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Broken Windows, ALS, and Feed the Deed: Where our Real Focus Should Be

Much speculation has been given to the precipitous drop in crime in New York City that began in the 1990s.  Plagued by decades of ever increasing crime, comprehensive and effective policing strategies were employed, resulting in the transformation of the city from one of the country’s most dangerous to one of its safest, in what is often considered one of the most dramatic metropolitan turnarounds of modern times. The city’s new policing strategy may have been one of the first instances in the new trend of grassroots organizing.

Former Mayor Rudy Guiliani (1994-2001) presided over the initial decline and development of strategies to combat the horrid criminal environment that was unchecked throughout the city.  In addition to the “strategic policing” and “harm reduction” policies that his administration instituted, Mayor Giuliani pushed a zero-tolerance policy for small and petty crime such as graffiti and the “squeegee guys” (notorious for harassing drivers at red lights). His idea was that special attention to smaller, seemingly insignificant acts will lead to improvement with the bigger issues.  Some recent social media trends also attempt to tackle big issues with small gestures, such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which features the spilling of buckets of ice water on oneself to raise awareness and money for Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis research, and Feed the Deed, which promotes small acts of kindness to spread happiness and acts of goodwill across our communities.

The guiding philosophy behind Broken Windows comes from social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling who posited that there was a significant link between casual and widespread disorder and the incidence of both major and minor crime. They dubbed the concept “Broken Windows” and elaborated in a 1982 article in The Atlantic. “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” Essentially, if minor infractions are not tended to, they will cause a cascade of subsequent crimes that will expand in both scope and severity.

Although the idea of focusing police attention on trivial offenses and disarray rather than the more severe and brutal crimes seems counter-intuitive, it nonetheless gained traction.  Mayor Giuliani, addressing the skeptics, said, “Obviously murder and graffiti are two vastly different crimes. But they are part of the same continuum, and a climate that tolerates one is more likely to tolerate the other."

This unorthodox approach to policing became a hallmark of the Giuliani administration’s strategic crackdown on rising tide of crime.  By clearing the streets of apathy and the bedlam that came with it, more serious crime began to fade. Big-time criminals began to become more aware of their actions and reconsider wrongdoing as it appeared more and more likely there would be immediate consequences for their actions.   Much of the drop in crime has been attributed to this very tactic and it is still employed today.

Seemingly unrelated, a trend to focus on the more minute and trivial aspects of our lives encapsulated social media, including many Facebook News Feeds of Modern Orthodox youth--Feed the Deed.  The movement’s premise is simple—do a good deed outside of one’s normal routine, take some pictures of the recipients of said deed and then nominate several others to do the same.  The idea of spreading joy and greater self-awareness quickly spread to vast swaths of our communities, as well as increased sales at local Dunkin Donuts stores (buying someone coffee was a popular deed).

More recently, another simple idea has gone viral that involves people pouring buckets of ice cold water over themselves and nominating more people to do the same.  It’s part of a movement to put focus on finding the cure for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a condition in which the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord slowly degenerate and die.  The trend is known as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and participation can be seen by people of all ages and backgrounds, including celebrities like Oprah, Justin Bieber, and Mark Zuckerberg, to politicians like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

Broken Windows, Feed the Deed, and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge have received their fair share of criticism and cynicism. Broken Windows has several groups of detractors claiming other factors such as the wide-ranging economic boom had more significant and lasting impact on New York City’s crime rates. Others claimed racial bias was at the center of policy’s enforcement.  Some even argued that a drop in the likely-criminal population was the primary force in the steep decline.

Similarly, many doubt the sincerity of social media trend participants, while others openly question the real-world impact these trends can have.  And while there might be room to make those accusations on a small scale, it seems both movements have made significant impact. Feed the Deed, based on the premise of “Pay It Forward”, tallied thousands of participants in over 30 countries.  The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has, at this point raised over $100 million—an incredible sum that can now be used to further research a cure for the debilitating disease.

Yet even if these claims prove that the entirety of the crime decline is not directly attributed to a sociologically-based idea, or that some people only performed good deeds for superficial reasons, the concept of local community attitudes having practical, real-world effects need not be tested. Local civil disobedience in the 1950’s and 60’s brought revolutionary Civil Rights laws; community pressure to free an agunah is often an effective strategy. When communities--whether on the micro or macro scale--rally together to fight negative cultural attitudes or indifference to some social issues, the effects of small actions and gestures can snowball into large movements. Grassroots organizing seems to be the new norm.

Without realizing it, the originators of the Ice Bucket Challenge and Feed the Deed tapped into the same spirit of Broken Windows’ crack-down on crime.  Broken Windows advocates an increased focus on actions which do not typically affect our sensibilities (for instance, breaking the 18th window of a rundown building) which leads to a positive impact on our community and attitudes as a whole. Similarly, Feed the Deed makes us sensitive to the significant impact putting a dollar on a snack machine for its next visitor or showing appreciation for our local firemen. Like Broken Windows, Feed the Deed lifted the spirits of those around us rather than let surrounding apathy consume us.  Finally, the Ice Bucket Challenge showed us that by everybody dedicating only a few minutes and dollars to a cause, millions of dollars can be raised in a matter of weeks.

If the general consensus of a community is that of indifference, then attitudes of negativity (or in New York City’s case, criminality) will reign.  The pillars of cheerfulness, calm and safety will be eaten away by pessimism, cynicism and general outrage, causing more pessimism, cynicism and outrage, unless concerted efforts are made by individuals and groups to improve and better unfortunate situations. We need to focus more on being philanthropic and conscious of others sensibilities, rather than looking the other way.  We must exert intensive pain in striving to help out and assist in correcting issues when problems arise.  When our natural impulse is to shout scandal and be outraged, our approach should be, “How can I help?”

Is it really too difficult for us to stop to give a homeless person begging for pennies a dollar?  Can we really not afford a few words of thanks to the overworked and underpaid waiter bussing tables at our next simcha?  Will my day be ruined if I do not get to let loose that new piece of Lashon Hara (slander) that I just accidentally overheard?

Commitment to grassroots awareness can yield big-time results.  All of our deeds are part of the same continuum, whether we know it or not. The chances to nurture positivity stare us down every day, with beggars’ cups and firehouse turnout coats. These opportunities sit in security booths and the desks to our left, it’s just a matter if we’re going to let them know we care.Because it’s optimism that will improve our community and create a positive and upbeat atmosphere of which people want to be a part.