In Jokes and their Relationship to the Unconscious (1905), his three-hundred page book on humor, Sigmund Freud shares his favorite yuks, none of which are funny to begin with, and then proceeds to slowly murder them by explaining their punchlines. The book is so turgid that modern interpreters sometimes argue that the whole enterprise is itself a kind of meta-joke, which may be true, but still doesn’t make it funny. Reading the book in the election year of 2020, however, one bit stands out. Freud describes it as “an American anecdote”:
Two not particularly scrupulous businessmen had succeeded, by dint of a series of highly risky enterprises, in amassing a large fortune, and they were now making efforts to push their way into good society. One method, which struck them as a likely one, was to have their portraits painted by the most celebrated and highly paid artist in the city, whose pictures had an immense reputation. The precious canvases were shown for the first time at a large evening party, and the two hosts themselves led the most influential connoisseur and art critic up to the wall upon which the portraits were hanging side by side, to extract his admiring judgment on them. He studied the works for a long time, and then, shaking his head, as though there was something he had missed, pointed to the gap between the pictures and asked quietly: “But where’s the Savior?”
Getting this joke, such as it is, presumes familiarity with an implied reference: depictions of the crucifixion, wherein the savior (i.e., Christ), famously hangs on the cross between two thieves. Even then, it’s not really laugh-out-loud funny. It is, however uncannily relevant. As we find ourselves in the quickening of our election season, we Americans are increasingly being asked to contemplate the prospect of voting for one of two unsavory businessmen. Redemption is nowhere to be found in this forced choice between two scoundrels; the savior isn’t even absent. The daylight between Mike Bloomberg and Donald Trump can be measured in the rays of sun that shine out of a billionaire’s ass.
Over the past week, the news has been dominated by two viral clips of Mike Bloomberg being Mike Bloomberg. One features Bloomberg talking about Stop and Frisk, and dates from a 2015 speech at the Aspen Institute; the other, about redlining and the housing crisis, dates from a 2008 lecture at Georgetown. In the tortured euphemisms of contemporary punditry, each has only just “resurfaced.” Both are “racially charged.” Bloomberg’s surrogates and defenders have tried strenuously to focus conversation about the proximate source of each clip, to decry them as insidious leaks by political opponents, and to bemoan their lack of “context.” The explosion of misdirections and verbal chaff, words spewed by indignant talking heads—the way a panicking squid squirts ink—belie the fact that nothing Bloomberg says in either clip is anything he hasn’t said elsewhere, on campaign trails, in court filings, in on-the-record interviews, in radio and TV spots, in paid lectures and in drive-by shit-talking. The appeals of supporters’ (or salaried online trolls’) to “context” are little more than bids to buy time and beg for suspended judgment, since anyone who has paid any attention in the past decades, and New Yorkers in particular, has all the context they need. The agita over whether it’s accurate or impolite to call Bloomberg “racist” or to suggest that he “hates” poor people is irrelevant. It matters not one whit what’s inside Mike’s heart, or if he even has one, since his actions have always already been right in front of our faces. The “context” for the Stop and Frisk and redlining clips is the fact that Mike Bloomberg spent over a decade presiding over a gargantuan machine for oppressing people of color, the poor, and poor people of color most of all—a total, merciless system for violating their bodies, controlling their lives, and driving them from their homes and communities. He is the carceral and surveillance state personified, and the living embodiment of its unholy fusion with racial capitalism’s processes of gentrification and the extraction of wealth.
As with every bit of jargon that ultimately occludes the most basic brutal operations of American power, conversations about Stop and Frisk are studded with traps, diversions, detours, and displacements. These are features of the discourse, not bugs, designed to fill airtime with easy soundbites and shift debates onto territory that smuggle in hidden premises and preemptively give away ground. Conversations turn into fine-grained distinctions between buzzwords (e.g. are we talking about “Stop and Frisk” or “Stop, Question, and Frisk”?), ultimately unknowable questions (is it structural racism or just a given officer—or mayor!—being “a racist?”), and perhaps most insidiously, 4 AM dorm debates about first principles and the teleological suspension of the ethical (sure, it’s unconstitutional, but, dude, does it work?). It’s vital to cut through all this bullshit. What’s at stake in Stop and Frisk is far more than a simple policy, which politicians and pundits can variously disown, repackage, or tinker with in the name of “reform.” Stop and Frisk is what sociologists Charles Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody, and Donald Haider-Markel call an “institutionalized practice,” something that both exceeds and underwrites formal policy, laws, and talking points. Stop and Frisk is a way of doing business and approaching the world.
As a phrase, “Stop and Frisk” is generally dated back to the 1960s, and to a bill advanced by then–New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. Passed by the New York legislature in 1964, a “stop and frisk” bill and “no-knock” bill granted new powers to police to detain and search people on the street and to enter homes respectively. These prerogatives were reaffirmed on the federal level by the 1968 Supreme Court Ruling in Terry v. Ohio, which essentially empowered police to conduct what have since become known as “Terry Stops.” More accurately described by legal scholars and sociologists as “investigatory” or “pretextual” stops, these mean that police can stop anyone whom they have a “reasonable suspicion” of being involved in criminal activity. What constitutes “reasonable suspicion,” of course, is exceedingly subjective, and up to the officer’s discretion, leading to absurd taxonomies of “furtive movements,” “gun retention gestures,” and even the not-infrequent claim that not being furtive can itself be suspicious and grounds for a search. All these judgments, too, can be easily fudged post-facto: as judge Shira Scheindlin observed in 2012, the real logic of Stop and Frisk is “Stop and question first, develop reasonable suspicion later.”
From the start, the institutionalized practice of pretextual stops was justified by the need to get “guns off the streets,” with Presidents from Johnson onwards joining mayors and governors around the country in embracing the phrase. Even at the outset, it was obvious that pretextual stops actually didn’t really deliver that. As scholars like James Forman, Jr., and others have abundantly documented, in places from Baltimore to LA and beyond, interdicting motorists and pedestrians to search them for guns yielded few “crime guns” all. The so-called “Kansas City Gun Experiment” was an early 1990s exercise in mass pretextual stops that was widely hailed as a roaring success; it went on to be cited as model for similar programs in DC and then in New York City itself. Yet guns were only recovered in under 4 percent of all stops in the Kansas City experiment. And in New York City, of the millions of Stop and Frisk searches, less than 3 percent of stops turned up “weapons” of any sort—a category which, as many blue-collar laborers have learned to their great misfortune, can include Swiss Army knives, Leathermans, box cutters, and other basic tools.
That Stop and Frisk effectively licensed police to commit what has come to be called “racial profiling” is a given. The racial disparities in enforcement have always been grotesque and undeniable. And it was on the grounds of this disparity, and the link between Stop and Frisk and racial profiling in general, that Stop and Frisk was ruled unconstitutional in 2014. Of course, both Mike Bloomberg and Donald Trump objected to that ruling.
The core issue has never really been about “getting guns off the streets” or about lowering “crime”; if it really were, then years of abundant data to the contrary would have settled the matter. What is fundamentally at stake in debates over Stop and Frisk is the prerogative of armed agents of the state to control urban space by physically dominating people within it. And not just “people” in general, since in America’s highly segregated cities, the issue of space is invariably racialized, and bound up in considerations of class, territorial control, and real estate development. The everyday language of policing betrays this: when an officer today walks a “beat,” they traverse what once denoted a unit of distance in 18th-century hunting vocabulary, and which 19th-century slavecatchers would patrol. “Patrol” itself hails from a French word for infantry marches through mud, and came in the United States to refer first and foremost to looking for runaway slaves. But the continuities run deeper than vocabulary. As scholars like Alex Vitale have documented, antebellum cities in the South (like Charleston, South Carolina) hired uniformed agents whose primary function was disrupting slave gatherings and checking “suspicious” blacks for identifying papers, activities that seamlessly continued, and proliferated, after Reconstruction. In its original etymology, to “arrest” someone is to stop someone or something else in their independent motion, to detain them and subject them to your will. Whether or a not a formal arrest occurs is beside the point—not least since in a typical year some 90 percent of Stop and Frisk detentions never even resulted in a summons. As Epp and his co-authors observe, this is a type of security theater that is less about “catching” “criminals” than it is about producing a spectacle of criminalization:
The deeper problem in these polite but unjust stops is that they are part of a broad, continuing pattern in which racial minorities are disproportionately subjected to suspicious inquiries without any particular basis or justification. Pervasive, ongoing suspicious inquiry sends the unmistakable message that the targets of this inquiry look like criminals: they are second-class citizens.
When police stop young black and Latino men, lay their hands on them, manhandle them, and subject them to verbal abuse, it is an act of discipline, a ritualized practice of public humiliation and domination that communicates what everyone in those communities already knows: that police have the prerogative to restrain, probe, penetrate and even perforate your body because you are in the “wrong” place. Never mind that the “wrong” place is actually your own neighborhood, or that being in the “wrong place” is simply synonymous with being in the “wrong” color body. In their excellent book, Police: A Field Guide, the sociologists David Correia and Tyler Wall express the message encoded in such transactions with appropriate bluntness:
Stop and frisk is always about imposing a moral and racialized order of patriarchal capitalism on the poor in the city. Loitering means you’re not buying, panhandling means you’re not making a wage, drinking means you’re not home with a family, streetwalking means you’re not serving a husband. So fuck you! You know the drill. Hands against the wall and spread your legs. This is not your city.
Correia and Wall’s frank language gets at the core of it. For better and for worse, talk of “bodies and spaces” in contemporary political discourse can sometimes cause people’s eyes to glaze over by conjuring dense paragraphs in Foucault or tiresome posts on Tumblr. But listen—in the Aspen Institute clip from 2015—to the pleasure Mike Bloomberg takes in the image of “throw[ing] [kids] up against the wall.” Listen to his smugness in a radio interview from 2013, invoking “logic” to say that, actually, black and brown youth should be targeted more. Never mind that research suggests that whites are apparently more likely to carry both weapons and drugs than other groups. Never mind, again, that decades of research into whether pretextual stops do anything to get “guns off the streets” or lower crime rates says they don’t really do either. None of this is about “logic.” Throw those kids up against the wall. This is about sheer joy in domination, about reveling in violence carried out by armed paramilitaries on the “streets” they are ostensibly supposed to “serve and protect.” It is about the pleasure of watching people who as a class of professionals are disproportionately likely to be domestic abusers themselves (and to get away with it!) fuck up the bodies of black and brown people in broad daylight and enjoy the protections of qualified immunity and maudlin expressions of Blue Lives Matter jingoism while they do it. It is the exact same hit of jouissance Donald Trump gets at the image of police roughing up “gang members” and “thugs” by hitting their heads against the door frames of squad cars. The only difference is that Bloomberg sneers a little more circumspectly, and that he insists that he is actually doing all this to help the youth in question. If only these “kids” understood and appreciated his intentions, and all the good he does on “guns” in general, if only they grasped the big picture—why, they would be thanking him!
Of course, outside the world of this billionaire’s narcissism, those kids are not being helped. Instead, they wind up fed into America’s system of mass incarceration. As lawyers and activists like Derecka Purnell have cuttingly observed, Bloomberg’s apologetics about wanting to “sav[e] lives” is cheap recompense weighed against the lost years and foreclosed futures of young men ripped from their lives and tossed behind bars. Meanwhile, their neighborhoods, once suitably “cleaned up,” are inevitably gentrified. The scholarship on this is also unequivocal: the imposition of “Broken Windows” policing and pretextual stops on majority black and brown neighborhoods is part and parcel of, and almost invariable preparation for, whitening processes of gentrification. We can thus see here, too, how Bloomberg’s fundamental support for Stop and Frisk (which he continued to voice as late as 2019!) is entirely of a piece with his odious statement that the end of redlining caused the subprime housing market crash. According to Bloomberg, “Redlining, if you remember, was the term where banks took whole neighborhoods and said, ‘People in these neighborhoods are poor, they’re not going to be able to pay off their mortgages, tell your salesmen don’t go into those areas.’” But, according to him, once “Congress got involved” and “banks started making more and more loans where the credit of the person buying the house wasn’t as good as you would like.” The housing market crash, in his telling, thus “all started back when there was a lot of pressure on banks to make loans to everyone.”
Note that, in Bloomberg’s version of events, neither “Redlining” nor the crash has anything to do with race; for him, housing discrimination, like predatory loans, are in fact entirely colorblind. As with the end of Stop and Frisk, which he insists has made vulnerable New Yorkers less safe, Bloomberg bemoans opposition to a practice of systematic racial discrimination as in fact perversely hurting the people which that practice clearly oppressed all along. And here, once again, as with his counterfactual claims about the effects of Stop and Frisk on rates of “violence” in urban neighborhoods, he then blames those victims of that exploitation for all the subsequent consequences, laying the crash itself at their feet. This is the inhuman perspective of a man who sees people simply as credit scores or data points instead of human beings. This is the kettle logic of a person so insulated and hollowed out by his own unfathomable wealth that he cannot but constantly blame the vulnerable for the conditions of their own immiseration.
Bloomberg has, as of this past weekend, issued a pseudo-apology for the “abuse of Stop of Frisk”—as though the essence of Stop and Frisk were not itself to impose a regime of abuse. Will he now, in a similar vein, apologize for the “abuse” of Redlining? If only those impoverished black people who wanted homes had realized that housing discrimination was actually helping them, and that they couldn’t be trusted in the first place, why, they would be thanking the banks that now have no choice but to drive them into bankruptcy and kick them out of their homes! It’s their own fault for not seeing the bigger picture and being ungrateful, really.
So, here we find ourselves, back with Freud’s uncanny, unfunny “American” joke, standing before the portraits of two scoundrels. Which flavor of authoritarian oligarch would you prefer? The one who is bloodthirsty and vulgar about hating Muslims, or the one who is more polite and technocratic about it? The salivating, rabid racist, or the cool, self-congratulating one? The one who thinks he could get away with shooting someone on 5th Avenue, or the one whose personal “army” (as Bloomberg liked to refer to the NYPD) actually did after killing Sean Bell at 94th Avenue in Queens? The 73-year old man who measures his dick, or the 78-year old one who thinks the answer is to measure his head? The transgressive, sybaritic daddy who wants you to enjoy all the cheeseburgers you can, or the austere, martinet patriarch who will measure and ration your soda by the calories and ounce? The anal-sadistic pervert who is fixated on how toilets flush, or the anal-retentive one who obsesses over how long employees take to shit? Do you identify more with the retiree who is frustrated with their new, energy efficient appliances, or the still-hard-at-work tycoon who is furious at the inefficiency of his human employees? The lecher who’s fixated on pussy and tits, or the one who prefers mouths and ass?
All other possible identifications are now apparently out of the question. How many Americans are there who see The Big Picture from the unique vantage of sitting atop a pile of money nine or ten digits tall, but who also have to constantly worry about getting thrown against a wall for looking the wrong way as they sit on a stoop by their local bodega? Such folks are not invited to be part of the transaction—or rather, they are taken for granted in it, since both Trump and Bloomberg know Those People, to the dwindling extent to which they are enfranchised at all, have long and bitter experience when it comes to choosing between devils, voting as triage, and extracting what they can get out of cruel double binds. Because as James Forman Jr., Michelle Alexander, and other scholars have documented, one of the recurring themes in the history of America’s criminalization of its urban black poor has coincided with offering limited mobility to cadres of middle- and upper-class black elites; meanwhile, people in communities who just want uplift and non-carceral interventions are told be grateful for what little they can get. And when these billionaires run for President, and everyone downticket scrambles to figure out how to either play nice and get a slice or resist and get crushed, such ordinary people must wrestle not just with whether to hold their noses and vote, but, much more urgently, how they are going to survive. When Big Guys take out their wallet, the endorsement and ad buys follow; when the Little People do, they’re going for their IDs, hoping a trigger-happy cop doesn’t think it’s a gun.
The current trend among advocates and pundits is already clear. Non-billionaire Americans must declare—right now, in February (!)—which of these two billionaires we will support. The choice, we are told, is binary: either pledge to vote for the one, or take responsibility for “effectively” electing the other by withholding support from the pundits’ “electable” choice. To reject this framing is to ignore the “big picture” in favor of self-indulgent, small-mindedness. You, the American voter who rightly despises both these men, are actually a “hostage-taker” holding democracy itself ransom for selfish reasons. But rather than preemptively cultivating Stockholm syndrome because media scolds insist on it, we need to see the choice between these ghouls isn’t just false—it’s forced. Together, Mike Bloomberg and Donald Trump are avatars of the Janus-faced billionaire God of everything wrong with New York City and nearly everything wrong with this country.