Thursday, August 28, 2014

Little crimes and big crimes

by Frank Brenner

Michael Brown, it seems, was stealing from a convenience store just before he was shot. The Ferguson police released the store video in an obvious effort to discredit him; his parents called it a character assassination. It certainly was that, but it sure looks on the video like he and his friends were walking out with some cigars and not paying for them. In NYC earlier the same week a man was shot by the cops, again black, again over a theft: this time it was an adult with a long record of convictions for petty larceny. About ten days after Brown's murder, another black man was killed by the cops in St. Louis: they said he was wielding a knife but that he'd stolen a couple of drinks from a convenience store before that.

It's understandable that people outraged by police violence don't want to discuss this, but I think that's a mistake because the apparently common feature of petty crime says something notable about the class divide in America. Al Sharpton did address the issue: he was complaining about the so-called 'broken windows' doctrine brought in by Rudy Guiliani when he ran NYC, which has since become standard operating procedure for police departments across the country. The basic premise is this: if you let individuals get away with minor offenses like breaking windows, they'll feel emboldened to commit more serious crimes, so the police need to be ruthless in stamping out minor thefts or other acts that often used to be labeled as mischief. Sharpton is a demagogue who specializes in co-opting the outrage of the black community for his own machinations within the Democratic Party power structure; nonetheless, the issue is a legitimate one. The people who get caught up in these 'broken window' police dragnets are overwhelmingly poor, young and (disproportionately) black and Hispanic.

That petty crime is widespread in working class neighborhoods shouldn't shock anyone. If anything, the wonder is that such crime isn't more pervasive given the steep rise of social inequality in the last quarter century, and along with that, the wiping out of the industrial heartland of America and of the labor movement. St. Louis is a prime example of that decline. A few years ago it had the biggest murder rate of any city in the country, for all I know it still may hold that dubious honor. A piece in the Guardian said Ferguson is a wasteland in terms of any social opportunity: minimum wage employers like MacDonalds and Walgreens, and a slew of PayDay and Cashstop loan sharks. Obama's hype about hope has done nothing for countless places like this, or for anybody else outside the elites. If you strip millions of young people of any realistic hope for a decent future and block any channels for meaningful political engagement and resistance, then petty crime is an inevitable reaction.

Now consider the case of Steven A. Cohen, profiled a few weeks ago in The New York Times. Mr. Cohen is a hedge fund manager who runs SAC Capital Advisors - SAC being Mr. Cohen's initials. He is worth $11 billion. In 2012 he was implicated in what Wikipedia calls "a large criminal insider trading scandal", and last year pleaded guilty. He has agreed to pay a $1.2 billion fine and not engage in trading other people's money. It is still an open question if he will go to jail. This apparently is the one punishment he wants to avoid, though even if he goes to jail it will in all likelihood be for a relatively brief period of incarceration and under relatively minimal restrictions. The penalty about not handling other people's investments has barely made a dent in his portfolio since, according to the NYT, he has about $9 billion of his own money (even after the fine and other costs) to invest with, and the govt cannot restrict how he uses his own money. When not being the embodiment of the American entrepreneurial spirit, Cohen likes to buy art, recently purchasing a Picasso (sadly, a beautiful portrait of Marie-Therese Walter) for a cool $150 million.

Michael Brown stole a few cigars and paid for it with his life. Steven A. Cohen stole - what? - billions? certainly millions, and no doubt contributed (both 'legally' and 'illegally') to impoverishing thousands of people. He will, at worst, spend some time in jail and eventually return to a lifestyle lavish beyond the wildest dreams of people like Michael Brown.

Clearly there is a problem with the 'broken windows' doctrine. Arresting people like Michael Brown does nothing to deter people like Steven A. Cohen; on the contrary, the arrest of little thieves just makes the streets much safer and secure for big thieves to go about their business.

One has a right to ask: what does crime mean in this situation? And more importantly: what constitutes justice?

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