A Black Flag article about Jack Straw's approach to law and order in the early days of the New Labout government.
In August 1997 Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, was detained at New York's 70th Precinct station house. During the course of his detention he was severely beaten and had the wooden handle of a toilet plunger inserted by force into his rectum (resulting in a punctured intestine and torn bladder) and then had the handle of the plunger rammed into his mouth, knocking out his front teeth. He was racially abused, and, during the assault on him, one of the cops shouted "It's Giuliani time "- a reference to the New York right wing mayor who initiated the "zero tolerance campaign".
Zero tolerance - which involves the prosecution of every petty crime, and the removal of graffiti artists, beggars, traffic light squeegee merchants and winos from the streets, has been a licence for police brutality. New York's middle classes are happy though; as the Guardian journalist Linda Grant described: "At night people stroll down the streets as if they were Parisians on the boulevards. New Yorkers have their city back, the Manhattan of its own heyday before drugs and guns drove families to suburbia and the poor to desperation." Zero tolerance is about saturation policing. Its supporters would argue that its success can be shown in the 45% drop in violent crime since 1991.The reality is that "Giuliani Time" has meant an increase in violent crime - but the victims are poor, black, homeless, and the attackers are cops. Civilian complaints against the police for excessive force rose by 61.9% in 1995. Abuse of authority complaints rose by 86.2% and allegations of illegal searches soared by 135%. More than half the complainants are African American. A further 25% are Latino.
When police shot 16 year old Kevin Cedeno in the back Giuliani condemned the media for not asking why Kevin was out late at night and whether he had a criminal record.The fact that police had lied in their statements, saying Kevin was shot in the stomach after a confrontation caused him no concern at all. Anthony Baez died from an illegal chokehold after his football accidentally bounced into a police car. When his mother questioned police commissioner Willian Bratton at a town hall meeting, Bratton told her to sit down and stop making a fool of herself. Giuliani, standing next to Bratton at the time, said nothing.
As Linda Grant's Guardian article (17/2/97) recognised,"The New York of Mayor Giuliani could be the London of Tony Blair and Jack Straw.The beggars could be cleared away from the streets along with the litter and the burglars - and Londoners, like New Yorkers, probably won't ask any questions".
Jack Staw time?
Jack Straw believes in zero tolerance. He believes "in giving city centres back to the people." He believes in getting more police on the beat on "targeted patrols" on behalf of the "law abiding majority who want to live in clean and pleasant surroundings." With 61,250 people in jail, he has ordered the building of 3 new private prisons. Since 1992, the number of offenders in jail under 21 has risen from 6783 to 10583. Jack Straw wants to use the Criminal Justice Bill to set up a fast track system of punishment for young offenders, with the abandoning of repeat cautioning ("cautioning plus") and the introduction of curfews on the under 10s.
The legacy of the outgoing Home Secretary Michael Howard was aptly described by the barrister Michael Mansfield as "the abolition in effect of the right to silence; the increase in police powers without a concomitant, independent supervision of these powers of criminal investigation; the restrictions imposed by public order legislation on freedom of movement, association or protest; the provision of legal aid and the steady decline in readily available advice through neighborhood or community law centres." Mansfield believes that Howard's "reforms" should be "reviewed, revised and in some cases removed" by Jack Straw. Charles Pollard, Chief Constable of Thames Valley, has said of zero tolerance,"the problem is that sutained policing of this sort ends up targeting minorities within communities." Most of the left in this country have spent the years since 1945 running round like headless chickens trying to con working class people into voting again and again for ever more right wing Labour governments.The end result is a Labour government with a massive majority and a clearly anti working class agenda. Jack Sraw knows it would be easy to use that majority to rescind Michael Howard's pro-police agenda. Instead, he's kept all Howard's weapons for his own armoury and added more besides. He knows that zero tolerance targets minorities. He's been to New York. He's seen the evidence for himself.That's the whole point.
Zero tolerance isn't about ending crime, it's about containing working class communities and keeping the poor off the streets. In New York the streets are free of litter, because welfare recipients are forced to clean the streets as part of the Workfare programme and street cleaning is the only option on offer to them. Homelessness is a crime in New York. For Tony Blair,"The basic principle here is to say yes it is right to be intolerant of homeless people on the streets." So where do the homeless go? Some of them in New York went to live in shanty towns under the boardwalks at Coney Island. In January 1997, 3 of them died when an open fire they were huddled round burned down their encampment. "They died like rats in a gutter" according to Linda Grant. In the UK the average life expectancy of a rough sleeper is 43. But solutions to homelessness that don't involve policing solutions cost money. Linda Grant again: "Londoners want (I want,the homeless want) a better quality of life than we have had to get used to.The price of peace of mind comes expensive if you are talking hostels that don't have to be closed down because they are more dangerous than the streets themselves. Read my lips. This means taxes." And thats a price that Tony Blair, low tax saviour of middle England, won't pay. If anyone still believes Labour has a reforming agenda, let them explain David Blunkett's comment that "The truth is that any government entering the 21st century cannot hope to create a more equal or more egalitarian society simply by taking money from one set of people and redistributing it to others."
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies the top 10% in the UK enjoy an income equal to the whole of the bottom 50% of society. By 1993, more than 2/3 of income in the bottom 10% of households came from means tested benefits. By 1993, the UK had 3.9 million children living in poverty - more than any other EU member state. According to Child Poverty Action Group definitions, 23% of the population live in poverty. For Labour, the solutions to all this are clear. Capital can no longer afford the cost of the welfare state. Labour's task is to dismantle it. In its place will be Welfare to Work or....jail.
Professor John Pitts, of the Centre for the Study of Crime, Neighbourhood and Social Change, has observed "crime has grown least in those European countries where discrepancies of wealth and opportunity are lowest, or where governments have worked to ameliorate the effects of globalisation and de-industrialisation upon the most vulnerable."(Guardian 28/5/97) Labour intends to exacerbate the "discrepancies of wealth and opportunity.", but for Straw's middle class supporters it's the best of both worlds - lockdown capitalism - not only do you pay less taxes but the streets are clean and your home doesn't get burgled. Crime becomes something the poor do to each other. Anyone who steps ouside this gets hit even harder. (When working class communities in Dublin organised through Concerned Parents Against Drugs to deal with the heroin that was flooding their communities, it was them -not the dealers - who went to jail. In Birmingham, the Newtown Independent Residents Association had to overcome constant police intimidation to build a successful, street based, anti racist, anti-mugging campaign.)
Jack Straw wants it to be "Giuliani Time " in the UK. He wants a "quiet" police state where the liberals are happy because the streets are clean and the poor are only seen when theyre thanking him for the marvellous opportunities created by New Labour,and then only through the medium of a press office promo video. The pro Labour left are buried by history - having been cheerleaders for New Labour and therefore de facto cheerleaders for the crackdown to come. The rest of us are left to deal with the consequences. The battle in the next few years will be two fold - to resist the criminalisation and lockdown of working class communities and resist the rise of crime within our communities, to no longer live or die like "rats in a gutter."