The version of New York City that Eric Adams and Andrew Cuomo described at their joint presser on Wednesday should be familiar to anyone who watched President Trump’s inauguration speech, or the decades of tough-on-crime posturing that inspired it. Theirs was a more restrained account of a city in decline than his, not quite a vision of “American carnage.” But its dystopian contours and hyperbole made the same point: The Big Apple, like most big cities, was in the fast lane to hell — a once-great metropolis careening toward mobocracy.
Cuomo, New York’s governor, lamented a “general sense of lawlessness in the city,” made all the more alarming because residents and businesses that had decamped during the pandemic are debating a return, and they don’t like what they see. “Look at the number of people who don’t have confidence in this city,” he said, “who are saying, ‘I’m not ready to come back, I’m afraid to take the subways … [or] go to the restaurant, I’m afraid I might be assaulted by a mentally ill homeless person.’”
Adams, who won the Democratic mayoral primary last week, spun tales of retaliatory gang shootings, dirt bikes speeding down sidewalks, “a 13-year-old baby assassinated in the Bronx,” a toddler murdered in Times Square, and a day at Washington Square Park with his son where “someone sitting next to us injected themselves with heroin.”
Both men claimed that these problems have been “ignored” by the public because the lion’s share of victims are “Black and brown and poor.” And both said these dilemmas are largely caused by, and should be addressed by reversing, lax policing and inadequate rates of imprisonment. “There is a lack of fear of being caught with a gun,” said Adams. “Our judges are not giving bail on cases where they are allowed to give bail.”
How this plays out in a likely Adams administration will become clearer with time. But we’ve seen what happens when this kind of rhetoric gets deployed, and can reasonably predict its implications, especially for the people whose supposedly long-neglected suffering it claims to be addressing.
The truth is that society has never really “ignored” the violence that degrades everyday life in many poor, Black, and brown neighborhoods. On the contrary, these horrors are routine fodder for demagoguery. They are deployed often to rationalize racial disparities in arrest and imprisonment rates; to justify white people’s opposition to the racial integration of schools and housing; to help certain politicians get elected; and to dismiss concerns about police brutality. They are proof, for many Americans, that Black people in particular are not just innately dysfunctional, but contagiously so, and as a protective measure must be isolated and contained.
It’s more accurate to say the attitudes that get misconstrued as neglect are often just unseriousness. American society has chosen to address this kind of violence by throwing the police at it. Some officials and voters have flirted with more robust investment in social welfare, only to stop well short of what’s necessary, rarely relinquishing the idea that, at the end of the day, these problems are best solved using a badge, a gun, some handcuffs, and a lot of cages.
There’s no denying that New Yorkers are worried about crime. It’s also true that people’s perceptions of crime rates are usually inflated, a fact that is more acutely the case with New York than most other places. Despite recent upticks in shootings and murders in the city, the rates of both are still below the national average. Last month’s shooting and murder rates were lower than during the same month in 2020. Last year’s recorded homicide numbers were lower than in all but nine of the last 30 and, for the most part, vastly lower.
Casting this as a hellscape has clear benefits. Trump invoked “carnage” to rationalize a doctrine of punishment at a time of historically low crime rates. Adams and Cuomo are responding to more earnest concerns, but they’re also telling New Yorkers a story that exaggerates how bad things are. The fact that crime is still lower than the norm may not be very consoling to someone whose child was just killed, but the hysteria being manufactured by New York’s leadership misleads everyone else to feel desperate. And people who feel desperate tend to be more easily convinced to think short-term, embrace punitive policy, and vote for people like Adams, who say they’ll make things better by reinvesting in the police.
Neither man mentioned, of course, the degree to which his own actions or ideas might be culpable in people’s unfavorable perceptions of New York. Adams has proffered a revival of “stop and frisk,” which in its previous iteration frayed Black and brown New Yorkers’ relationship to their government. Despite his performance of über-competence, Cuomo played a central role in New York’s staggering COVID death rate and the dire state of the subway system he now complains about people being “afraid” to ride.
A reporter on Wednesday asked the governor and the presumptive new mayor if it was fair to say they wanted more people to get arrested and put in jail. Adams responded that he never said that. Cuomo criticized the framing. “That type of question, the way you posed it, is part of the problem,” he said. “That’s what makes the dialogue oppositional.”
Both men went on to explain, however, why they thought more people should get locked up who are purportedly not being locked up under the neglectful status quo. And they did this by laying out a hard and fast contrast. “Jail should be for violent criminals,” said Adams. “Not for people who did not get the opportunities they deserved.” It’s not such a clear-cut distinction. Adams himself made an impassioned case for a more “holistic” approach to criminal justice using an anecdote from when he was a cop. In his story, an 11-year-old boy was being held in the precinct after his “third robbery carrying a gun” — by almost any legal measure, a “violent crime” committed by a “violent criminal.”
“I talked to that young person, when he was in the juvenile room, to learn that he was raising himself, his mother was on crack, his dad was incarcerated, and … he was out of school for a whole year,” Adams said. “And there was no indicator. No one notified anyone that this baby was out of school. So when that child gets that gun and commits that crime, there was already a crime that took place in every agency in the city that was supposed to identify and protect him.”
The more useful scenario to ponder is whether imprisoning this child would help him or harm him further. Misleading dichotomies, like Adams’s between predators and undeserving victims, are the essence of American law enforcement. There’s little room for gray. You either did a bad thing or you didn’t. You deserve punishment or you do not. He and Cuomo hinted at a desire to offset this messiness through “prevention” — “with employment, with support, with mental-health professionals,” in Adams’s words. We’ll see. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society also birthed a world-historic imprisonment boom.
We are, by now, well-versed in the violent authoritarianism of policing and its staunch resistance to accountability, change, and checks on its power. We are familiar with politicians who forge coalitions out of fear, who point to violence in Black and brown and poor communities, claim to want to save them, and flood them with cops. To the degree that it resolves anything, this approach has been effective at mollifying constituencies that are more valued than those being targeted — the “tax base” that Adams and Cuomo fear will abandon the city if it’s perceived as being too lawless, and that often interpret crackdowns on already besieged neighborhoods as crucial to reinstating order.
Maybe that’s the point. But it’s a vision of New York’s future that residents should be wary of, especially those its purveyors claim to want to rescue.