Zero Tolerance Is Code for Unapologetic Inhumanity and Always Has Been

Zero tolerance is a popular term used when politicians want to sound tough. It's also a phrase historically tied to policy agendas forged against non-White communities. Zero tolerance policies are tied to the worst aspects of mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, state violence, and now the separation of migrant families fleeing cartels at the southern border. It's a phrase that needs to be retired because the rhetoric is riddled with an ugly, racist history.

The Origin of Broken Windows Policing

The term 'zero tolerance' can be traced back to 1973 and the Safe and Clean Neighborhoods program launched in Newark, New Jersey. The experimental program led to the formation of the 'Broken Windows' policing strategy within law enforcement that sought (and seeks to this day) to use police in an overly-aggressive way in urban communities to prevent the spread of minor offenses such as public drunkenness, rowdiness, vandalism and littering. The argument was that when "rowdy behavior" wasn't checked, it could lead to a downward spiral of the city. So there needed to be "zero tolerance" for undesirable behavior.

The Broken Windows myth has been debunked by scholars, researchers, and activists for many years now, but that hasn't stopped its more recent re-implementation despite its troubled history of targeting black people. Activists have believed that Broken Windows was simply a way to criminalize black and urban communities for minor offenses such as turnstile jumping and is part of an overall effort to over-police black and brown neighborhoods as a way of controlling them after the many uprisings in the 1960's.

That rhetoric about zero tolerance began with a method to use law enforcement to over-criminalize black and brown communities for minor offenses fits in well with the history of how this phrase has been used. Under zero tolerance policies, harsh punishment applies regardless of the circumstances. It legitimizes inhumanity and turns even the most minor of offenses into problems that can bring down a city, or in Trump's case, an entire nation.

The School-To-Prison Pipeline

Zero tolerance rhetoric and thinking began creeping into the school system in the early 1990's. At that time, the justification was that there needed to be a deterrent in place to stop children from bringing guns to schools. In light of recent school shootings, many might be sympathetic to this zero tolerance approach. However, like with all policing activities and abuses of power, zero tolerance in schools morphed into something else. Like with Broken Windows, it became a way to control behavior and criminalize individuals for minor infractions.

In 2010, 12-year old Alexa Gonzalez sat in Spanish class and began writing on her desk with an erasable marker. The school deemed it vandalism and she was handcuffed, arrested and detained at an NYPD station in Queens. For writing on her desk. She was released several hours later, but stories like hers are not uncommon in schools around the country...especially in urban areas.

Each state and school system vary in their approach and language surrounding zero-tolerance policies, but the common punishments of suspension and expulsion from school come from the following offenses: bringing any weapon to school, including seemingly innocent items like butter knives and toy swords, having any alcohol or drugs on campus, including tobacco and over-the-counter medications like Aspirin or Midol, fighting, including minor scuffles, threatening other students or teachers, or saying anything that could be perceived as a threat, insubordination, which could include talking back to a teacher or swearing in the principal’s office, and any behavior considered disruptive, such as cutting in a lunch line.

Many students under strict zero-tolerance policies are punished without a second thought. This type of disciplinary procedure has been proven in research to have an overall negative effect on students, and a disproportionately negative effect on minorities.


Zero tolerance policies have turned many black and brown schools into punitive proto-prisons. Over 70% of all school-related arrests involve Black or Hispanic children. Again, not all of them involving firearms. As well as 40% of all students expelled from school each year are black and black students are 3.5x more likely to be suspended than white students. (NOTE: The stats mentioned in this paragraph can be found on several infographics about the school-to-prison pipeline). 

Once again, we see zero tolerance policies being ushered in under a pretext that most people agree on, in this case stopping gun violence in schools. In the case of Broken Windows, it was about maintaining public order essentially. Yet, we see that these zero tolerance policies are selectively-enforced on overwhelmingly non-White groups and often becomes tools used to control populations. Black students have been arrested merely for insubordination and "talking back."

Reagan and Drug War Hysteria

When it comes to zero tolerance, the threat is often accompanied by hysteria as well (at least from the media and politicians). The architects of Broken Windows argued that not cracking down on petty crimes like public drunkenness would lead to thousands and thousands of drunks walking aimlessly around the city causing havoc. That if you didn't stop one panhandler, then everyone would panhandle.

There's perhaps no better example of the destructive potential of zero tolerance policies than the mass hysteria during the Reagan administration around drugs. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997. Largely due to zero tolerance, tough-on-crime legislation and rhetoric during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations.

Three Strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences are an aspect of this zero tolerance mentality and have directly led to an explosion of America's prison complex turning America into the leader of global incarceration. At the heart of zero tolerance is an attempt to not really understand why problems exist, but to apply a one-size fits all solution to complex issues that involve things like poverty and lack of upward mobility. It's easier to just fearmonger and criminalize hated groups to maintain social control over them since that appears to be the silent agenda at the root of all of this.

Separation of Families at the Border

The moment Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions got behind a zero-tolerance approach to undocumented immigration - the red flags should've flown up. As I have laid out briefly in this article, these policies are historically racially-targeted and selectively-enforced. There is no history of zero tolerance rhetoric being used on predominantly white communities. It's almost always used in reference to black and brown communities and therefore constitutes the definition of being coded language - a racial dog whistle.

Much like in the cases of 'Broken Windows' policing, the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration, the problem around undocumented immigration is blown out of proportion to justify Trump's outlandish policy. On numerous occasions, migrants have been dehumanized on a level on par with Nazi Germany, and that is not an exaggeration. They've been labeled "animals" and "vermin" and are said to be "infesting" America by their being here. Trump claimed migrants were MS-13 and bringing drugs and criminals with them across the border. An extremist interpretation of the problem to say the least. Yet once again, we see mass hysteria accompanying zero tolerance policy.

This new agenda against migrant families and taking their children away from them is different from zero tolerance agendas in the past. Previously, administrations were smart enough to codify their language so that the disproportionate attacks on black people didn't look as racial as they were in practice. The Nazi-esque racism of this administration is not being hidden by any means though. Multiple current and former members of the Trump regime have histories of being white supremacists and card-carrying racists. Everyone from Jeff Sessions to Stephen Miller, to Sebastian Gorka and Steven Bannon. Trump has surrounded himself with some of the most virulently racist crackpots in America. The white supremacist agenda behind this new form of zero tolerance cannot be denied. There are no dog whistles anymore, there are only barks. 

This is why I say zero tolerance is code for unapologetic inhumanity and it always has been. It's always been about finding reasons to criminalize people when there are better options available, but choosing solutions that are harsh purely because that's what you want to do. Politicians who get behind this spin their agendas as examples in toughness and strength. You know, because tearing apart families whether through mass incarceration or at the border, is something good strong leaders are supposed to do (sarcasm). 

There is nothing humane about what is going on in this country and Trump distancing America from the Human Rights Council is a sign of his clear lack of human dignity. This is the formation of true tyranny. When they are coming after children and babies, all hope of human rights can be thrown out of the window. Barbaric civilizations attack children and babies, and nations teetering on the edge of losing democratic legitimacy. 

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