Running for Manhattan district attorney last year, Alvin Bragg’s platform was all about keeping people out of jail. A big part of that was preventing violence, not prosecuting it. Now, with this month’s self-defense killing in an upper Manhattan bodega, Bragg is missing a grim opportunity to show what happens when you don’t take responsibility for “de-escalating” a conflict before it turns deadly.
Self-styed “progressive” prosecutors, like Bragg, want to teach people to walk away from potential violence. “Violence interrupters” supposedly teach teens and young men how to keep disputes from escalating into murder.
A big part of this is teaching people to sacrifice a tiny bit of their self-image as tough guys. That is, teaching you that it’s OK to walk away from a humiliation and keep your self-respect. That someone taunted you or treated you rudely is no reflection on you; it’s a reflection on them.
On July 1, Austin Simon’s girlfriend demonstrated that she had never benefitted from such lessons.
When bodega clerk Jose Alba snatched a bag of chips out of her daughter’s hand because she couldn’t pay for them, Simon’s girlfriend didn’t just see this as one of life’s many annoyances, as a person with healthy self-respect would.
She saw this petty encounter as an unforgivable humiliation in front of her daughter. So she fetched Simon.
Simon, too, was primed to see small slights as catastrophic events. In an Instagram post three months ago, he warned, “I don’t play ’bout my girls,” saying of anyone who harmed the child in the video that “I’m the last thing you’ll see before you talk to God.”
Plenty of poor people have healthy self-respect, gained through holding down steady jobs and raising families.
But all Simon felt that he had to offer the women and girls in his life wasn’t a steady living or a consistent, stable presence (he had been in and out of prison), but the idea that he would publicly defend their honor.
He got a chance to prove that. With his girlfriend watching, he imprisoned Alba behind his counter and assaulted him.
Alba’s self-respect didn’t depend on fighting Simon back. The clerk tried to de-escalate the conflict, saying, “I don’t want a problem,” before Simon violently shoved him to the floor.
So, trapped by the larger, 35-year-old man, the 61-year-old Alba stabbed Simon with his nearby box-cutter tool, killing him.
Bragg, for some reason, sees this as where the problem started, charging Alba with second-degree murder and asking for high bail.
But even if Bragg secures a jury conviction — highly unlikely — he’ll have prevented no violence. When people are trapped and attacked, they will defend themselves.
In charging Alba with the maximum, Bragg sends a damaging signal to other young men (and their egging-on girlfriends) primed to initiate violence: You are the victim.
Indeed, in a less high-profile “fight” death the same week, Bragg has already downgraded the charges, and requested a no-bail release, because of the possibility of self-defense.
Bragg’s failure to condemn Simon’s escalation of violence, which ended in his own death, is a bad message to send.
That’s especially true, when so many of our “dispute” murders stem from perceived slights that, from the outside, seem trivial. Multiple teens have killed other teens over “drill rap” video put-downs.
Teens and young men don’t need Bragg to make an example of Alba. They need him to make a sad example of Simon: If he hadn’t attacked Alba, on the instigation of his girlfriend, he’d be alive today.
The message Bragg should be sending over the bodega killing is: Just walk away, even when you think you are right (most people think they’re right in any dispute — hence, the dispute).
A clerk was rude to your child? Just walk out, demonstrating to your daughter that you perceive yourself as the superior party. Someone was rude to your girlfriend? Ask her why she should care that some stranger has no manners, when she’s so beautiful and smart.
Someone cut you off in traffic? Take a deep breath and keep driving.
These are life-coping skills. Everyone fails to use them sometimes. But their utter absence, not poverty, is what pushes so many young men to violence.
This is the “violence interruption” approach that Bragg should be pushing. That’s especially true, in an increasingly armed and angry Manhattan.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.