The subway. Fares go up but service gets worse. Trains get dirtier and more crowded. Platforms and car seats double as homeless shelters, hopelessly unequipped for the task. The solution, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the MTA, is more police.
Can police lower the fare, making it possible for people who need the system to use it? Can police run more trains, more buses, so that it doesn’t take hours to reach our destinations? Can the police give that man a coat, some food, a room to live in? Will police clean the puke off that bench?
It has become clear what police do. They intimidate, bully, harass. They target people of color for special abuse. They stare at riders with dull, detached eyes. They collect overtime. Their stretches of boredom are punctuated by outbursts of aggression, of brutality. A teenager is tased over a $2.75 fare. A homeless man is accosted, thrown out of the station. It’s 30 degrees outside. Where is he supposed to go?
Policing is what you do when you can’t or won’t fix problems equitably.
The combative atmosphere of late isn’t new. Broken windows, quality of life, zero tolerance — whatever you want to call the idea that police need to step in, always and everywhere, to protect the status quo — was pioneered on the subways of New York. In 1994, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani hired William Bratton as police commissioner. Bratton had made his bones on the trains, where, as head of the then-separate Transit Police, he engineered a war against fare-beaters and the homeless. As commissioner, Bratton took the “quality of life” concept citywide, making the streets safe for the rich and the square. If large parts of New York now feel like a suburb, we can thank the twin forces of policing and real-estate development, along with their allies in the city’s political class.
Who pays the price? It’s not a coincidence that aggression from cops accompanies hard times for the city’s poor. While “broken windows” policing did not become widespread until the 1990s, the concept emerged in the early 1980s, a time when the working class in New York was under siege. Deindustrialization begat massive job losses. Declining revenues caused public services to plummet. Federal tax breaks for homeowners and spending on new highways instead of mass transit helped whites move out to the suburbs while trapping people of color in a deteriorating city.
To break its death spiral, New York needed to attract investment. It needed people with money. But rich people tend to be a bit — how can we put it? — defensive. They don’t like it when the poor are assertive, are in your face, are even in sight. And they don’t like paying the taxes required to alleviate poverty. For a political class that needs the rich but can’t or won’t address what makes people poor, the next best thing is to make the poor disappear. This is where the police come in. Rather than address the underlying causes of the high crime rates of the 1980s, the city responded with the only public safety strategy it’s ever willing to entertain — more policing. When the cops cart off people who might rattle a tourist’s delicate nerves, they are guarding the golden goose, the secret to the city’s so-called revival.
Today’s New York feels richer than its counterpart of 30 years ago. Scratch the surface, though, and the veneer chips away. The flipside of the skyrocketing real-estate prices that “rescued” the city is the surge in homelessness all around us. Our public housing, once the best in the nation, is crumbling and decrepit. Schools are brutally segregated by race and class. One in 10 public school students is homeless. The formal unemployment rate is low, but what that doesn’t tell you is that most of the jobs on offer stink, and many people have given up on looking for work altogether. The city looks rich to the uninitiated. But those who live here know.
Why are police the solution? Because policing is what you do when you can’t or won’t fix problems equitably. It is what you do when you want to protect the prerogatives of the rich more than you want to address the needs of ordinary people. Policing is what you do when white supremacy is not that big a deal to you. Police don’t solve problems — they just move them around. Out of sight, out of mind. Can they stay out of sight forever?
By the MTA’s own admission, the $250 million it plans to dole out for new cops on the subway over the next four years will cost more than it will recoup in lost fares. The Riders Alliance, which advocates for a more equitable transit system, estimates that all the money spent on new cops could instead increase midday and weekend service by 15 percent.
The MTA’s plan seems irrational, but it’s not. It’s not about the money — it’s about the principle. Want to get to work? You must pay. See your friends? You must pay. Want to get an education? You must pay. If you must pay, you must work. If you must work, you must accept what’s on offer, no matter how ill-paid, stressful, humiliating. This schema protects the privileges of people who already have money, for whom this system works. The job of the cops is to guard this system, and they will use violence to do it. After all, it’s a slippery slope. If you didn’t have to pay for the subway, what else might you not have to pay for?
So what do we do now? Organize. We need fewer police, with fewer weapons and more curbs on their power. We need to replace cops with actual solutions to our problems — housing, health care, recreation, the chance to make a difference. We need a transit system that works for everyone, including the impoverished and the disabled. That means freezing the fare, then lowering it, then eliminating it.
How do we get there? The only counter to the power of money is the power of numbers. Imagine a riders’ organization that anyone can join — that has real resources and real muscle. Imagine riders working together with transit workers — for a living wage and a well-oiled system. Together, we will be tough to stop. Together, we will no longer have to accept the rule of the police, the rule of the rich. We’ll have the rule of the people — all of the people.
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