For decades, a 50-block area in downtown Los Angeles known as Skid Row has been a hub for shelters and social services for homeless and extremely poor people, the majority of them Black. Now, amid rapid-fire gentrification of the downtown area, city leaders have implemented a police crackdown on Skid Row that has resulted in the harassment, arrest and displacement of thousands of poor people of color.
The LAPD’s “Safer Cities Initiative,” launched on Skid Row last summer, is based on the “broken windows” theory of law enforcement, which holds that small signs of “disorder” (graffiti, broken windows, people hanging out on the sidewalk) invite more serious crimes to a neighborhood and should be eliminated. Critics of the theory note its historical use to justify law-enforcement crackdowns on members of marginalized communities—especially poor people of color—who are disproportionately targeted for petty crimes. “‘Broken windows’ gets couched in this almost-neutral language about ‘signs of disorder’,” says Kristian Williams, author of a history of modern U.S. policing called Our Enemies in Blue, “but the things that get counted as ‘signs of disorder’ tend to be signs of poverty. What the theory is doing is reading poverty as disorder and using those ‘signs of disorder’ as an excuse to bring additional police attention and additional sanctioning to areas where poor people live.” Since the summer of 2006, there have been more than 6,000 arrests in Skid Row, an area with a population of 10,000 to 15,000 people (about 4,000 of whom are homeless) on any given night. More than 100 new officers have been assigned to the neighborhood in the past year, so that now police officers on foot, in patrol cars, on bicycles and mounted on horses are a near-constant presence. Deborah Burton, who lives in subsidized housing in the neighborhood, said she has been stopped while simply walking down the street by police who ask, “Are you on parole or probation?” In April, a federal district judge ruled that the LAPD has engaged in a policy of unconstitutional searches of Skid Row residents.
“We’re not just talking about folks that are homeless,” says Pete White, codirector of the Skid Row-based Los Angeles Community Action Network. “We’re talking about any Black resident or any Black visitor in downtown Los Angeles. If they’re not looking a certain way that day, they could be stopped, handcuffed and harassed.” In the face of this, many people have relocated to other neighborhoods, farther away from social services. James Hundley, who coordinates a needle-exchange program at the Skid Row site of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles, says that he has seen a decrease of about 30 percent in the number of people accessing their services since Safer Cities started. In the last year, he has also seen his site’s client population go from majority Black to majority white. “The people that were accessing the services,” he says, “are afraid to come in. If they come into the area, they’re gonna be harassed. If they’re not in the area, how can they access the services?”
Longtime residents and community organizers see what is happening on Skid Row as an extreme example of what is happening in cities across the United States: as predominantly white middle- and upper-middle-class people find urban centers increasingly desirable places to live, gentrification displaces lower-income communities of color. Policing strategies such as “broken windows” are often used to facilitate gentrification, resulting not only in displacement but increased incarceration of poor people of color. “Nationally,” says White, “we need to look at these hot spots, where hard-fought civil rights are being undermined by development, and liberal politicos are turning a blind eye.”