10 February 2007

Free To Be You And Me

The response to my post about "Poverty And Profiling" leads me to tackle yet another related issue, that of individual vs. collective freedom.

Various correspondents argue that the police have no right to pick out individuals for investigation based on the way those individuals are dressed, speaking, or generally comporting themselves. I pointed out once, and will again for the benefit of those who missed it, that we all (unless we're completely divorced from reality) make character judgments based on appearance. The judgments we make may vary widely, depending on our own values and perceptions (for example, someone who follows a thug lifestyle may actually choose to hang around an area where most people look like thugs, because he feels most comfortable there), but as a general rule, we gravitate toward places and situations where other people appear trustworthy and honorable, and avoid those where they don't.

It's of course true that many people who dress or talk or act in a thuglike manner may present little or no real threat, that they're just copying a fashion they've seen on MTV or their favourite rap video. It's equally true that chances are considerably greater that thuggish-looking people will actually be thugs and present a real danger than, say, a convention of Mormon missionaries or a ladies bridge club outing.

My contention is that any sane person, no matter how vociferously he or she defends individual rights and freedoms, is going to use some predetermined criteria to decide whether to walk down a certain street, to engage in a business or personal relationship with the people he or she meets there. Because you sometimes only have a matter of seconds to make such choices, you will undoubtedly make mistakes at times, trusting or mistrusting the wrong people, but considering what is at stake - your property, your well-being, perhaps even your life - most people prefer to err on the side of caution.

As I suggested yesterday, if you're willing to engage in this sort of discrimination for your own self-preservation, how can you deny the same right to the police, who have not only their own well-being at stake, but that of an entire community? But, you could correctly point out, the worst that's likely to happen if you or I mistakenly judge someone to be a dangerous thug is that someone's feelings will be hurt, whereas once an armed representative of the state enters the picture, that someone could end up getting shot, killed, or imprisoned.

And it's a good point, though I could counter, based on my own numerous experiences of being stopped, searched, held at gunpoint and locked up by the police, that the odds of getting shot, killed or imprisoned are greatly reduced if you don't make any sudden movements, speak softly and respectfully to the police, and do as you are told. Oh, and don't be in the midst of committing a crime or carrying something illegal.

In dealing with cops, I've tried both approaches, being cooperative, and lecturing them loudly and aggressively about my "rights." I don't think it will come as any shocking revelation which of these approaches achieved better results. Thus when someone complains about being routinely harassed because they are black, or Muslim, or young, my first inclination is to wonder how exactly they responded when the police first approached them. I've witnessed enough cases where the most innocuous "Could we have a word with you, sir?" elicited a fierce "Why you motherfuckers always fucking with me, it's cause I'm black, isn't it?" to suspect that attitude plays a far larger role than appearance when it comes to what is perceived as police "harassment."

And if it were I who were laying down the rules of engagement for the police, attitude would be where I'd place most attention. Appearance would factor into it, yes, but more in the sense of, "Let's have a look at those guys," not, "Let's stop them and frisk them." If it's just a bunch of dorky kids wearing their pants falling off their asses prison-style because they're on their way to a rap concert, that's easy enough to pick up on by giving them a quick glance. If, however, they react with a lot of "What the fuck you looking at?" attitude, then maybe it's time to take them a little more seriously.

Is this unconstitutional? Should the police have to wait until the suspects in question actually mug someone or jump a subway turnstile or spray some graffiti? Good question. The trouble is, if you go down that route too rigidly, the police are reduced to being a purely reactive force rather than a preventive or proactive one. Also, there are a lot more innocent victims.

And that's where we come back to my original question, finding the proper balance between individual and collective freedom. As pre-Giuliani New York shows us, when the streets are ceded to the thugs, i.e., the thugs have more "freedom", the great majority of people lose their freedom. At its low point, whole sections of New York were no-go areas, nearly a million people moved out of the city, and many of those who remained, especially the elderly, the weak, the children, were virtual prisoners in their own homes.

Nonetheless, when Giuliani cracked down hard on the lawlessness that had overtaken New York and turned it into the safest big city in America, there was no shortage of critics to call him a "fascist" and worse. For that matter, at lefty enclaves like the Voice and the New York Press, they're still bitching about how New York's "not what it used to be," as if running a gauntlet of muggers and murderers on your way to the subway added an indefinable, intangible fillip of excitement to urban life.

But for most New Yorkers, life is miles better than it used to be, and in being able to walk in safety on most of their streets, day or night, they've re-acquired a degree of freedom that was once thought to have been lost forever (and is still missing in action from many other large American cities). Yes, for some individuals, life in New York isn't quite as much fun as it used to be. They can't stand around on corners smoking joints, drinking beer and listening to their boom boxes in the wee hours of the morning. They have to pay to ride the subway. They might even have to have a job and pay rent, which was certainly not always the case in the bad/good old days.

The thing is, almost nobody apart from a few dyed-in-the-wool Rebublicans, wants to go back to the super-regimented ways of the 1950s or earlier, even if it would mean lower crime rates and cleaner streets, and even those who would vote in favour of it might change their minds if they actually got their way. Ever since then we've seen a more or less constant trend, reinforced by numerous legal reforms and court decisions, in favour of ever greater individual freedom. The question is: is there ever such a thing as too much individual freedom? I would say yes, of course there is, and we reach that point precisely when the exercise of one individual's rights begins to impinge regularly on the rights of others.

I think we could all agree on that in principle - even the loudest punk rocker among you will probably accept that your neighbour's right to play music at 3 am doesn't extend to the point where it keeps you awake all night (especially if his taste in music is different from yours). It's only when we try to decide where exactly that tipping point falls that we are likely to fall into fractious disagreement. People have greatly differing degrees of tolerance for noise, disorder and dirt, or, on the other hand, tranquility, order and cleanliness. Some people love the sound of children playing under their window; others hear only the screeches and screams of an ill-mannered horde of young savages.

In my own life I've seen society go from one extreme in the 1950s, to the opposite extreme, one of complete self-indulgence, in the late 60s and 70s, which in turn produced a counterreaction of those who wanted to take America back to "the way things used to be." But even though it's the 60s and 70s that are most renowned for chaos, disorder, and individual freedom and/or licence, they really only ignited a trend that has, for the most part, persisted to the present. And the idea that people should be able to dress, act and speak any way they choose without having to accept any consequences therefrom, is part and parcel of that trend.

Am I advocating that we revoke time-honoured guarantees about freedom of speech or assembly? Of course not. But bear in mind that these guarantees have never been absolute. The right to criticise the President as an idiot or your Congressman as a crook wasn't necessarily intended to include the right to hang out on a corner and call anyone who passes by a motherfucker. The right to gather together to protest or organise or socialise doesn't necessarily extend to the right to colonise a street corner or the sidewalk in front of the liquor store and menace or terrorise anyone unfortunate enough to have to walk past you.

Or does it? Some constitutional purists would indeed argue that the rights of speech or assembly or expression should have virtually no limits at all, which brings me back to my original point: how can this be, if and when the exercise of your freedom restricts or destroys the freedom of others? I started thinking about this question when I ran across a definition of libertas, the Latin word for "freedom," as having a literal meaning of "freedom under the law." The most heartfelt declarations of anarchists notwithstanding, I don't think it's possible for freedom to exist without a system of laws. In the same book where I read about libertas, I was reading about the barbarians overrunning and destroying the Roman Empire; the barbarians may have been having a ball as all the old legal structures fell away, but believe me, no one else was.

Agree? Disagree? Is freedom absolute or relative. And if, as I think most of you will agree, it's the latter, where do you draw the line?


Dave said...

I showed your post to a friend of mine, who found it interesting, as I did, that you don't seem to believe that the police, due to their position, ought to be held to a higher standard/be placed under greater constraints than ordinary individuals. You're doubtless aware that the police are an arm of our government, and that the Bill of Rights was drafted specifically to protect citizens from the government when it got too uppity.

It shocks me when people continually brush aside the concept of a professional police force; if you're going to give people guns, clubs, and the authority to search, seize, and arrest, you should ideally want these people operating at a level above your racist uncle who hates all those damn kids for stealing his newspaper. It means they can't just pull their dicks out and act like cowboys whenever it suits them. They do that enough as it is. Outside of NYC, my interactions with police (and I make it a point to be polite to cops) have seen them as contentious, rude, and unhelpful.

As far as profiling goes, yes we all use it, to some degree, as a factor in our personal decisions. But making it official law enforcement policy is a dangerous and unnecessary extension of that process. To quote my friend, "people can get hurt via profiling, even if it's just in the form of diminished trust in the police and authority, and increased racial/ethnic/social tension in society as a whole." Not to mention that decreased objectivity in the investigative end of police work in favor of relentless pursuit of the "obvious" suspect strikes me as bad policy, too; it opens a huge window for real criminals to avoid suspicion by simply not dressing to fit a stereotype.

Mike said...

Was Steven Levitt incorrect in his very popular book "Freakonomics", where he found that the greatest reasons for the reduction of crime in NY during the 90's were Roe v. Wade and Dinkins putting more cops on the street? I didn't know evidence had been found to the contrary.

Larry Livermore said...

Well, everyone's entitled to his own opinion, and Giuliani-haters have been putting this one about for so long that it's grown mold on it, but to put it simply, yes, Mr Levitt is very incorrect, no matter how popular his book is.

Moreover, he didn't "find" that New York's reduced crime rate could be attributed to Roe v. Wade and the disastrous Mayor Dinkins, he repeated a popular left-wing canard. As for "evidence...to the contrary," how about this: New York's crime rate, long considered intractable, plummeted once Giuliani took office, and has continued to fall under his successor, who has followed much the same policing policies.

Now I'm aware of the dangers of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning, but the empirical connection is just a little too blatant to ignore here. It's true that crime rates fell elsewhere in America during the 90s, but nowhere near as spectacularly as in New York, and while they have started rising again in most American cities, they have continued to fall in New York.

And if Roe v. Wade was responsible for the fall in crime, has it been secretly abolished everywhere except New York? Because crime rates in places like Oakland and San Francisco - where they use Dinkins-style policing - are once again soaring out of control. I defy Mr Levitt or anyone else to take a stroll around the streets of New York, and then a comparable one around the streets of Oakland or San Francisco and tell me there's not a tangible difference in the quality of life and the degree of civility observable there.

dave said...


It's true that Giuliani's tenure as mayor did see steep drops in crime, but I was under the impression that those drops started at the end of Dinkins' term.

So do you have any evidence that Dinkins was a total failure, or were you just waiting for the rest of us to sheepishly fall into line with you?

Larry Livermore said...

Yeah, go ahead and fall sheepishly in line with me, you know it's simpler that way.

In the meantime, if you want some year-on-year and mayor-on-mayor crime stat comparisons, try looking here: http://nyc.gov/html/nypd/pdf/chfdept/cscity.pdf