08/19/2014 02:42 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2014

Time to Fix the Real "Broken Windows"

On Saturday August 23, 2014 I will join the "March for Justice for Victims of Police Brutality" in Staten Island, New York. Its sponsors include the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the NAACP, United Health Care Workers Local 1199, and the National Action Network. As a retired New York City teacher, I will be marching with the UFT delegation.

The march is an immediate response to the death of Eric Garner while being arrested by a team of New York City police officers. Garner, an African American man aged 43, was suspected of selling individual cigarettes known as "loosies" to passers-by on the street near where he lived in Staten Island. Video of the arrest showed Garner grabbed by a white police officer from behind using an illegal "chokehold." In the video, Garner, who suffered from asthma, repeatedly told police officers and emergency medical technicians that he could not breathe. The video appears to show that they ignored his pleas which led to his death.

The death of Garner while being arrested took on national significance days later when another unarmed African American male, Michael Brown, age 18, was killed by a white police officer, this time in a suburb of St. Louis. Brown was supposedly stopped for obstructing traffic, but the charges and the events that followed, do not excuse what happened to him. A private autopsy conducted by the former medical examiner of New York City found he was shot at least six times, including twice in the head.

These police actions, and scores of others, have been justified by a theory, first advanced in the 1980s but popularized in the 1990s called the "Broken Window." According to this theory, maintaining public order by fixing broken windows (i.e. stopping small victimless crimes) ultimately maintains public order and prevents more serious criminal activity. The theory's principle proponent, Professor George Kelling, who is affiliated with the right-wing Manhattan Institute and is a consultant to the New York City police department, claims, "If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken." Former and current New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton has long been an advocate of this vigorous, some say unforgiving, approach to policing.

I actually like the "broken window" theory, which is one reason I am marching on August 23, I just think the theory is being seriously misapplied. It is long past time to fix the real broken windows in our society that have victimized many but especially African American men. The real "broken windows" that need to be fixed are substandard, overcrowded housing and homeless, unemployment, underemployment, and dead-end minimum wage jobs, and urban schools that warehouse many minority children, sort them out, and feed a school-to-prison pipeline.

The deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown are the end product of decades of federal, state, and local budget cuts and policies that blame the poor for their poverty. New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has repeatedly argued that United States governments on all levels have mistakenly followed austerity proposals leading to slow economic growth, infrastructure decay, and unnecessarily high rates of unemployment when they should be spending money to promote growth and fixing the "broken windows."

One of the worst "broken windows" in the United States that desperately needs fixing is public housing, which is actually better than much of the private housing stock reserved for working class and poor families. In New York City more than 400,000 people live in one of the New York City Housing Authority's 334 housing projects, almost all of which were built before 1970. Many of the apartments have more than one family or large extended families unofficially living together. Nearly all of these people are poor. Another quarter of a million families are on the waiting list for an apartment. Meanwhile, as a result of shrinking government investment, the Housing Authority has a $77 million budget deficit this year alone and unfunded long-term repair bills that will require $18 billion in spending. This includes repairing roofs on buildings where entire floors of apartments are now unoccupiable.

A result of the failure to invest in infrastructure is high rates of unemployment, especially for inner city minority youth. In a February 2014 PBS interview, Nela Richardson, a Senior Economist for Bloomberg News, detailed the disproportionate impact of unemployment. According to Richardson, there is a "doubling of the unemployment rate between blacks and whites at every educational level and it's particularly dramatic when you look at the youth population." Studies show that

African American youth tend to be employed in sectors that are very business cycle sensitive. So when the general economy is doing bad, that sector gets worse and it's worse for this particular population... One in every four black youth ages 16 to 25 is unemployed right now. So it's a huge problem, but it's not only a problem for the present, it's a problem for the future. How you start out as a young worker, how you enter the labor market, determines your future earnings potential. If you're blocked out of opportunities now, you may be blocked out for a life time.

This is a "broken window" that desperately needs to be fixed if the United States is serious about equal opportunity but also about preventing crime. Young people who have jobs have possibilities in their lives and do not turn to petty crime.

Another area that contributes to broken windows and disrespect for law is the lawlessness in prisons, not by the inmates, but by the prison guards. The United States attorney in Manhattan recently charged the New York City Department of Correction with systematically violating the civil rights of male teenagers held at its Rikers Island facility by failing to protect them from brutal and illegal treatment by correction officers. The federal attorney described it as a "deep-seated culture of violence" supported by a "powerful code of silence." I recommend an excellent online exposé on the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline on African American youth, "Sending Kids to Prison," prepared by Susan Modaress of Inside Out in cooperation with the Incarcerated Nation Campaign.

These are the reasons, as well as the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, that I will march in Staten Island on August 23.

Post It Note: I confess I have misgivings about marching with Reverend Al Sharpton of the National Action Network and MSNBC. Sharpton is always quick to jump in front of television cameras and he uses crises and social problems to promote himself. But racism, inequality, police brutality, and the breakdown of essential social services in the United States are too important to leave to him. I will march because it is well past time to fix the real broken windows in New York City and the United States.