Right-wing fever dream: New York’s bipartisan ‘law and order’ panic
Heavily armed New York National Guard soldiers patrol Grand Central Terminal in NYC. | AP

New York City has a crime problem. There are murderous, mentally-unstable, violent people lurking behind every corner; people who are criminal to their core. They haunt the local CVS, hang helter-skelter on stoops, and lurk just steps away from schools. The ghosts and ghouls of the big city ride the MTA subway system, spreading like a virus, polluting our trains with anarchic disorder. None of us are safe.

At least that’s what suspiciously conservative establishment Democrats and power-starved New York Republicans would have you believe.

This supposedly looming terror is why on March 6 Gov. Kathy Hochul had no choice but to mobilize 750 National Guard troops to reinforce Mayor Eric Adams’ NYPD-led war on subway crime. NYC, in their telling, is a dystopian hellscape that can only be brought out of its apocalyptic backslide by crowding jails, ticketing fare-beaters, and now militarizing our subways.

Of course, there are significant problems in NYC, however, we can draw some conclusions from the scale of the threat by listening to Hochul herself. When discussing her Subway Safety Plan on MSNBC recently, she noted that “We have seen a number of crimes, and again, not statistically significant, but psychologically significant.”

Psychologically significant but not statistically significant? I did a double-take too. Someone, please, make it make sense.

The recent string of violent incidents in NYC, like the recent shooting on a C-train where a gun made its way into the subway system despite the increased security, is certainly a concern. Violent things do happen. People harm other people.

The problem with Hochul’s logic, however—beyond the idea of reducing gun violence by adding significantly more guns to the subway, as if there is not a historical and contemporary problem with police-involved gun violence—is that it avoids addressing the social determinants of health that influence behavior. Hochul remains hostile to increasing taxes on millionaires that social and economic justice advocates say is necessary to fund initiatives that address the root causes of community violence, for instance.

The NYC subway system is so vast that it is a gargantuan task to meaningfully, and indiscriminately, screen the estimated 4 million commuters per day. Not only is it near-impossible without structural transformations that are today unreasonable, the fear-based rhetoric in NYS politics is encouraging more New Yorkers to apply for gun licenses themselves. In a Gothamist article, journalist Samantha Max finds that “the number of concealed carry applications in the first two months of this year has already surpassed the total for 2019, 2020, and 2021 combined.” That means even more guns in circulation. So, what is this governor thinking?

Sad to say, but she’s thinking like a Republican. There has been a long and sustained effort on the part of some Democrats to overhaul their party’s image so it can compete with Republicans’ in the “law and order” game. Since Hochul assumed office, she has worked in unison with conservative Democrat and former cop NYC Mayor Eric Adams to dispel the notion that Democrats are ideologically unable or unwilling to respond to violence in cities.

She nearly lost her campaign for election to hyper-conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin in 2022, largely because she attempted to best him at tough-on-crime proposals. Republicans do fear better. Her campaign was saved by the progressive Democrats that figures like NYS Democratic Party chair Jay Jacobs seem to revile.

Decades of police-first responses to social problems and the dehumanizing criminalization of entire racial and ethnic communities across NYC has generated an ad hoc, unofficial policy alliance between conservatives in both the Republican and Democratic Parties in NYS. That’s true nationally as well, not just in New York. Republicans and Democrats are of course not the same, but far too often they work in concert when it comes to formulating responses to problems like crime and poverty.

That should give all of us who are interested in living in a pluralist, free, democratic society pause because the success of conservative ideologies has transformed the political landscape and continues to do so. This was demonstrated by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and in the more local challenge against the elimination of cash-bail reforms achieved in 2019.

The right-wing movements and billionaire-funded think tanks that empowered Donald Trump to seat enough conservative justices to undo over 50 years of gender-based advancement are built on conservative, right-wing narratives. Those narratives are of the same ilk as those used by Hochul to undo provisions of the bail reform law, in her efforts to defeat Lee Zeldin, and in pushing the idea that Democrats have to get tough on crime—though she would undoubtedly argue otherwise.

This constitutes an alliance of tactics and ideas, even if Republicans and Democrats have opposing policy goals. The resonance of their politics—that is, the way they describe the world and why it is the way it is—is unnerving.

The consequences of the crime and violence phantasma peddled by Democrats and Republicans are many, and they go beyond Trump and the mass anxiety that Hochul has mobilized the military to address (how many psychologists did she consult for this plan?).

The mobilization of the National Guard for an imagined sense of insecurity and fear among New Yorkers is a ghost of American politics, returning once more to advance dehumanizing racism, xenophobia, classism, and all manner of political hysteria that encourages a populace to give up political power and more willingly accept authoritarian policy and practice. Hochul made her announcement on March 6, the day before the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, inviting us to wonder whether she had considered how an image of armed guards standing in Black New Yorkers’ path to public transit may sit differently for with some than it does for others.

Fascism and racism are twins. Toni Morrison, the incomparable Black American editor, novelist, and public intellectual, addressed students of Howard University in 1995 and explored the specter of fascism and provided ten steps that an authoritarian state takes to that can lead ultimately to genocide. One that stands out is “8. Criminalize the enemy. Then prepare, budget for, and rationalize the building of holding arenas for the enemy—especially its males and absolutely its children.” Who is the enemy? What do they look like?

Perhaps I seem alarmist here. Maybe I am. I hope so. But regardless we must not normalize Hochul’s politics or practices and the silencing of legitimate critique.

As with all op-ed articles published by People’s World, the views expressed here are those of the author.

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Jawanza James Williams
Jawanza James Williams

Jawanza James Williams is a Black, radical Queer, prison abolitionist, socialist, feminist, Christian engaged in social critique, local, and state politics in New York. Originally from Beaumont, Texas, he is currently a PhD Political Science student at the CUNY Graduate Center.