Crime As Social Control | Christian Parenti (2000)

Crime As Social Control

by Christian Parenti

IS CRIME PROTO-REVOLUTIONARY - A PRE-POLITICAL FORM OF REBELLION? OR IS crime a form of social control? Is it the "auto-repression" of communities that have throughout history rebelled in organized and unorganized ways? It is often alleged that during the late 1960s and early 1970s, many on the Left romanticized "street crime" as proto-revolutionary rebellion. To some extent this position had currency among elements of the white ultra-Left. However, mainstream criminologists and historians of the 1960s have overemphasized this (Cummins, 1994).

To the extent that there was romanticization of crime, it was based, in part, on a warped reading of Fanon's ideas about the psychologically salubrious and politically heuristic effects of revolutionary violence and his casting of the lumpen classes in colonial towns as potential militants, rather than as the declasse and dangerous dross white Marxists often took them to be. Yet, to be fair, left valorization of crime as proto-political was neither common nor even very important in shaping left politics around criminal justice; any back issue of this journal's earliest incarnations will attest to that.

So what is a radical reading of crime? By crime, I mostly mean the "index offenses" or interpersonal violence, such as murder, rape, and assault, along with noncorporate theft like burglary and strong-arm robbery. To some extent, however, we can throw in the violence associated with addiction and street-level narcocapitalism.

A look at the real impacts of street crime begins to reveal that crime and the fear of crime are forms of social control. Strong-arm robbery, rape, homicide, and general thuggery in poor communities leave people scared, divided, cynical, and politically confused; ultimately these acts drive the victims of capitalism, racism, and sexism into the arms of a racist, probusiness, sexist state. In short, crime justifies state violence and even creates popular demand for state repression. Thus, it helps to liquidate or at least neutralize a whole class of potential rebels. Crime also short-circuits the social cohesion necessary for radical mobilization.

As one community organizer in San Francisco put it: "How do you think they get all the police in here? Without bad guys, there's no so-called good guys." 1 Foucault recognized this point in Discipline and Punish. Commenting on the politics of crime in France at the end of the 18th century, Foucault summed up the political benefits of crime -- then and now -- as follows:

Crime was too useful for them [the authorities] to dream of anything as crazy -- or ultimately as dangerous -- as a society without crime. No crime means no police. What makes the presence and control of the police tolerable for the population, if not fear of the criminal? This institution of the police, which is so recent and so oppressive, is only justified by that fear. If we accept the presence in our midst of these uniformed men, who have exclusive right to carry arms, who demand our papers, who come and prowl on our doorsteps, how would any of this be possible if there were no criminals? And if there weren't articles every day in the newspaper telling us how numerous and dangerous our criminals are (Foucault, 1980: 47)?

How, then, does crime function as social control in the U.S. today? A comparison of crime with the most extreme example of state terrorism, death squads, is instructive. What were the hallmarks and political impacts of state terror in Central America in the 1980s? State violence against popular movements was systematic, but also deliberately random and spectacularly arbitrary -- all of which helped to spread ubiquitous fear. People simply "disappeared" forever or, after being captured, showed up on public roads mutilated, their corpses serving as political advertisements. Such tactics caused thousands of activists to give up on politics completely and to retreat into their private lives. Other comrades, particularly survivors of torture, often became pathological and difficult to work with. Most destructive of all, though, was the fact that the best and the brightest were just gone -- dead.

As a result, many potential activists were simply too scared to attend meetings or read radical literature or go to demonstrations. State terror, most graphically embodied in the death squads, scrambled the everyday patterns upon which organizing depended. Street crime in America does the same.

There are three primary ways in which crime acts as social control: it creates fear and demoralization, absorbs "bodies" and human energy that might be harnessed by rebellion, and drives poor and oppressed people into the arms of the state. Very directly, crime frightens people away from meetings and keeps community members isolated and voluntarily locked up, not in cells, but in their homes. Moreover, violence and addiction corrode basic social structures, such as friendship and family, upon which political mobilization depends.

In East New York, a once super-bloody, but still violent neighborhood at the end of the old IRT in New York City, an organizer with the United Community Centers reports that it is difficult, if not impossible, to have meetings or events in the evening. Women, who make up the bulk of the community activists, and many men, are too scared to venture outdoors in their neighborhoods after dark for fear of being robbed or brutalized. 2 Housing activists in San Francisco's Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood tell a similar story. As one activist who works in Section-Eight public housing explained:
Knocking on doors is a basic part of organizing, right? And in some of the projects where we work -- not all, but some -- our staff or volunteers are scared to go out and knock on doors. I mean, I've had bottles and rocks thrown at me when I ride through some of these projects. And with the residents it's the same: they live in constant fear of who is on the other side of the door.
He goes on to add:
I am not talking about your neighborhood thugs on the corner. In some of these projects you've got crews that are into really heavy shit; activities that involve regularly killing people, organized crime stuff. A body was just dumped in one of these developments. And it's not just propaganda: there are units that have been taken over by some of the serious gangs for dealing. It's not a joke; people have got legitimate fears. 3
Other community activists from the same neighborhood relate similar stories of the corroding effect of crime on social bonds, as it creates chaos and sows fear, all of which undermine political organizing.

The whole drug scene creates mistrust. If you're a consumer, you're caught up in your addiction. You can't be responsible, go to meetings, and all that. If you're a dealer, you're busy getting that money and just trying to stay alive. Then the addiction and dealing lead to street crime: killing, robbing. So everybody else is scared to go out at night. 4

Beyond affecting "the community," crime damages family cohesion, a key element in rendering communities disorganized and politically docile. For example, consider the political implications of these comments from a 17-year-old gangster in Phoenix, Arizona, who talked about his relationship with his brother who lives across town and claims a different set:

It's crazy because we are like from different gangs; only me and my cousin are from the same gang. Like my brother, I always disrespect him because he's from Camelback and shit, they did a drive-by on my house and shit, and then he called me. I was like, "Fuck you, motherfucker, fuck your barrio and shit," and he was like, "Don't disrespect," and I was like, "Fuck you." That's the only thing bad about it if you decide to join the wrong gang.

In the same study, another youth commented on his relationship with his uncles:

They are from different gangs, though...but I don't care about them because they be trying to shoot at us all the time. My own uncle shot at me; one of them tried to kill me already, but that's alright (Zatz and Portillos, 2000: 46-47).

Communities fighting themselves have a difficult time fighting City Hall. More specifically, crime leads to a collapse in what social psychologists call "neighborhood social ties" -- the "glue which makes a collection of unrelated neighbors into a neighborhood" and therefore into a likely platform for community organization (Kuo et al., 1998). This dynamic has a spatial angle as well as the more obvious cultural/psychological ones. When community spaces are dominated by signs of neglect and anonymity, or have become dangerous, social relations soon decline as well. Common spaces are, in a very literal sense, the platform upon which communities and their movements are built.

The hard Right capitalizes on a similar point with its much-vaunted Broken Windows theory. For the Right, such signs of anomie and community dysfunction indicate a lack of social control. However, the Left could use evidence of crime's damage to neighborhood social ties in theorizing crime as auto-oppression, as social control, or as useful in reproducing capitalism and white supremacy.

Fear and social breakdown are not the only politically useful effects produced by street crime in poor and racially oppressed areas. Although crime -- particularly the drug trade -- scares some, it seduces others, siphoning off people who might otherwise become politically active. As one organizer put it: "We're competing with drugs for the same employees, if you will. People that we try to organize to demand social and economic justice are often pulled into the drag trade." 5 Many of the same folks soon get packed away to prison, or the morgue. As one Hunters Point activist put it: "If you've got a hassle, if you're in the game, you've got to keep your head down. You're compromised." Activists say this is particularly true vis-a-vis intimate and immediate oppressors such as private landlords, the housing authority, or HUD, while going down to City Hall is less frightening because it is a more anonymous conflict entailing less risk of retribution. A new federal policy called "one strike" makes this fear of political conflict true even for people who are only "involved" by association.

Since the early 1990s, automatic eviction is the fate of anyone living in public housing whose family member, or even guest, is arrested for selling or using drugs. In Oakland, the housing authority even tried to evict an elderly man whose homecare attendant was using drugs. Almost everyone in public housing thus lives with the constant threat of eviction and activists have noted that this has a definite chilling effect on resident activism, particularly when it comes to facing off against their housing authority landlords.

Crime absorbs activists and entire organizations as well. When crime is a pressing issue, community mobilization frequently focuses on "stopping the violence" rather than on broader questions of social justice and economic redistribution. Thus, the women who started groups like Mothers Against Gangs might have under different conditions started "Mothers Against Landlords."

The absorption effect of crime segues into the third, and perhaps most powerful, way in which crime operates as social control. That is by driving poor and working-class people into the arms of the state -- a state that through most of its policies cooperates with capital to exploit and marginalize the majority. Community activists in Los Angeles and the Bay Area mention, without prompting, that one of the first and most consistent demands from the impoverished communities in which they work is "more cops." Throughout California, the many racist, get-tough anticrime ballot propositions of the 1990s have received healthy support from poor and working-class people of color.

This final, doubly pernicious, angle on the issue is that nothing produces crime and violence like sending young people to prison. (Prison as a finishing school for criminals is one of the oldest and most consistent criticisms against that institution.) Thus, incarceration returns us to square one: it helps produce the predator class that frightens and disorganizes potentially rebellious communities.

In recent years, residents in some public housing projects have organized to address crime, but the "solutions" have only made things more difficult for organizers. Most anticrime measures have involved poorly paid and trained security guards who are ultimately unaccountable to the residents.

As the housing activist explains: "The private security are scared, they're not gonna mess with the West Mob or Big Block [two infamous gangs in Hunters Point]. So they just stay in their security booths all night. And then to look proactive they start harassing people for little stuff." Picking on "easy targets" can go as far as summary evictions. Inevitably, say activists, the very residents who worked to bring in private security are targeted by those forces. The result is more fear, further demoralization, and further militarization.

If private security doesn't work, what about the police? East New York offers a particularly chilling example of what this can mean. Activists and residents interviewed by the press said that cops from the local precinct -- shown by the 1994 Mollen Commission to be massively corrupt -- were never there when needed. When they did arrive, they acted like an occupying army, treating everyone with massive contempt. As a result, East New York was like a war zone. Between the waves of police occupation, the neighborhood was under siege by many of its own youth who, driven by racism and poverty, had plunged headlong into the lethal front lines of the drug trade. Thus, fear comes in waves, one wearing uniforms, one not.

Whatever this analysis of crime as social control may mean for shaping a left response to crime, one thing is certain: community power and empowerment are at the heart of any real anticrime agenda. Thus, the pro-peace culture emerging among urban youth of color should be embraced not just as a marketable, hip niche for nonprofits to embrace, but as an example of anticrime measures rooted in popular power. Likewise, police accountability should be constructed not simply as a human rights issue, but as an anticrime issue. Police will be effective at deactivating and preventing violence when they are accountable, and that will only happen when they are subject to the sorts of radically democratic structures of community control that were proposed in the 1970s in the Bay Area and other regions. (Those plans called for community-elected local "police councils," an elected police commission, and a recall process for officers who abused their power. Officers were also required to live within their "police districts.")

As many community organizers are already doing, we might articulate the struggle for public services and community economic development (such as sanitation, street maintenance, housing, rehabilitation, education, and health care) as anticrime measures. During the Clinton era, just the opposite was true: policing was dressed up as "community development." Community Development Block Grants were even handed over to cops in a few cities. We need the opposite.

One could also imagine the proliferation of unarmed, preventive, locally organized forms of community safety, such as escort services for the elderly and peace patrols trained -- not to be the state's "eyes and ears" or vigilantes -- but to intervene and defuse tense situations through mediation. In addition, community-controlled "target hardening," like adequate streetlights and the removal of abandoned cars, should be worked into broader left strategies of mobilization, self-determination, and economic justice. It is not enough to get good lighting; rather, the whole question of crime control should be increasingly subordinated to a political discourse of community development. (It is noteworthy that such grassroots anticrime activities have often been directly attacked by the police.)

The discussion of crime control is currently so poisonous and monopolized by the Right as to taint any contemplation of a left response to crime. Yet a realistic (not realist) approach to crime from the Left must be fashioned. This approach must particularly take into account that imprisonment causes crime and thus argue against the overuse of incarceration.


1. Interview, with Michael Green, Field Organizer, Housing Rights Committee Organizer, 2000.

2. Interview with Mel Grizer, executive director, United Community Centers, 1995.

3. Rob Eshelman, Housing Rights Committee, 2000.

4. Interview with Michael Green.

5. Interview with Carlos Fresco, organizer, United Community Centers, 1995.


Cummins, Eric

1994 The Rise and Fall of California's Radical Prison Movement. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Foucault, Michel

1980 Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon.

Kuo, Frances E., William C. Sullivan, Rebekah Levine Coley, and Liesette Brunson

1998 "Fertile Ground for Community: Inner-City Neighborhood Common Spaces." American Journal of Community Psychology 26,6 (December 1).

Terry, Don

1990 "Bronx Clash with Police Angers Citizen's Patrol." New York Times (September 12).

Zatz, Marjorie S. and Edwardo L. Portillos

2000 "Voices from the Barrio: Chicano/a Gangs, Families, and Communities." Criminology 38,2 (May 1).

CHRISTIAN PARENTI is the author of Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (New York, Verso: 2000).

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