“Do we have the same level of outrage when a young black person gets killed as we do when a window gets broken? And if not, then why is that?”
—Alicia Garza, co-founder of #blacklivesmatter
In Berkeley, California, on a warm night in mid-December 2014, I stood in stalled traffic and watched as protestors smashed the windows of the Trader Joe’s grocery store on University Avenue—part of the ongoing protests in the aftermath of the NYPD’s murder of Eric Garner and the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
The windows fell quickly, accompanied by the familiar tinkling sound distinct to breaking glass. Amid the chaotic yet oddly calm scene, a well-dressed young white woman from one of the stalled cars behind me rolled down her window and shouted at the group of people I was standing with. “What does this”—she pointed at the broken windows—“have to do with racism anyway?”
Someone jumped in quickly, “Well, racism is intimately connected to capitalism—” Interrupting, the woman yelled back, “You all should be stopping those people from doing that … you have a responsibility to as part of the protest.” She went on to tell us that she had been to protests before and would never have let people break windows. She then called us all “pathetic,” told us we weren’t “going to accomplish anything,” rolled up her window, and refused to look at us or engage any longer. Moments later, I looked back as the march started to move and she was leaning over her steering wheel, tears streaming down her face.
Alejandro Neito memorial in San Francisco, 2014 (photo credit: Manissa Maharawal)
Protests are often intense and emotionally charged spaces that incite powerful feelings from those involved, as well as from those watching. In many ways, this is the point of disruptive street protest: to “take to the streets” is to create a public for what might otherwise be an individual expression of anger, outrage, or desire for change. The #blacklivesmatter protests were particularly emotionally charged (which I wrote about in my previous piece) as people created complicated and often chaotic spaces to express their feelings in public.
The protest that night was upsetting, tiring, and at times frightening. That evening police shot at the largely peaceful demonstration with rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. Many were injured by police use of “less than lethal” weapons, yet the next day media outlets reported that the protestors had turned “violent,” citing broken windows as evidence of such violence. Broken windows were a characteristic part of these nightly protests, but popular understandings have remained stuck in tired debates about whether breaking windows is “violent.”
In this piece, I contend that asking whether breaking windows is “violent” is in fact the wrong question. Instead, I argue that breaking window should be read as a symbolically charged political act that directly contests what is known as “broken windows policing.” In Oakland in particular, breaking windows at protests can be understood as part of an ongoing struggle over the policing of racialized communities in the context of rapid gentrification and the increasing unaffordability of cities.
In putting forth these arguments, I attempt a way of reading broken windows beyond the usual political tropes that either flatten such acts into triumphant feats of resistance or reductively delegitmize them as “violent” and “irrational.”
Broken windows policing
Broken windows policing emerged from neo-conservative thinking in the 1960s and has operated by focusing police activity on “quality of life” infractions as a way to maintain “urban order.” First articulated by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in the early 1980s, the theory argues that poverty and social disorganization result from crime and not the other way around. Connected to racist “culture of poverty” arguments that pathologize and blame poor people for their own poverty, broken windows policing targets the urban poor in general, and Black urban communities in particular, arguing that these communities exhibit “moral failings” that cause them to commit crimes and live in poverty.
By placing broken windows policing in its proper historical context, we can understand how its innovation was in essence an exercise in maintaining a white supremacist urban order. Broken windows policing emerged from a neo-conservative backlash to the civil rights movement, particularly to its more radical elements. As “tough on crime” political rhetoric became hegemonic in American politics in the 1970s and ’80s, a new euphemistic and “race-neutral” language of “inner-city crime,” “welfare queens,” and “crack fiends” was used to legitimate new policing initiatives (such as the war on drugs and broken windows policing) as well as the dramatic expansion of the prison industrial complex. In hindsight, this era can be understood as the inception of a new chapter in the America’s long history of racial violence. Michelle Alexander has argued that this marked the beginning of what she has called a “new Jim Crow.” It also marked a new era in urban policing, as broken window policy became a highly effective mechanism for criminalizing black communities and legitimating new forms of micro-regulation of Black urban life (as, for example, the altercation with Eric Garner over selling loose cigarettes exemplifies). As broken windows policing increasingly criminalized petty “quality of life infractions” and everyday economic activities that poor people do to survive, it came to criminalize poverty itself.
Broken windows is the urban policing wing of America’s newest regime of racial capitalism. It both reproduces racialized violence and functions as a means of systematic dispossession, robbing Black people of property, wealth, and life. As the recent federal government report on policing in Ferguson has shown, racist policing created revenue for the city’s municipal government through criminalization of the Black population’s everyday life. Broken windows policing, at its core, has always been fundamentally about the policing of Blackness itself. Since its inception, it has been carried out with vigor in Black communities and has been instrumental in the popular construction of Black bodies as inherently “criminal” and “dangerous,” and thereby legitimate targets for violent policing and dispossession. It is not a coincidence that Eric Garner and Michael Brown were doing no more than standing on a corner or walking on city streets when the police killed them. By design, such policing operates through small-scale altercations over petty infractions and mounting violent responses to the most mundane and everyday activities: through the policing of everyday Black urban life, broken windows policing leads directly to increased police killings of young Black men. In this context, we can hear Garner’s last words as a cry of indignation, exasperation, and indictment of this form of everyday policing of Black life. Seconds before the police put him in the chokehold that killed him, Garner can be heard saying:
Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today. Why would you…? Everyone standing here will tell you I didn’t do nothing. I did not sell nothing. Because every time you see me, you want to harass me.
On the streets and in the hands of the police, Black life is “insurgent Black life,” as Fred Moten said at a December 2014 talk in Oakland. (I, among many others, went directly from street protests to this talk, receiving text message updates on the protestors throughout.) Making an important distinction between “Black lives” and “Black life,” he connects state violence and Black sociality, emphasizing that the deaths of Brown and Garner were not about individual personhood but instead about all Black life:
We need to understand what the state is defending itself from … the particular instances of Michael Brown’s murder and Eric Garner’s murder are worth paying some attention to. Because what the drone, Darren Wilson, shot into that day was insurgent Black life walking down the street. I don’t think he meant to violate the individual personhood of Michael Brown; he was shooting at mobile Black sociality walking down the street in a way that he understood implicitly constituted a threat to the order he represents and that he is sworn to protect. Eric Garner on the everyday basis initiated a new alternative kind of marketplace, another mode of social life. That’s what they killed, OK? So when we say that Black lives matter, I think what we do sometimes is obscure the fact that it’s in fact Black life that matters—that insurgent Black social life still constitutes a profound threat to the already existing order of things.
This threat that Black social life represents to the “already existing order of things” is the very target of broken windows policing, and so the deaths of Brown and Garner are expected outcomes of a systematically racist urban policy. Read in this way, “maintaining order” should be understood as a polite euphuism for systemic violence against Black life.
From this vantage point, breaking windows during a protest takes on an important meaning as symbolic disruption of this “order.” Where order is experienced as a racist status quo, breaking glass is the political creation of urban disorder. In some ways, this is the point of breaking windows at a protest: breaking windows is always about showing a kind of raw destructive power and an ability to shift, even only momentarily, the status quo and the norms around us. In #blacklivesmatter protests, this destruction has another important symbolic dimension, which we must understand as the material repudiation of broken windows policing. It is the political disruption of the vision of urban order propagated by broken windows policing. It recaptures the very symbol of a broken window and uses it to reveal state violence and white supremacy. As many said during those protests, “We are disrupting the white supremacist status quo.”
Emotional investment and urban order
Urban order is not only maintained by the police but also through urban residents’ emotional investment in this order. This emotional investment is often experienced as deeply held affective attachment to the orderly functioning of things “as they should” without any conscious knowledge or interest in the (often violent) social forces that enable this functioning. It should not surprise us then that the disruption of the “white supremacist status quo” also often entails a disruption of the emotional tranquility of “ordered” urban life that white, middle-class, urban residents have come to expect.
The white woman in the car who told us we had a “responsibility” to stop other protestors from breaking the Trader Joe’s windows was in fact telling us we had a responsibility to uphold urban order. Her emotional investment in that order manifested itself as a charged plea for us to intervene against disorder, followed by an insult (“you are pathetic”) when we did not comply, and ultimately with an emotional breakdown in the face of urban disorder and shattered glass. Rolling her window back up, as a means of encasing herself away from the disruptive and chaotic scene in front her, she (perhaps) experienced the emotional shock of witnessing the—momentary—breakdown of urban order. This was not a matter of whether breaking windows was rational (or irrational), politically strategic (or counter-productive)—she was not interested in hearing protestors’ articulated analysis of why windows were being broken articulated. Rather, her breakdown may be read as a visceral reaction on the part of someone emotionally invested in a regime of order coming face to face with a disruption and physical (if temporary) destruction of that order.
Seemingly, her outrage was not just about the windows being broken but also about our complicity as bystanders and fellow protestors in these actions. Invoking narratives of “good protestor” versus “bad protestor,” her breakdown embodied such emotional investment in order. Of course, it is precisely such embodied investments in the maintenance of urban order that play a crucial role in the reproduction of white supremacy and maintenance of racial capitalism.
According to the protestors, the Trader Joe’s was seen a legitimate target because of the ways large corporations benefit from and depend on a structural racism, exploitable labor, and gentrification. And Trader Joe’s wasn’t the only symbol of gentrification that protestors in Berkeley and Oakland decided to smash.
The gentrification of most major American cities that has been taking place for the past decades provides the contextual backdrop to these protests. In Oakland, in the rapidly gentrifying Temescal neighborhood, protestors frequently broke the windows of not only chain stores like Trader Joe’s but also gentrifying “small business” such as coffee shops and bike stores. These (now globally ubiquitous) symbols of gentrification are also the beneficiaries of the racialized policing that perennially accompanies them. Many protesters were critical of breaking of the windows of “small businesses,” while others responded by connecting gentrification to police violence.
This connection was also recently made on the one-year anniversary of the death of Alejandro Nieto, a Latino man shot and killed by the San Francisco Police Department. To commemorate his death, protestors shut down the San Francisco police’s Mission Station by chaining themselves to its gates, holding a mock trial of the four officers involved in Nieto’s death and blocking a tech bus carrying eBay workers in order to highlight the connection between tech-led gentrification and police violence. As one participant, Nancy Hernandez, said, “Gentrification has worsened police harassment of the working class community of color in San Francisco.”
Broken windows policing is intimately linked to the history of gentrification. In New York City in the 1990s, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, with the support of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, infamously “cleaned up” the city by employing this style of policing. Bratton’s first stint as commissioner is remembered for its infamous crackdown on so-called “squeegee men”: the (often homeless) men who washed motorists’ windows for tips at street intersections. Broken windows policing cleared these men (and their source of income) from the city’s streets along with other visible signs of urban poverty. This strategy of poverty removal, urban “beautification,” heightened policing in newly gentrifying neighborhoods as a strategy for making neighborhoods “safe” for both white middle-class residents and capital investment. As the Bay Area has become increasingly unaffordable and displacement continues apace with the influx of highly paid tech employees, broken window policing has become a pivotal tool for the harassment and removal of Black and Brown communities.
As a violent process that replaces Black urban poverty with whiteness and wealth, gentrification is intimately connected to a conception of “urban order” built upon the policing of Black life. When we recognize that gentrification is inextricably connected to police violence and the criminalization of Black and Brown youth, smashing windows and targeting gentrifying businesses can be read as repudiations of the increasing unaffordability of these neighborhoods. Breaking windows traces direct links between gentrification, displacement, and the policing required to create new urban spaces of wealth and privilege.
Breaking windows in Baltimore
As I finish writing this piece, in late April 2015, another round of protests and anger about police violence against Black life in the United States is taking place. In Baltimore, the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, after he sustained critical injuries in police custody, has prompted days of protests in the city as well as solidarity protests around the country. Protestors have smashed and burned police cars and store windows, and they’ve confronted the police, throwing rocks. The National Guard has been called in, and the whole country again watches a politics of anger, grief, and outrage enacted daily in urban space.
And as the same debates about the “violence” of breaking windows at protests unfolds yet again, I keep thinking of the words of Alicia Garza, the co-founder of #blacklivesmatter:
Do we have the same level of outrage when a young Black person gets killed as we do when a window gets broken? And if not then why is that?
Why is that? Criticizing protestors for breaking windows while remaining silent about police violence perpetuates what is ultimately a deadly valuation, one in which it is all too easy to be outraged over the temporary breakdown of urban order and accept the racist police violence that underwrites this order. We must upend this set of assumptions and recognize that doing so is in fact the difference between life and death.
Manissa M Maharawal is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her PhD research focuses on social movements, urban change, youth, public space, and activism in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has been published in Cultural Anthropology, Progressive Planning, The Guardian, N+1, AlterNet, The Indypendent, Racialicious, Counterpunch, and Waging Nonviolence, among other online and print periodicals. She is currently a Public Humanities Fellow with the New York Council of Humanities.
Cite as: Maharawal, Manissa M. 2015. “Shut it down: Notes on the #blacklivesmatter protests in Oakland, California – Part 2,” FocaalBlog, June 22, www.focaalblog.com/2015/06/22/manissa-maharawal-shut-it-down-part-2.