Academic journal article Social Justice

Global Social Cleansing: Postliberal Revanchism and the Export of Zero Tolerance

Academic journal article Social Justice

Global Social Cleansing: Postliberal Revanchism and the Export of Zero Tolerance

Article excerpt

"THIS IS A WAR AND WE ARE GOING TO ENJOY IT," ENTHUSED RAY MALLON, POLICE chief of the Cleveland District Constabulary in northern England, about his new anticrime initiative. Before his fall from grace in a criminal corruption case, Mellon was known as Britain's most aggressive, some say brutal, police chief. His district has the dubious distinction of using more tear gas than any other in the country. He admires Margaret Thatcher, whose prime ministerial reign included episodes of unprecedented police brutality against people of color, from Brixton to Toxteth, and against British miners. Mallon nonetheless feels that policing under the "iron lady" was "soft." "A villain will get up in the morning, steal a newspaper and a pint of milk from a doorstep, snatch someone's bicycle and go on a shop-lifting spree," he explains. "By lunchtime he will have committed a dozen crimes" (The Scotsman, 1997). His preferred artillery for this war on crime is imported from New York City: the doctrine known as "zero tolerance ."

Zero tolerance stems from a two-decade-old study by two conservative social scientists who proposed the "broken windows" thesis: if people are allowed to break windows with impunity, not only do smaller crimes lead to more serious ones, but the "disordered" appearance of the neighborhood perpetrates criminal disorder (Wilson and Kelling, 1982). The geographic signs of disorder produce the disorder itself; zero tolerance for even minor crimes nurtures an anticrime environment. The study was written as U.S. liberal urban policy lay in decay, but it was only seriously applied in the 1990s when alternatives to that liberalism were being energetically constructed. Most influentially implemented in New York City by police chief William Bratton and Mayor Giuliani, zero tolerance was only part of a much larger shift in U.S. urban policy. The bankruptcy of liberal urban policy after the 1970s left a social and political vacuum that is increasingly filled by official revanchism.

Revanche is French for revenge, and the revanchists of the late 19th century comprised a reactionary, nationalist movement seeking revenge against the perceived liberalism of the Second Empire and the proletarian uprising of the Paris Commune. They sought to reassert a sense of traditional decency against the incivility of the mob, workers, and foreigners and the decadence of the monarchy. Today's new revanchists are rewriting urban and social policy in the wake of 20th-century American liberalism (see Smith, 1996).

The founding document of the new U.S. revanchism is undoubtedly the innocuously named Police Strategy No. 5 bearing Giuliani's and Bratton' s names. This was the document that launched "zero tolerance," although this phrase never appears in the pamphlet. "A decent society is a society of civility," it begins, and then lists a litany of people and "behaviors" that have stolen the city from its rightful citizens, creating "visible signs of a city out of control": street peddling, panhandling, prostitution, squeegee cleaners, boom boxes, graffiti, public drinking, loud clubs, speeding cars, litter louts, public urination, street artists, and "dangerous mentally ill homeless people." (The latter euphemistic convolution was forced by the fact that although homelessness is not a crime, homeless people, numbering perhaps 100,000 in the early 1990s, were the first targets of the new revanchism.) The document's subtitle tells the strategy: "Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York." Less formally, Giuliani and Bratton vowed to "clean the city" of the "scum" that apparently "threatened" decent people walking down the street. Zero tolerance was passed off as an anticrime program. Actually, it is a social cleansing strategy.

Zero tolerance was designed for local conditions and embodies a highly localized language of order and disorder in public space. This did not, however, prevent the doctrine from traveling. William Bratton left the New York City police department in 1996 after only two years amid a public feud with Giuliani over who should receive public credit for the zero tolerance strategy. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.