Eric Adams’s Moral Panics
To defeat a politics of right-wing reaction organized around criminalization, the left needs to put real power behind the principle of abolition.
An officer patrols the 36th St. subway station on Wednesday, April 13th.
According to most coverage of New York City’s 2021 Democratic mayoral primary, Eric Adams won by identifying rising crime and diminishing safety as the primary sites of voters’ dissatisfaction, and by answering their fears with appeals to increase the powers of the state’s repressive agencies. In this telling, Adams not only rallied the law-and-order bloc that had previously swept mayors like Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani into power, but also brought into the fold the outer-borough Black and Latino residents who voted for his campaign en masse—the very working-class Black and brown communities on behalf of whom the activist left aims to speak when it advocates dismantling those same repressive state forces. Mainstream media outlets from Reuters to The New York Times portrayed Adams’s ascent in the final weeks of the campaign as nearly inevitable, emphasizing voters’ anxieties about crime, Adams’s credentials as a former police officer, and his campaign’s targeted attacks on the movement to defund the city’s police department. Many self-identified leftists staked out a similar line: Ross Barkan asserted that “the Black working-class and poor . . . want, largely, better and fairer policing, not the absence of it”—a position neatly in line with Adams’s own.
According to this point of view, Adams simply responded to the pre-existing needs and desires of a solid, stable political majority—needs and desires that the left, overinflated by the energies of the George Floyd rebellion, badly misjudged. What this view fails to understand is that, as Stuart Hall argued after the 1987 victory of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives, “politics does not reflect majorities, it constructs them.” People of all classes and places feel keenly the effects of the present and its crises—economic, viral, ecological—including both real and imagined dangers in public space. But it’s not a given that the blame for these crises should fall on individuals who can be marked off as dangerous and deserving of state violence, rather than on the wealthy and powerful people, and apathetic political institutions, that have inflamed the crises in the first place. In order to forge common sense around increasing repressive state capacity, pro-criminalization forces have had to constantly construct and reinforce a mass, collective understanding of the problem and its solution: Crime and the supposedly dangerous, isolated individuals who engage in it on the one hand; expanded state violence on the other.
In his first chaotic months as mayor, Adams has emphasized criminalization as a solution to violence. He has announced his intention to double down on solitary confinement in the city’s jails, fiercely advocated for the rollback of the state’s 2019 bail reform law, flooded the subways with police to disturb people who are sleeping on trains and arrest those suspected of jumping turnstiles, and presented unrelated, spectacular acts of violence, like the gruesome, highly-publicized murders of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee, in the form of a pattern that can only be disrupted by increasing the state’s capacity to arrest and detain. In response to the April 12th mass shooting in the 36th St. station in Sunset Park, Adams promised to double the numbers of police officers in the subways, despite the fact that police were already present in the station when the shooting took place. In concrete terms, Adams’s acquisition of a bully pulpit ensures that millions of people in New York see clips every day of his press conferences calling for bail reform rollbacks, or read headlines in The Daily News that follow his lead in offering policing as a solution to apparently escalating violence.
If we believe that policing and incarceration are foremost among the sources of dispossession and violence in the lives of Black, brown, and poor New Yorkers, what do we do under these circumstances to free people from cages, diminish state capacity to arrest and brutalize, provide people with the tools, structures, and resources they need for livable lives, and block the forms of reaction that Adams is attempting to generate?
It is of critical importance that Adams’s process of producing the common sense of criminalization is both unfinished and contestable. One demonstration of that fact comes from last spring’s primaries themselves. Several districts that Adams carried, sometimes by 20, 30, or 50 points, voted for candidates with left-wing, anti-criminalization—and even outright abolitionist—politics to represent them on city council. These candidates frequently carried not only the same council districts as Adams, but the same election districts as well (election districts are the small geographically-linked subdivisions that make up larger legislative districts). This means that at least some of the same constituencies who voted for a law-and-order candidate for mayor also supported an anti-criminalization candidate for city council. Looking at the returns from Astoria Houses, a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) development in western Queens and the only ED in its council district that voted for Adams, the writer Matt Thomas concluded that the same voters backed Adams and DSA-endorsed council candidate Tiffany Cabán, who in 2019 ran for Queens DA on an explicitly decarceral platform. Thomas argued that both Adams and Cabán had established trust, via relational organizing and name recognition, with the residents of Astoria Houses. The same could be said, to varying degrees, of the other leftist and left-liberal councilmembers who carried the same districts as Adams: Sandy Nurse in Bushwick and Cypress Hills, Chi Ossé in Bed-Stuy, Kristin Richardson Jordan in Harlem, Carmen de la Rosa in Inwood, Rita Joseph in Flatbush, Mercedes Narcisse in Canarsie, and Charles Barron in East New York and Brownsville. These results point to opposite paths forward for the city and its residents, and challenge the common sense according to which Adams is said to be carrying forward the pre-existing agendas of the city’s working-class communities of color.
Since 2018, electoral and anti-criminalization organizing have often polarized the left, like flakes of iron clinging to opposite ends of a magnet.
These divided results suggest that abolitionists working in New York City have a significant and perhaps unexpected resource in the socialist electoral project. I say unexpected because since 2018, electoral and anti-criminalization organizing have often polarized the left, like flakes of iron clinging to opposite ends of a magnet: Organizing against police and prisons is frequently understood as a project of the left wing of the left, while the socialist electoral project attracts energy on the left’s right wing. In 2021, as candidates and ballot measures that sought to constrain the power of policing met with mixed results in electoral contests, the tensions between these positions sometimes escalated: On journalist Doug Henwood’s podcast, Meagan Day, a staff writer for Jacobin, used the low poll favorability numbers for defunding the police to argue that the socialist left’s emphasis on this program was a strategic miscalculation; in the final months of her ultimately unsuccessful 2021 campaign for mayor of Buffalo, India Walton seemed to arrive at the same conclusion, backing off of her vocal opposition to the city’s use of violent policing.
But the two projects are not necessarily or ultimately in competition with one another, and under the right circumstances each can reinforce the other. In a sense, I am proposing a test of the inside-outside strategy, a method in which organizers build power both inside and outside state apparatuses with an eye to achieving radical demands. Organizers using this strategy outline a program of non-reformist reforms—alterations to a political system that aim not to fix or adjust that system but rather to lay the groundwork for its transformation—and elect members of their organization into legislative office on that platform; once elected, those members translate the demands into concrete legislative proposals, policy positions, and political stances that carry the weight of legitimacy. Legitimacy may in fact be the most important contribution the inside-outside strategy can make to the cause of abolition, frequently written off as a foolish, utopian, or unstrategic stance. It is not foolish to believe that people should not be forced to live in cages, should have access to the things they need rather than a municipal army of cops to contain the effects of dispossession, and should be free of the threat of being harassed, beaten, or murdered by police—and socialist legislators can offer legitimacy to these direly realist demands.
The transition to Adams’s administration from Bill de Blasio’s recalls the transfer of power, nearly 30 years before, from David Dinkins to Rudy Giuliani: a rightwing swerve after a period of dispiriting liberal compromise. In his essay “Giuliani Time,” the late geographer Neil Smith referred to Giuliani’s New York as the “revanchist city”; revanchism, he argued, combined “reaction with revenge,” encouraging middle- and ruling-class whites to “take back” the city from the unruly working-class populations—people of color, immigrants, the unhoused, squatters, people living with HIV/AIDS—who supposedly stole it from them in the first place. Giuliani supplemented his particular version of class war with thinly disguised racial euphemisms for the targets of his legal and extralegal terror, and throughout his administration, an uninhibited, highly-resourced, and newly data-oriented police department was instrumental in achieving revanchist political aims. Giuliani’s police commissioner, Bill Bratton, piloted the now-infamous strategy of “broken windows policing,” which enacted a zero-tolerance policy toward low-level infractions, arresting and brutalizing people who hopped turnstiles, tagged buildings, washed windows on highways for spare change, littered, or drank in public.
In many ways, Adams is a product of Giuliani’s and Bratton’s NYPD; indeed, not surprisingly, the latter was a vocal supporter of Adams’s candidacy. The current mayor has repeatedly advocated for a return to broken windows policing, as well as the return of stop-and-frisk and the introduction of community policing programs so neighbors can better spy on each other—a tactic he launders as “precision policing.” But Adams is also a self-described “reformer” who has attempted to take advantage of the political energies of the Black Lives Matter movement, portraying his candidacy as continuous with that movement rather than as a reaction against it. He regularly cites his own experience of police violence—as a teenager, he was beaten so badly by cops that, in his account, he “pissed blood for a week.” He talks frequently about the advocacy work he undertook from within the NYPD in the 1990s as part of the activist group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. He also varies the reliable law-and-order political script by slipping confidently into a specifically liberal register of racial justice and representation. For example, at a press conference in December 2021, Adams announced his appointment of Louis Molina as Department of Corrections commissioner by noting that “the overwhelming number” of people on Rikers—prisoners and correctional officers alike—“are Black and brown,” and asking: “How do we have a correctional facility that’s predominantly Black and Latino, and yet never had a Latino Commissioner?” This type of reasoning is typical for Adams: He appeals to a liberal sensibility about the meaning and content of racial justice, and uses it to justify one punitive crackdown after another on the people he says need to be incapacitated. If realized, his criminal justice platform will have destructively racist effects, under the watchful management of elites who claim community affiliation with the people they’re locking up.
In other words, Adams’s form of reaction both follows and departs from the pattern of the revanchism that Smith saw in Giuliani. Giuliani organized New York’s upper- and middle-class white residents into activist voters intent on “taking back” their city. Adams’s project, no less racist in its consequences, involves organizing working-class Black and brown New Yorkers around criminalization as a shared, positive political project, one they see as a solution to the real problems in their lives.
Adams’s project involves organizing working-class Black and brown New Yorkers around criminalization as a shared, positive political project, one they see as a solution to the real problems in their lives.
In 1978, Hall and his collaborators on Policing the Crisis, a landmark study of criminalization as a political solution to the crises of capitalism, described moral panic as “one of the principal forms of ideological consciousness by means of which a ‘silent majority’ is won over to the support of increasingly coercive measures on the part of the state.” Their observation applies perfectly to Adams. As a candidate, Adams promised to keep “bad people” from “doing bad things to good people.” It’s a simple, in fact reductive line, and if it resonated among potential voters, it did so in an echo chamber of mass propaganda about “rising crime.” Mainstream media of all kinds began to play up such fears early in the pandemic. By 2021, a year of propaganda had convinced 74% of people in the US that crime was rising, although in 2020 it had actually fallen. In New York City, though the murder rate rose in 2020—a fact that received extensive coverage—the NYPD’s own statistics bureau found that violent crime was down in general, and crime as a whole had dropped to “record lows.”
Against this backdrop, the Adams campaign attempted to turn outrage at isolated violent incidents into support for wide-ranging state repression. When a shooting took place in early May 2021 in Times Square—one of the most highly-surveilled and policed places in the world, with its own precinct located in the center of the plaza—Adams stressed that, as mayor, he would double down on support and funding for the NYPD. This policy proposal was a stark example of what the abolitionist organizer Rachel Herzing describes as the magical thinking that surrounds policing: The presence of visible and phenomenally well-resourced police in Times Square did nothing to prevent the shooting in the first place. But that didn’t stop Adams from invoking policing as the necessary, normal, and effective solution to the problem of violence.
In the first handful of months of his mayoralty, Adams has used the media spotlight to inflame panic after moral panic. The Sunset Park shooting gives him a new jumping-off point; before that, his focus was the unrelated, highly-publicized murders of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee. The object of the moral panic shifts constantly—gun violence, hate violence, unhoused people sleeping on subway cars, bail reform, visible poverty—but the answer is always the same: more power to police, judges, courts, and jail guards in order to produce a tamer public sphere. This process is meant to transform New Yorkers’ vague, general sense of being under threat in public and in their lives in general (in housing, employment, healthcare, and government services) into a large-scale manufactured consensus in support of punitive crackdowns.
The work performed by moral panic and its displacements is also apparent in the policies that Adams has implemented, or attempted to marshal support around, since taking office in January. At a joint press conference with New York Governor Kathy Hochul, Adams announced a series of new sweeps designed to remove apparently unhoused people from the subways. More recently, he has responded to incidents of violence by calling for the rollback of bail reform, insisting on the necessity of solitary confinement in the city’s jails, and defending the work of the so-called “Neighborhood Safety Teams”—beat-policing squads that patrol New York City streets—against accusations that he is simply policing poverty. In February, Adams brought back the notorious plainclothes unit of the NYPD that de Blasio disbanded in the summer of 2020, whose members were responsible for some the police department’s most notorious murders of civilians (Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Saheed Vassell). The return of the unit is just one element of Adams’s “Blueprint to End Gun Violence,” a proposal that is short on policy the city can actually implement, and long on advocacy for policies of criminalization that would have to be implemented by New York State or the federal government—which is to say that its aim has more to do with shaping public consciousness than with producing concrete changes.
The full effects of this project remain to be seen, but its goals are clear. By organizing people around criminalization, Adams is attempting both to neutralize some of those same populations that rebelled so vigorously in 2020, as they had previously done from 2014 through 2016, and to ensure that they are not activated as a political force capable of asserting demands and building power in a way that could actually interrupt his other plans—for instance, his proposals to increase support for charter schools, unleash a flood of private real estate development (“I am real estate,” Adams declared in May), and install an austerity budget on non-police city agencies. In this regard, organizing people around criminalization as a positive project is a strategy of disarticulation, in the sense that the historian of social movements Salar Mohandesi describes: an exercise in prying social forces apart from each other, and bringing them together only to bolster the state’s capacity to contain and suppress. If Adams’s boosters have written that the rise of a “blue-collar” Black mayor signals a shift in city power, his political program is ultimately intended to disorganize, and in fact disempower, the same people who voted for him in force, and whose interests he claims to represent.
Last year, I talked to a woman in western Queens who initially expressed uncertainty about defunding the police. Diane and I had seen each other a couple times before, on previous occasions when some friends and I had set up a table in a public area of her NYCHA complex. We sometimes saw her walking slowly to the grocery store down the street that ran through the complex. Along the way, her neighbors greeted her; she seemed to know a lot of people. One morning on a weekend in April, she came over to us for the first time. Diane, who looked like she was in her 60s, told us that she’d been a tenant in the complex for nearly 30 years, long enough to see her building fall further and further into disrepair. The elevator went out semi-regularly, forcing her to take the stairs—painfully, since she used a cane. Since the start of the pandemic, she said, trash pickup had slowed in the complex; she regularly saw rats running over the lawns. Eventually we started talking about the police as well. Diane identified with the Black Lives Matter protesters she had read about the summer before, but the relationship between the problems in her neighborhood and the police budget that activists wanted to see slashed and redistributed seemed pretty abstract to her until we mirrored back some of the things she’d been saying: that her publicly-owned building was in disrepair, the city was failing to care for her and her neighbors, and the police sitting in their squad cars down the block didn’t make her feel safer. What if the money the city spent on those squad cars instead went to fund reliable trash pickup, badly-needed repairs, and good jobs for her younger relatives? We have to get people talking about this, she said, raising her voice with a sense of outrage she hadn’t expressed before; it isn’t right.
Organizing on the “outside” means recognizing that the people best positioned to change their neighbors’ understanding of criminalization are not necessarily those already convinced of the abolitionist program. They may include people who know and have the trust of their neighbors, who’ve lived in their buildings for a long time and keep an eye on what happens on the block. Their willingness to embrace a political program can help pull along others who feel justified suspicion. In other words, organizers in this case, just like in other contexts, should look for and activate organic leaders, including leaders in the institutions—like faith organizations or tenant associations—around which communities are already organized. Even at scale, these organizing conversations look a lot like the one my friends and I had with Diane: gathering people together a few dozen at a time to talk about community needs, including the need for public safety.
At the same time, these outside conversations benefit from access to elected officials, who can host challenging exchanges. Legislative offices come with staff and financial support for constituent services, and some of their staffers have already developed organic relationships with trusted community members. Constituents may be used to seeing the electeds who form the “inside” track of the abolitionist program oppose state violence in the news—decrying conditions at a jail, for example, or denouncing an increase in the police budget. In fall 2021, local Defund campaign organizers used State Senator Julia Salazar’s office to meet with residents of a NYCHA complex in her Bushwick district. As in the housing complexes of western Queens, in Bushwick, working-class Black and Puerto Rican residents keenly feel the effects of managed decline and austerity budgets. They often talk about feeling unsafe in public spaces like parks and subways. Within this general and basically deserved atmosphere of distrust toward state institutions and personnel of all kinds, Salazar—who, at the time of her primary victory in July 2018, was the first socialist state legislator elected in the US in 80 years—is well-liked and trusted, especially as local elected officials go. Her office put us in touch with representatives from the local tenants association, who agreed to meet largely because they felt confident in that relationship.
At the beginning of the meeting, some older residents indicated that they saw a need for expanded policing around the parks and subways. At the same time, they expressed the sense that their needs were not being met: Street lamps in the housing complex burned out and were not replaced; their younger relatives couldn’t find good jobs. Others questioned whether police could actually solve those problems, or even the problems of violence that they’re supposed to suppress: A squad car parked on one corner might prevent anything from happening on that corner, but what about two blocks up? Police, the residents eventually agreed, were displacing, not answering, the real problems that they identified.
This form of organizing is designed to counter the community organizing that the police themselves engage in—for example, through police-sponsored athletic leagues for children or police-run meetings where, typically, homeowners demand greater surveillance of their poorer neighbors. It’s also designed to create feedback loops of popular support that allow electeds to stand on principle when aligning their colleagues against state violence, as an episode from this winter demonstrates. In December 2021, amid an ongoing humanitarian crisis at Rikers Island, Adams attempted to reinstate solitary confinement in NYC jails, announcing his intent to do so in the same terms of moral panic that he’s used on a near-daily basis as mayor: Solitary, in his words, is a “jail within the jail,” where “violent people” are held at the discretion of COs—whom he argued needed even more power to confine and control the people in their custody. Adams seems to have wagered on the impossibility, for opposing electeds, of staking out a position in favor of “violent people,” and perhaps even counted on vitriolic media coverage to discipline anyone who tried into silence. Nevertheless, Cabán—who won her primary and general elections with large majorities while running on an explicitly anti-carceral program—organized 28 of her colleagues into signing an open letter opposing the mayor’s position and agreeing with the position of the UN that solitary confinement is a form of torture.
Cabán’s stand was a reminder that movement electeds, accountable to and coming out of organizations that use the inside-outside strategy, are simply not subject to the same pressures and bullying tactics as other legislators, making it possible for them to demonstrate principle in a way that pushes others to do the same. (It’s relevant that mass consciousness has shifted significantly on solitary in the past half-decade, in ways Adams appears not to have accounted for: The widely-reported deaths of Kalief Browder and Layleen Polanco, and years of organizing against the practice, have redefined solitary as an unacceptable form of violence.) In the end, 29 councilmembers—a majority of the council—signed Cabán’s open letter opposing the mayor’s position and naming the practice as a form of torture. The mayor-elect pitched a tantrum over the letter at a press conference; by that evening, the speaker of the incoming council, Adrienne Adams (no relation to the mayor), had publicly opposed his position on local TV. At the time of writing, this conflict has not been resolved, although the support for Cabán’s letter indicates a legislative path to banning solitary in NYC jails. This particular fight demonstrates three facts: first, that it’s possible to stand up to Adams and his boosters on criminalization and force him to pick a different fight; second, that a principled and highly organized minority can shift the perspective of the majority, even when the headwinds of the moment are blowing in an ideologically opposite direction; and third, that the ability to stand on principle requires power.
Refusing to contest the project of criminalization and its ruinous consequences means leaving space for reactionaries to continue disorganizing potentially oppositional people and forces.
Aligning the socialist electoral project with an abolitionist program helps us to collectively develop that power. Anti-criminalization organizers have sometimes maintained strict distance from state officials who they fear, sometimes rightly, can co-opt the energy and demands of the movement for their own purposes. But suspicion of state power and its bearers can lead organizers to forgo resources in the form of power, funds, leverage over legislation and budgets, and badly needed legitimacy for radical demands. To contest and disarm state violence, we will at some point in every fight have to confront state institutions directly—through budget fights, non-reformist changes to legal codes, or the struggle to shutter old carceral institutions and prevent the construction of new ones. Abstaining from contests over state power guarantees in practice that, when those confrontations arise, radicals in the streets will have to compromise vision and direction by working with liberals in office, appealing to their consciences and trusting that they will be capable advocates for a movement with which they have tenuous connections, if any at all.
If I have one aim here, it’s to convince a reader who’s already persuaded to say “fuck the police” that power is precisely what we can’t afford to cede—particularly when the right has such explicit designs for the state and its repressive capacities. If I’ve got a second, it’s to persuade a reader who cares more about redistributive social programs than police violence that criminalization is a tool wielded by reactionaries and directed against the left in general: No form of politics has proved more capable of disarticulating people from one another. (To take one biting recent example: In 2021 the billionaire real estate developer Stephen Ross funneled $1 million into a PAC to attack left-wing candidates for New York City council—not for their stances on housing or land use, but for their positions on policing.) Refusing to contest the project of criminalization and its ruinous consequences means leaving space for reactionaries in Adams’s mold to continue disorganizing potentially oppositional people and forces as they like. In the long fight that we call abolition, the scale of change that we’re looking for is years rather than months, and the measure of success won’t be any one electoral or legislative contest, but rather a scalar shift in consciousness about what forms of violence—by whom, from whom, and inflicted on whom—are and are not acceptable. In a period of reaction, that project can make the difference we need.
Thanks to Cheryl Rivera and Patrick DeDauw for reading and thinking through this essay, and to the many other comrades whose dedicated organizing is reflected here.