Thursday, January 10, 2019

Hijacked communities & the rule of law

Independence Hall, Philadelphia - the origins of U.S. law
by Gregory Saville

Thinking of the upcoming year and a resolution on how to improve our SafeGrowth work, I recently watched two new films on the brilliant Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, On The Basis of Sex and RBG.

The life of Justice Ginsberg illustrates the very complex role of law and how law influences social causes – for example, protecting one group from the injustice of another, safeguarding civil rights for oppressed minorities or enforcing the rights of women. Important causes.

But, as an adolescent, I didn’t think much about the law. It rarely, if ever, deterred my mischief-making, usually because I didn’t know it existed. As a cop I considered it a blunt tool to do the job. Penalties were out of touch and enforcement was handcuffed by archaic rules.

The Imagine mosaic in Strawberry Fields, NY -
John Lennon fought for justice using peaceful protest and music

As a crime prevention consultant, law seemed an irrelevant part of safer communities. We’ve cut crime in high crime neighborhoods and not used formal law at all. Nada!

Jane Jacobs once said, “the public peace is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves…”

So, if neighborhoods are kept safe by informal rules and voluntary standards, why bother with formal law? What purpose can it possibly serve except to provide over-zealous litigation attorneys fodder for excessive contingency fees and enforcement officials a reason to exist?


We’ve blogged before on how safe neighborhoods emerge from organized groups trained to come up with solutions to problems. As we describe in our new SafeGrowth book, there are few more powerful tools than local leaders of influence working with properly trained and resourced residents and community partners. In fact, that’s the training we provide for neighborhood activation – 1st & 2nd Generation CPTED, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and organizing skills. Residents thrive when they know what to do and how to do it.

Homelessness affects locals and the homeless - local communities
can take up their cause directly 

Yet we have learned over the past few years that neighborhood activation does not always work. In more and more cases, specific causes for local communities (land use gentrification; infrastructure improvements) are derailed into social causes for society at large (social inequity; unfair legal system). This derailing usually takes the form of hijacking by interest groups – powerful developers want one thing. Social activists want another.

To be clear, activists are a great ally for implementing neighborhood safety plans. After all, Jane Jacobs began her career as an activist. But hijacking is a terrible way to build social cohesion.


Hijacking derails conflict resolution and it derails organized plans. I have seen hijackers declare “micro-aggressions” to attack those who disagree with their cause. It’s an effective derailing method. After all, who can defend against specious claims of prejudice or biased intent when another person’s intention is unknown?

Equally, I have seen powerful politicians derail neighborhood safety plans by touting scientific studies on security and CCTV. It happens when police executives defend questionable police tactics, like stop-and-frisk, and cite sketchy research.

Fifty years ago Jane Jacobs took up the local cause of
neighborhood destruction from this NY apartment

Those too are effective derailments. After all, who can argue with “science” if the quality of those studies is unknown by the public or written in obscure statistical jargon that only an encryption expert could decipher?

Hijacking works because residents often have difficulty choosing one social cause over another in order to accomplish the safety they desire. Interestingly, they rarely have difficulty selecting specific local crime problems that demolish their quality of life. That’s why we spend so much time carefully assessing local problems and analyzing specific crimes. That is why community-collected data and collaborative analysis drives the SafeGrowth plan.


Sadly, even those efforts can fail in the face of powerful political derailment. It is at those precise moments - as local efforts falter and special interests hijack local plans for improvement - when we can call on the very same legal principles that apply to large scale social causes and the interests of the powerful. That is because, in an open democracy with rule of law, those same legal principles are also available to the neighborhood. True, they are difficult to muster, especially with expensive legal costs. They may take a long time – courts are painfully slow and inefficient (it took Ginsberg decades to help change laws discriminating against women).

Private security patrolling Honduran streets -
No local influence on safety planning and a breakdown in law

Law represents a procedural method for taking arguments public. It is no guarantee and my lawyer friends insist law should be used only as a last resort. Legal procedure requires removing the issue from local politics and – at least theoretically – from politics at large. The law demands arguments from different sides, with clearly established rules of evidence. It strives, albeit imperfectly, for an objective airing of facts. It is, in many cases, our last line of defense against derailments.

In SafeGrowth we strive to establish a collaborative environment and a civil way to resolve conflict. We train and we organize. In a vast majority of cases, we are successful. But not in every case.

I have always thought the law was a terribly ineffective system of truth or justice. But, when all else fails, the rule of law is probably the best last resort available to us. In Politics, Aristotle claimed, “it is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens”. The life of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg shows how true that is.

2 Replies so far - Add your comment

Unknown said...

If it is acknowledged here that law is unjust to marginalized people and communities, how then can it be any resort (even a last one)? I can certainly be idealistic with my thoughts, but it would seem that every person has that ONE thing that will reel them in and get them organized. Isn't it about searching for that thing until we find it? Certainly open to suggestion here. I just get very hesitant when involving the law with marginalized communities until there is a better rapport between the two. Far too often communities are policed where the folks that are policing are not intimately aware of the community needs and the people that occupy them.

GSaville said...

Thanks for the comments. I agree everyone can search for one thing that gets them organized. But the blog was about the hijacking that goes on in community work by the powerful and by activists with their own agenda. In SafeGrowth we've had great success helping residents turn their neighborhoods back from the brink. But political hijacking is a different kind of threat to troubled neighborhoods. Justice Ginsberg and Jane Jacobs both showed how rule of law can defend neighborhoods. As for police (which is not the "rule of law" that the blog describes), we've worked with many brilliant cops who care and help, and with others who, as you say, are unaware of community needs. But if things are going to get better in such places, isn't building bridges to the good ones better than building walls around them all?