The Corner

Bad Signs

Though I’ve been thinking about New York this week — my series on the “fate” of this city ends today (here) — I had a thought about a much smaller city. Let me share this thought, here on the Corner.

When I was growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich., there was a common sign: “Prosecutors Will Be Violated.” It was a response to a sign that appeared in some stores: “Violators Will Be Prosecuted.” Here’s how it worked, now that I think about it: Someone would see the sign “Violators Will Be Prosecuted.” He would cross out the word “Violators” and put “Prosecutors” above it; then he would cross out the word “Prosecuted” and put “Violated.” So he made “Prosecutors Will Be Violated.”

That sign — that product of vandalism — sums up a mindset.

Hard as it may be for some to believe, crime was thought of almost as social rebellion — as a protest against “society” and injustice. A protest against capitalism, racism, Vietnam, the Man, what have you. Law enforcement and policing were oppressive. If crime was not quite hailed, it was definitely excused.

The mindset I observed in Ann Arbor affected bigger and greater cities too — outstandingly, New York. Is the man who’s set to be New York’s next mayor, Bill de Blasio, given to this mindset? I bet he was, back when he was rooting for the Sandinistas and the Castros and so on. (Is he still?) But what does he think now, about crime and punishment?

It is well-known that many intellectuals moved from left to right owing to the Democrats’ shift on foreign policy: a shift from Truman to McGovern, from JFK to EMK (Teddy), from Scoop Jackson to Jesse Jackson. But these intellectuals shifted over such issues as crime as well. They recoiled against the mindset I’ve described. You remember Irving Kristol’s definition of a neoconservative: “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”

As I say at the end of my series, the people will decide their fate, as they tend to do in a democracy. It may be that the city will go to the dogs again — descend once more into unlivability. It doesn’t take much: a “squeegee man” here, a turnstile-jumper there, a graffiti “artist” here, a “Wild Man of 96th Street” there. Pretty soon, the barbarians are back in business.

The Wild Man of 96th Street? His name was Larry Hogue. He doesn’t live here anymore. But he could. In 1990, there were 2,262 murders in New York, which came to more than six a day. Last year, after Giuliani-Bloomberg pacification, there were 414 — the fewest since 1928. If we let things go bad again, the people will probably turn, as before, to a Rudy. But it should not have to take that.

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