It is known as the “broken windows” theory of policing and civic order. Its premise is a simple and accurate barometer of human nature: If a broken window is left unattended, more broken windows, and worse, will follow.
On becoming mayor in 1994, Rudy Giuliani adopted the theory as the chief tenet of his governing philosophy. Those were the days when the city was deemed “ungovernable” because the previous mayor and the liberal catechists declared it so.
Giuliani believed New York could be saved, and developed a plan to focus both on serious crime and on quality-of-life issues. Killers and thieves would be hunted with more rigor, and panhandlers, derelicts, prostitutes and squeegee men would no longer get a free pass. Urinating in public would be cause for arrest.
Media sophisticates sneered, accusing Giuliani of sweating the small stuff and violating the civil rights of “street people.” But the measures were immensely popular among ordinary New Yorkers tired of the daily hassles that made life in New York unpleasant and unsafe.
The rest really is history, as Gotham quickly became the safest big city in America. The approach was adopted in other urban areas and by Giuliani’s successor, Michael Bloomberg. The result was a crime level that hit historic lows because the NYPD followed the same principles for nearly 20 years.
And then the vagabonds stumbled into Zuccotti Park. Inexplicably, Bloomberg forgot the lessons of broken windows and rolled out the welcome wagon for anarchists, derelicts, stoners and aging adolescents aiming to live off the toil of others.
For two months, the mayor chose not to see or hear the menace that was growing in the park. He defended his inaction by citing the First Amendment, as though it conferred immunity on those who, in the course of making political statements, broke criminal laws.
It never made a whit of sense, especially coming from someone who had been vigilant about protecting law-abiding New Yorkers. Finally, the mayor took action yesterday, but couldn’t bring himself to admit he goofed by letting things get this far.
He said he ordered the protesters’ camp removed because things had grown dangerous. He talked of tents and tarps and fire hazards creating “an intolerable situation,” as though this was all a news bulletin to him.
“The park was becoming a place where people came not to protest, but rather to break laws, and in some cases, to harm others,” he said. “There have been reports of businesses being threatened and complaints about noise and unsanitary conditions that have seriously impacted the quality of life for residents and businesses.”
This is astonishing. Those “reports” and “conditions,” mostly revealed in this newspaper, date back to the early days of the occupation.
Yet the mayor chose to ignore them, until something or someone got to him. Or maybe he just woke up, and in one of his increasingly Emperor Arbitrary moods, simply changed his mind. His turnabout was so abrupt that you could get whiplash reading his words.
“The First Amendment protects speech,” he said, but “it does not protect the use of tents and sleeping bags to take over a public space.”
It never did, and even though he now agrees, he still doesn’t grasp how his appeasement of a few hundred hoodlums has damaged the city and set up a protracted legal battle.
“Protesters have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags,” he said. “Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.”
Oh, please. That’s more mush masquerading as principle.
Finally, the mayor said the decision to clear the camp was “mine and mine alone.”