Return to Fear City

Crime is low. Panic is high. This is not an accident.

Return to Fear City
Local news media coverage of crime isn't driven by the numbers, but it is driving public fear. (Video still: Eyewitness News ABC7NY)

By the time the 1936 cult classic "Reefer Madness" hit whatever people considered to be the big screen back then, marijuana panic had become a mainstay of U.S. political agitation.

As of 1931, cannabis was illegal in 29 states, largely on the strength of poorly realized pseudoscience and garbage medical research suggesting that it triggered violent tendencies and psychosis—a medical varnish to what was fundamentally a racial anxiety. A 1925 New York Times headline memorably encapsulates this underlying consternation: "Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife."

We know now that no one was ever driven to bloodthirst by smoking weed. Yet the random anecdotes of dubious provenance and the growing daily news industry that hyped them up would set off a real shift in opinion, from weed being something that had barely registered in the public consciousness a couple decades earlier to an existential social emergency. The hysteria was essentially feeding off of itself, like a nuclear chain reaction, set off by grifters and demagogues in search of power and profit before it just kept growing and expelling massive amounts of easily harnessed moralistic energy.

For all our unfathomable new technologies, social advances, and deeply stupid cultural shifts in the nine decades since, we haven’t changed all that much. Here we find ourselves again, gripped by frenzy and ravenous for punishment, slurping down the same warmed-over fictions from new generations of instigators warning darkly of a collapsing social order. These days, the vehicle for our impending demise isn't cannabis, but retail theft, gun violence, or the existence of homeless people on the subway.

Let's be straight up for a moment: The incidences of the seven index felonies New York City uses as a marker of general serious crime are down dramatically, not just from the chaotic days of the early '90s, but from even the mid-2000s, the era when swaths of the city and the United States as a whole were about ready to canonize Rudy Giuliani for having solved crime. The likelihood that an average New Yorker will fall victim to a violent crime remains vanishingly low, certainly far lower than the likelihood that they will fall victim to a reckless driver, an unscrupulous employer stealing their wages, landlord harassment, or any of the government-sanctioned catastrophes waiting in the wings to befall the already beaten down: massive rent increases, collapsing transit infrastructure, police harassment.

You certainly wouldn't know this from the tenor of much of the coverage in local news outlets, salivating as they are over the prospect of a new urban decay to chronicle and bringing pictures of seized weapons to a press conferences with the messianic Mayor Eric Adams so that he can hold them up and promise to deliver us from evil with the power of police omnipresence and the technological panopticon. Almost no public policy is now announced without some nexus to the ubiquitous public safety conversation, and the surveillance and carceral solutions we are told it demands.

Just yesterday, the NYPD released new citywide crime statistics showing a 38 percent decrease in homicides and 29 percent drop in shooting incidents this April, compared to the same period last year. Sexual assaults were down, too. Yet the headline seems to be "crime wave continues" because robberies, burglaries, and grand larceny were up. Some percentage of these are the now-notorious chain pharmacy robberies that have local news frothing at the mouth, crimes whose main victims are insurance specialists who have to skip lunch and go through CVS's claims paperwork. Reflected through the dark mirror of local media, to step outside in New York City today is to walk into a scene of lawless street mayhem pulled from 1994's "The Crow." That story isn't real. But the fear it engenders is.

The May 5, 2022 Cover of the New York Daily News which reads in part "Living in Fear: Poll finds subway and street crime rattles New Yorkers as mayor's approval slips"
Thursday's cover of the New York Daily News

In a Quinnipiac poll of New York City voters released Wednesday, crime far outstripped everything else as the issue of main concern, with 49 percent of voters saying it was the most urgent problem, followed by affordable housing at a distant 15 percent. Affordable housing, in New York, at a time when average rents have risen by one-third in the span of just a year. Despite his insistent focus on crime and his litany of doing-something antics, like homeless encampment sweeps that are failing to actually place most people in shelters, Adams is underwater on crime, with 54 percent of voters disapproving of his performance to only 37 approving—always a risk of setting off a reaction you can't truly control. It's safe to expect that the response will be to double down. The ex-cop mayor has staked his whole political persona on this, and he's in too deep to turn back now. That'll mean more cops, more stops, more people bundled off to Rikers.

In actuality, the surest way for a New Yorker to experience direct violence is to be arrested and sent to the ignoble gulag that is Rikers Island, our great offshore shame. In a surreal moment last week, as Adams was giving his public safety-heavy State of the City address—"Safety and justice are the prerequisite of prosperity. We cannot have a city where people are afraid to walk the streets, ride the subway, or send their children to school," he said in a representative tidbit—Judge Laura Taylor Swain of the Southern District of New York was holding a status conference in the case of Nuñez v. City of New York, the now over decade-old class action case challenging the chronic culture of violence at Rikers.

I watched Adams on my computer monitor decrying violence while on the phone I listened to the court-appointed federal monitor, assistant U.S. attorneys, and defense counsel express abject exasperation with his administration's lack of progress in safeguarding the safety of the people in its custody, despite spending substantially more than similarly complex jail systems. The mayor mentioned Rikers only once in his speech, to note that 80 percent of its incarcerated inhabitants lack a high school or equivalency diploma, promising to boost the city's education system. That's laudable, but it's unclear how diplomas are going to protect the incarcerated from a negligent and corrupt corrections workforce.

Here's something I really shouldn't have to say: I don't want people to be wantonly gunned down on our city streets. I don't want bigots to attack our Asian friends and neighbors, I don’t want people pushed onto subway tracks, or bodegas to be robbed, or people to die of fentanyl-laced drug overdoses. These are horrible things, things that we have a clear responsibility as a city to address. But to note that the hyper-punitive approach doesn’t seem to be working, to even suggest a focus on the upstream economic and social debasements that have destroyed the sense of civic belonging, is to invite charges of not caring about the city or its residents, of wanting people to be harmed.

It's easy to reach for that disingenuous high shelf because there definitely is a public mandate to take action against this perceived crime epidemic. But take a look at the operative word in that Adams quote: "People are afraid to walk the streets, ride the subway, or send their children to school." If they're afraid, it's because they've been led to that fear, cynically and deliberately, by media and political sleight-of-hand artists who find it more advantageous to scream about the symptom than to treat the cause.