SVRN Blog 8 – Beauty and the Beat: Street Homelessness and the Anatomy of Disorder, by Nicole Gipson

In this eighth post for the State Violence Research Network blog, Nicole Gipson, PhD candidate in American Studies and History at the University of Manchester, builds on the paper she delivered at the ‘From the State to the Streets’ conference, discussing homelessness in Washington D.C. If you would like to submit a blog to the SVRN yourself, please see the details at the end of this post.


The four Ds: “dull, dreary, dirty and depressing” Lady Bird Johnson and her Committee for Beautification of the Nation’s Capital were determined to rid Washington, D.C. of these pernicious four Ds; to promote their vision for the District of Columbia; and to make of it “a showcase for all American cities.”i Beauty had to be brought to the National Mall and the Arborteum. This was a committee objective for not only the District’s urban core but for city parks and open spaces across the nation. America’s cities simply had to have “maximum beauty.”ii These seemingly frivolous ladies of leisure had the power to press this obligation, even though the priorities of 1968 would bring the project to a polite conclusion. Why did this project-launch press conference, given on May 25, 1965, come to mind after the State Violence Research Network conference on April 11, 2019?

I had the honor of attending Ximena Osorio Garate’s presentation: “Assembling Surgical Sterilisations, or How A Reproductive Technology Becomes a Tool of State Violence.” She attended my presentation: “Down and Outlawed: Criminalizing Homelessness in Washington, D.C.” During a very stimulating question and answer session, Ms. Osorio Garate asked a question concerning the place of aesthetics and the exclusion of the homeless from the public squares of America’s inner cities. If the notion of the homeless as pathogenic threat is insufficient to explain the quest for beauty in the public city, as another participant asserted, what mediates the way bigoted individuals behave towards marginalized groups in American urban cores is the insidious quest to remove cues of disorder in the name of bureaucracy and beauty. In that margin of discretion in the application of public policy and in the noble mission to beautify lies a degree of power to define what is beautiful and what is not – first amendment rights be damned. As one of the more visible aspects of public disorder in the 1980s and 1990s, local ordinances in cities like Washington, D.C. became increasingly punitive and homeless activities were designated “quality-of-life” crimes.

Homeless DC

In 1982, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson published an article in The Atlantic which received considerable attention both in and outside the policing world: “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” iii It began by describing a New Jersey initiative named the “Safe and Clean Neighborhoods Program” which was designed “to improve the quality of community life in twenty-eight cities.”iv Part of the budget was allocated to getting police officers out of their patrol cars and walking the beats. Foot patrols were seen as a panacea to cut crime. However, many police remained skeptical, as it reduced their mobility, made it difficult to respond to citizen calls, and undermined headquarters’ control over the officers on patrol. The officers themselves disliked foot patrols because it exposed them to elements, made “good pinches” more difficult, and made their beats harder to work.v Five years into the program, the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C. published their findings as to the efficacy of its local foot-patrol project. It concluded that foot patrolling had no effect on the crime rate, but that the residents felt reassured by the presence of police power. The report also concluded that as a result of walking the beats, the officers had better morale, higher job satisfaction and were more favorably viewed by the neighborhood residents. In fact, what law enforcement was peddling was not law and order but the illusion of order, as not only had crime not gone down, but had increased in some cases.vi

The target of this quality-of-life beat policing was not necessarily the hardened criminal but the “disreputable, disorderly, unpredictable people” such as panhandlers, alcoholics, drug addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, and the mentally ill.vii Community policing was the perfect tool for inner-city communities fighting for the quality of life in their neighborhoods against the backdrop of the Wars on Drugs and Crime in the 1980s and 1990s. Dr. Kelling, a criminal justice scholar and co-author of The Atlantic article wrote:

Citizens intuitively understand …that the goal of restoring order is neither repression of the powerless nor mere social “tidiness” rather, citizens seek to improve the quality of life in neighborhoods. Most importantly they have long known that…disorder is either a precursor to or accompanies serious crime.viii

For Kelling, the community which does not keep order will succumb to an eventual “criminal invasion.”ix In an interview on NPR’s “The Hidden Brain” podcast Kelling explained:

Once you begin to deal with the small problems in neighborhoods, you begin to empower those neighborhoods. People claim their public spaces, and store owners extend their concern to what happens on the streets. Communities get strengthened once order is restored or maintained and it is that dynamic that helps prevent crime.x

I believe that deconstructing the notion of disorder is important because its range of application to the public city is vast. Stop-and-frisk policies, police/community relations, petty and violent crime, and inner-city policing are essentially defined by varying degrees of disorder. Cultural stereotypes define how we see disorder and how we categorize and behave towards members of marginalized groups.xi Kelling recognizes the complexity of its enforcement:

We might agree that certain behavior makes one person more undesirable than another but how do we ensure that age or skin color or national origin or harmless mannerisms will not also become the basis for distinguishing the undesirable from the desirable? How do we ensure, in short, that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry? We can offer no wholly satisfactory answer to this important question.xii

The bias inherent in how we perceive disorder in the public square determines who has the power to define standards of beauty and the degree of justice for those who do not meet those standards. The quest for order in America’s urban cores provided an optimal diversion, distracting from real issues such as adequate amounts of temporary shelter beds, decent mental health services, living wages, and sufficient affordable housing. The War on Homelessness declared by the Clinton administration only reinforced the process of containing the homeless in the service dependent ghettoes of a burgeoning bureaucracy. Police power was deployed through quality of life policing and increasingly punitive local ordinances which kept the signs of disorder such as homelessness from pristine residential neighborhoods and affluent business districts: the contested public spaces of the Nation’s Capital. By the end of the 1990s, the enforcement of law and order, not beauty, drove Federal and Hometown Washington’s attempt to make the District of Columbia a “model city” once again.

i Walter E.Washington, “White House Conference on Natural Beauty: City Parks and Open Spaces.” (Washington, D.C.: White House, 1965). First Lady’s Committee for Beautification of the Nation’s Capital. The Walter Washington Papers. Moorland-Spingard Research Center.

ii Ibid.

iii George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” The Atlantic, March 1982. https://www.bing.com/cr?IG=0964AEB2C41B40989C066F85E66DFB3F&CID=286E76AFFC776819346E7D9EFD716916&rd=1&h=JSPsFe8_UuVMhVucho2q6bN5gKCdCkYE_l6ALvjBazs&v=1&r=https%3a%2f%2fwww.manhattan-institute.org%2fpdf%2f_atlantic_monthly-broken_windows.pdf&p=DevEx,5114.1.; In 1966 James Q. Wilson was appointed the chair of President Johnson’s Task Force on Crime, a team which would work with the Department of Justice on early drafts of the Safe Streets Act. Nixon later appointed him to his Model Cites Task Force in 1969 and under the same administration, was appointed the chairman of the Commission on Drug Abuse Prevention. Through this commission, Wilson helped steer the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement –“the vanguard of the administration’s war on street-level pushers”. Finding the War on Poverty programs “irrational” and “wasteful”, Wilson helped guide national law enforcement from prevention to deterrence and incapacitation Police offices were not only obliged to fight crime but to ensure domestic order by staring down “potential” crime.

iv Ibid.

v Kelling and Wilson, “Broken Windows.”

vi Ibid.

vii Ibid.

viii Kent S. Scheidegger, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, “Restoring Public Order: a Guide to Regulating Panhandling, “ rep., Restring Public Order: a Guide to Regulating Panhandling (Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, 1992, 15-16.

ix Ibid.

x NPR., “Broken Windows,” The Hidden Brain, May 29, 2017, section goes here, accessed April 27, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2016/11/01/500104506/broken-windows-policing-and-the-origins-of-stop-and-frisk-and-how-it-went-wrong?t=1556380132561

xi Robert J. Sampson and Stephen W. Raudenbush, “Seeing Disorder: Neighborhood Stigma and the Social Construction of ‘Broken Windows,’” Social Psychology Quarterly 67, no. 4 (2004).

xii Kelling and Wilson, “Broken Windows.


If you are interested in submitting to the SVRN blog, please click here for more information.

The opinions and viewpoints contained in this blog post are not necessarily shared by the State Violence Research Network, and publication should not be considered an endorsement.

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