small, quality-of-life offenses need to be strictly enforced by police lest any apparent tolerance for these small crimes lead to criminals confidently committing much more serious crimes. In practice though, this approach to crime has mostly resulted in police routinely harassing and brutalizing people in communities of color, often as a method of clearing up a neighborhood for future gentrification.
"Blocking the sidewalk, jaywalking - those are the two main activities where we found white people were violating some aspect of the municipal code," Robert Gangi, founder of PROP, said on the day's action. "The point of [the action] is to put into sharp relief how starkly discriminatory police practices are. White people in Park Slope virtually never get ticketed for these kind of activities whereas African-American and Latino people in different neighborhoods in this city will get sanctioned - ticketed and sometimes arrested - for these kind of activities on a regular basis."
Judging from the responses the activists received throughout the day, it was clear that many white Park Slope residents experience very little routine harassment from the police in their gentrified neighborhood.
"The worst response - which to me is the best because it highlights the truth of how people are really entitled and privileged out here in Park Slope - was from a woman who was just incredulous about being stopped," Trujillo said. "She was like 'This is Park Slope!' and she just kind of made it a point to say that in this neighborhood, this doesn't happen."
Other Park Slope residents who were stopped also responded with incredulity and sometimes outright anger. One woman who was riding her bike on the sidewalk was stopped by Gangi, and after he explained that people of color in other parts of town get regularly ticketed for that offense, she responded, "I know that, but you're not a cop. Get out of my way!"
Many residents responded positively as well, though, even signing PROP's petition to end NYPD quotas and broken windows policing.
Besides this anecdotal evidence, the numbers are also on PROP's side of the debate. Earlier this year, PROP released a report titled "That's How They Get You." It documented 117 stories of people - most of them people-of-color - being ticketed or arrested for small quality-of-life crimes like putting their feet on a subway seat and riding a bike on the sidewalk.
"Part of what's so deeply offensive about broken windows policing is that it's a form of bullying," Gangi said. "It is basically targeting and harassing people who have limited resources, both politically and financially, to fight back."
An analysis by the New York Daily News also found large racial disparities in enforcement of small offenses. According to the Daily News, the number of summonses given out has "soared" since Broken Windows policing began in the early 1990s. According the New York Civil Liberties Union, 81 percent of the people hit with violations between 2002 and 2013 were black or Latino. Even New York City's most infamous recent case of police brutality, last year's murder of Eric Garner by cops in Staten Island, was a textbook case of broken windows policing, with Garner originally being stopped for allegedly selling loose cigarettes.
In all, the activists, divided into three groups at locations throughout Park Slope, stopped around 50 to 60 people within the span of two Sunday afternoon hours. They hope that these interactions influence those who were actually stopped, as well as serve as political theater to raise the consciousness of onlookers. PROP will soon be releasing a new report on the racist history of the NYPD, and they have even tentatively planned to hit the streets once again to hand out mock summonses. Ultimately, they seek to not only run Bratton out of New York City and end broken windows, but also to help strip the NYPD of much of its resources and empower communities-of-color.
"We're going to try to make sure Broken Windows is one of those things that people clearly understand is part of white supremacy," Trujillo said. "It's no longer just about small policy reforms, it's about unearthing and dismantling those policies and saying no to a different, softer version of it. But it's up to the communities of color. They're the ones who are going to have to dismantle it."