Ferguson, New York, and the Criminalization of Poverty

Mike Brown was walking in the middle of the street when he was ordered to get on the sidewalk.

Eric Garner was selling dollar cigarettes on the street without collecting tax.

These minor crimes became the focus of police action, reflecting an approach to crime and policing that favors attacking petty crimes as a means of deterring major ones.

In Ferguson and New York, the consequences of this "broken windows" approach to policing were catastrophic, and they have rightly commanded world attention. The police response to Mike Brown and Eric Garner crystalizes the experience of many African-American men in communities across the country.

I think it also reflects the growing misuse of the criminal justice system to address deepening poverty and inequality in our country -- both closely related to race. The increasing criminalization of people experiencing homelessness -- an extreme form of poverty that disproportionately affects people of color -- is one example of this trend.

Indeed, homeless people were among the first targets of the broken windows theory, as implemented in the early 1990s by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Their crimes included sleeping, sitting, and eating in public places -- despite the lack of housing or even shelter.

Often called "quality of life" measures, laws criminalizing such basic acts of human survival are intended to improve the lives of those fortunate enough to have a home by protecting them from having to encounter destitution in their midst. Ironically the quality of the lives of those most directly affected is not included in this term.

Since then, the criminalization of homelessness and poverty has only grown. According to a report released last month by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, citywide ordinances making it a crime to sleep in public rose by 60 percent since 2011 -- even though there is a severe shortage of affordable housing and shelter.

This misuse of the criminal justice system to address a social problem sends a message that some lives matter less than others. In fact, according to a recent report by the National Coalition for the Homeless, violence against homeless people -- including lethal violence -- is also up.

The images from Ferguson of a militarized police force were frightening but apt reminders of the war being waged against poor, homeless, minority Americans -- who are increasingly shut out of decent living conditions, education, and opportunity. Increasingly, the justice system too works against the poor who, typically without access to legal counsel, are often trapped in a cycle of fines they cannot pay, that turn into warrants for their arrest, that turn into jail time and criminal convictions that further dim their chances of employment and housing.

As inequality continues to dramatically increase, these are the consequences on the ground. It's not only about race. It's also about the deeper inequality for which race often serves as a proxy and with which it is inextricably linked. Addressing this underlying injustice is essential.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted with US leadership after World War II, includes this passage:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

By this standard, we are failing. Federal funding for affordable housing has been cut by over 50 percent since 1978, and the minimum wage is increasingly inadequate. In no U.S. jurisdiction can a minimum wage worker afford a one bedroom apartment. For many low-income Americans, not only are the windows broken, the whole house is missing. Deploying the police won't fix that.

But the standard also offers a way forward: a vision of a world where the basic social contract is intact, where everyone contributes and everyone's life is valued. It's a standard of basic human rights and human dignity. It's a standard that the United States led the way on over 60 years ago.

War has victors and vanquished. But who will be the winners and losers here? People of conscience must unite behind a positive vision for our country and our future.