Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaign means a police state for ordinary New Yorkers outside the new yuppie class. More and more constituencies in Gotham City are standing up and fighting back.
Giuliani, barred from seeking a third term by term limits, is using New York City as a showcase for his national ambitions. He is no longer playing to his own constituents, but to the white racist subruban voters across the country who he hopes will sweep him to national office on his record of getting a dangerous city full of whining minorities under control. He’s trying to make New York like the rest of America–suburbanified, sterile and orderly. As Times Sqaure and other tracts of primo real estate are sold off to Disney, Giuliani, who grew up in suburban Long Island, is squeezing out everything that makes New York unique. He is the suburbs’ revenge on the urban center.
Giuliani ran on a symbolic platform of cracking down on the “squeegee men”–a policy which took a horrible turn this summer as a squeegee man was shot by an off-duty cop whose windshield he tried to clean, ending up critically injured.
Since being elected to a second term, he has selected targets a little higher up the social ladder, persecuting the city’s mostly-immigrant working-class sectors–bicycle messengers, umbrella hawkers (mostly Senegalese), street peddlers and cabbies.
The taxi drivers were the first to fight back. After Giuliani pushed restrictive new regulations through the Taxi & Limosine Commission, making operating a cab prohibitively expensive, they organized a series of protests. The biggest, planned for May 21, planned to block traffic in Manhattan. But Giuliani placed police checkpoints on all the bridges to the island, turning back all cabs with no fare.
Rudy Giuliani boasted in the next day’s papers: “They know that we broke their strike–destroyed it, really. Nobody showed up today. And that didn’t happen just because we allowed business to go on as usual. That happened because we had a plan to stop them from doing it.”
He then went on to quote from flyers calling for bringing Manhattan traffic to a standstill and says that if such a document had been found in the hands of a “terrorist” group, “then everybody would understand that you cannot allow that to happen.” This was a typical Giuliani racist allusion, a veiled reference to the fact that many cabbies are immigrants from the Middle East.
Bicyclists have also been the target of a new police crackdown, especially messengers and delivery workers, who are often recent immigrants, speak little English and function in a semi-legal “gray economy.” In addittion to supporting new legislation which would allow police to confiscate bicycles being rode on the sidewalk, Giuliani has unleashed the police in a harrassment campaign. A study in the New York Times noted that in the 19th precinct over a three week period, 1,168 summonses were issued to bicyclists but only 50 to motorists.
Pedestrians haven’t been spared the assault. Shortly after his re-election last year, Giuliani erected pedestrian barricades at every intersection along 49th and 50th Streets between Fifth and Lexington Avenues, making peds walk out of their way to free the avenues for vehicle traffic. These were protested in December by Transportation Alternatives activists, who dressed up as cows to drive home the point that pedestrians were being treated like cattle.
The city’s street food vendors also came under onerous regulations and are restricted from certain areas of the city, and held a half-day strike in protest in May. Curbside book and merchandise vendors are also being relegated to out-of-the-way blocks, forcing many out of business–despite the fact that courts have ruled that book vednors are protected by the First Amendment.
Street artists have also protested that they are being arrested under the new regulations. On May 27, they protested in front of Cooper Union, where the Mayor was giving a speech about his support of the arts. In Giuliani’s usual pre-emptive tactic against street protests, police had the place totally sealed off–the closest the protestors could get was the Cube, a small traffic island across a wide intersection from Cooper Union.
Street and subway musicians are suffering under the same wave of harrassment. Subway musicians have even been harrassed for playing in spots where they are legally allowed to with the Music Under New York (MUNY) program.
Curbside newsstand operators have protested Giuliani’s plans to have all the old stands replaced with new mass-produced ones, to be covered with big-bucks adverstising that the operators are responsible for any vandalism against but wouldn’t get a cut of.
Community gardeners on the Lower East Side saw two gardens–one named for the Brazilian rainforest crusader Chico Mendez–bulldozed to make way for a yuppie condo development last Fall. Four more neighborhood gardens, mostly built and maintained by Puerto Rican and Dominican residents who reclaimed vacant and rubble-strewn lots, were sold of to developers in July. Also included in the auction was the Puerto Rican community center Charas, which reclaimed an abandoned schoolbuilding 20 years ago, and was given a lease by the city. Charas is challenging the sale in court, on the grounds that the City illegally refused to consider the group’s own bid for the property. The City, meanwhile, refuses to even say who the new owner is. Charas leader Armando Perez vows to resist eviction to the end.
While harrassment of the homeless has of course escalated, low-income tenants are also meeting with totalitarian tactics. In January, a tenement on the Lower East Side’s Stanton Street was demolished by the city after the summary eviction of the immigrant tenants. They were not even allowed back in to rescue pets or collect personal belongings before a City-contracted wrecking crane destroyed their home before their unbelieving eyes. The tenants deny City claims that their building was in danger of imminent collapse. The previous February, a squatter building on East Third Street was similarly destoryed with no notice to the evicted inhabitants.
Police brutality survivors, and their next-of-kin, charge Giuliani with running a city where cops can maim and kill with impunity. Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was tortured and ritually sodomized while in police custody last summer, is only the most prominent of a series of vicious police attacks on blacks across the city. The Louima case is being treated as outrageous only because of the twisted psycho-sexual angle. If the cops had merely beat Abner to death, or gunned him down when they first apprehended him, he wouldn’t be a household name in New York–he would have been a brief blurb on the news, if that. Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union has stepped down from the special commission Giuliani was forced to form following the Louima incident, charging it with being a toothless propaganda charade.
Giuliani, meanwhile, dismisses as empty propaganda the recent reports by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch charging the NYPD with systematic human rights abuses. The paramilitary NYPD “anti-drug” operations terrorize whole communities, especially in Brooklyn’s African American neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York.
The last year has seen a wave of no-knock wrong-address raids on black and Latino homes across the city, in which the apartments of unoffending citizens have been ransacked and children menaced at gunpoint. The mayor has refused to apologize for these violations. Giuliani defended the NYPDÕs record of 10 bogus busts out of 45,000 drug warrants last year. “I think 10 out of 45,000 is a very understandable percentage,” he told the press in early March. But records were not kept for warrantless raids–such as that which occurred just two weeks later at another Bronx apartment. Police battered down a door and charged in with guns drawn–to confront a grandmother, her daughter and six-year-old grandson watching TV. “I was scared they were going to shoot us,” said the youngster, Jaquan Fulton. Police said they misunderstood an informant’s directions to the apartment.
Police video cameras have been installed in Washington Squaure Park for anti-drug surveillance. Smoking a joint outdoors has become nearly impossible in Giuliani’s New York. Those busted for toking on the street are no longer given desk-appearance tickets, but are put “through the system,” waiting up to 72 hours in “The Tombs” of 100 Center Street to see a judge. The legal limit that arrestees can be held in The Tombs was recently expanded from 48 hours due to the system being overloaded with petty Òquality-of-lifeÓ arrests.
Cultural space in Giuliani’s New York is shrinking like a sphincter. Sex retailers and performers are protesting Giuliani’s restrictive zoning regulations, which purges them from most of the city. In addittion to holding public protests, sex workers and business owners are challenging the regulations before the US Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds.
Salsa musicians on Amsterdam Avenue are up in arms over Giuliani’s enforcement of the outdated “cabaret laws,” which ban bands with horn sections from business with no “cabaret license.”
The East Village rock’n'roll clubs CBGBs, Continental Divide and Coney Island High were recently the target of NYPD raids. The raids were officially to crack down on drug use by patrons, but CBGBs, the historic birthplace of punk rock and an establshed neighborhood institution, was actually closed by police in the raid when management couldnÕt find a copy of their liquor license.
The Chinatown community was angered in January over Giuliani’s refusal to accomodate in any form the traditional Chinese New Year celebration on the grounds that fireworks disturb the peace. Community leaders offered to keep the firecrackers confined to certain blocks, but Giuliani wouldn’t give an inch. For the first time in Chinatown’s history, the traditional celebration was not held.
City employees are facing lay-offs as no-wage “workfare” workers are brought in for many jobs. Hospital workers have repeatedly held protests in Harlem over plans to privatize or close the only hospital in a community where the life expectancy is lower than that of Bangladesh. Giuliani wants to spend $600 million to move Yankee Stadium from The Bronx to Upper Manhattan (a move protested by Bronx leaders as racist) at the same time that he threatens to shut down Harlem Hospital in the name of austerity!. Workfare workers, in turn, protest that the city has refused to recognize their union, on the grounds that they are not really workers.
On June 30, thousands of construction workers, angered over the Metropolitan Transportation AuthorityÕs awarding a construction contract to a non-union company, held a militant march in Midtown, battling the police who tried to restrain them from taking the streets.
In April 1995, thousands of students from the City University of New York (CUNY) protested at City Hall against budget cuts. They were joined by many kids from the city’s public high schools, which are overcrowded and in disrepair, with classes even being held in bathrooms. Giuliani, as he slashed the education budget, complained that some of the protestorÕs signs misspelled his name.
The student struggle continues. This June, after surveillance cameras were discovered hidden in smoke detectors in student meeting rooms at City College of New York (CCNY, a part of the CUNY system), officials said they had been installed to combat burglary. But an affidavit by the college security director in a suit filed by students admitted that they were actually aimed at gathering intelligence on planned student protests against budget cuts.
Anger against Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is fast growing in New York City. Whether the various constituencies he is making life hell for will be able to unite in an effective multi-issue coalition remains to be seen.