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Museum of Broken Windows Pop-up Highlights the Need for Cop Divestment Ahead of City Budget Negotiations

As City budget negotiations commence tomorrow, all departments are on the chopping block except the NYPD, with many community programs at risk of being cut.

Jess Abolafia & Moira Marquis May 23, 2023

At a demonstration in SoHo on May 8, a photojournalist, Stephanie Keith, was arrested, others in attendance were bloodied, and initial police reports claimed that several people in attendance had “assaulted themselves,” according to the Gothamist. Around 150 people had gathered to express concern and bring attention to Jordan Neely, a Black man experiencing homelessness and mental health challenges, who was murdered on the F train by a former Marine on May 1. Along with Keith, many others were arrested at this gathering and given charges that are frequently lobbed at demonstrations, including having a microphone and blocking the street, which unnecessarily restricts free expression. Low-level charges like these are prosecuted in New York at alarming rates in part because of the so-called Broken Windows Theory –– the idea that visible signs of minor disorder increase serious crime because “unmonitored space where delinquency goes unpunished… encourag[es] others to violate local norms and laws.”

We speak with one of the organizers of the May 8 Justice for Jordan Neely protests on The Indypendent News Hour.

The Broken Windows Theory was first posited in an essay published in The Atlantic in 1982, by criminologist George L. Kelling and political scientist James Q. Wilson. In it, they propose criminalizing actions like jaywalking, breaking windows, loitering, asking for spare change, being outside while mentally ill, or, one of Kelling’s claims to fame, asking to wash your windshield while waiting in traffic lights. The theory speculates that the more these kinds of actions occur, the more others will retreat from public spaces in order to avoid them. Consequently, the fewer people around, the more likely crime will occur in this vacuum. 

Although this theory has never been proven to be effective at lowering rates of crime, it has catalyzed an increase in prosecution, including the arrests of buskers in the subway in 2022. The theory has also contributed to criminalization of poverty and over-policing of Black and brown communities, and has been used to limit public expression by arresting demonstrators on charges such as violating noise ordinances.

Upon entering the museum, visitors are faced with the fact that the NYPD costs New Yorkers $29 million per day.

The May 8 Neely demonstration arrests occurred a few blocks away from The Museum of Broken Windows, a pop-up art installation that addresses New York City’s governmental embrace of the Broken Windows Theory and the eye-watering statistics of police budget expenditure that this theory has encouraged. The exhibit opened in anticipation of the city budget hearing on May 24 and asks New Yorkers  to question the logic of allocating billions of dollars to the NYPD each year, instead of investing in solutions that address the root causes of the issues we face. The museum asks, What would you do with that money? Can you imagine a way to spend $2 billion that would improve your community more than arresting people for stepping in traffic? 

The Museum of Broken Windows asks visitors to shift their focus to the underlying issue: disinvestment in social structures necessary to support people. Upon entering the museum, visitors are faced with the fact that the NYPD costs New Yorkers $29 million per day. There is also a graph that outlines the dispersion of the City’s money: libraries receive $419 million, youth and community development receive $862 million and the NYPD receives $5.5 billion. This graphic compels museum-goers to consider what our communities would look like if the police budget was instead put into community resources that help people live healthy and stable lives. 

Inside the Museum of Broken Windows. Photos by Jess Abolafia.

As visitors move throughout the first floor of the exhibit, they encounter the violent consequences of over-policing, including portraits of family members holding pictures of their loved ones who have been murdered at the hands of police. There are also subway cards painted with scenes of stop-and-frisk alongside large-scale print statistics of expenditures that will make your mouth drop. Along the staircase leading to the second floor of the exhibit, there are several large banners that further depict the divestment in crucial community-serving agencies to sustain the NYPD and New York City Department of Correction budgets. 

In contrast to the beginning of the exhibit, the second floor is largely devoted to scenes of community: fathers and sons sitting on park benches, dancing and playing board games on the street, children chasing each other and playing ball. There is a lack of fear in these images that starkly juxtaposes the instances of state-sanctioned violence depicted throughout the first floor. The space also has more light, plants and hopeful images, showcasing the power and beauty of flourishing communities. 

In the back corner of the second floor, however, is information about the Rikers Island jail complex. The wall installation notes that “five thousand people a day — and rising — are held in the jail complex, which is notorious for its culture of neglect, abuse and death. Rotten food, limited medical care, indifferent staff, unsanitary housing, and threats of violence are only some of the horrors. People must often suffer there before trial for close to a year, or more.” Behind this wall hangs a six-foot shank chandelier made of 1,500 clear toothbrushes with silver razor blades, expressing the reality of life inside and contrasts sharply with the other scenes on the second floor.

Be sure to pay attention to the City Council and Mayor Adams’ upcoming budget negotiations on May 24 at 10 a.m. Members of the public can testify in-person in the Council chambers or via Zoom/phone call by registering at least 24 hours in advance. Click here for more.

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