Bill de Blasio: The Progressive Movement Is Alive and Well in NYC

The former activist and New York public advocate looks back at his first year as mayor.

Interview with Eric Alterman
The Nation via Alternet

Jan 14, 2015 – In October 2014, Nation columnist Eric Alterman sat down with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in his City Hall office. Open and affable, de Blasio spent the hourlong interview reflecting on his whirlwind first year as mayor, his earliest political influences, the meaning of the word “progressive,” and why he sees no contradiction between movement politics and holding elected office. The interview, which has been edited and condensed for publication, was conducted as part of a study supported by the Center for American Progress, where Alterman is also a senior fellow.  The study wlil be published as a forthcoming Nation eBook, Inequality and One City: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One, to be published in February.

Eric Alterman: Have you ever given any thought to why you are so focused on the issue of economic inequality? Obviously, it’s an enormous problem, but few, if any, politicians have made it as central a focus as you have.

Bill de Blasio: Like most things, I think it’s profoundly personal. My parents had me late—they were both 44—and they were quintessential children of the Depression, so that was part of the endless dialogue loop at family meals. And I think that notion of the people you’re closest to having experienced intense economic disruption left a lifelong imprint. There’s one piece, to begin.

I’ve come up in public schools throughout my life, and I think just the connection to every kind of person—including people who were grappling with poverty—gave me another perspective. A bit of it is academic: doing urban studies at New York University, doing Latin American studies at Columbia for my master’s that implicitly got into issues of disenfranchisement and poverty. Some of it is the work I did in Central America—being there, but also dealing with a lot of folks in the liberation-theology movement. It was a lot of different pieces. And then it kind of goes into overdrive through the Dinkins years, dealing with communities all over the city. So much of our foundation came from communities that were struggling.

Alterman: What was your exact job under Dinkins?

de Blasio: For most of the time, I was special assistant to Bill Lynch, who was the deputy mayor. So I just got incessant exposure to community leaders and activists. And then everything I’ve learned through twenty-three years with Chirlane [his wife]—everything she’s seen in her own life and what she’s experienced in her broader community. So I think it’s sort of one piece built upon the other. Even the eight years on the City Council—when you serve a distinct community or set of neighborhoods, a lot of that time is hearing people talk about their lives. Even pre–economic crisis, it was quite clear to me it was happening across a range of demographics different than might have been assumed. I had a huge Orthodox Jewish community; a lot of the folks within that community were really struggling economically, and that was a part of my constituency. I had a lot of folks who came to me, because you turn to your council member if you have some insurmountable personal financial problem or you can’t pay your mortgage. So all this was like a constant soundtrack. And then I was also the chairman of the General Welfare Committee, which was the social-services committee. So I had endless meetings with advocates and community leaders about the challenges they faced.

Alterman: So you would say it’s more experiential than wonkish?

de Blasio:Absolutely. I mean, some of it comes from study, both in terms of my brief academic life and as an adult—

Alterman: For the parts that were wonkish, what thinkers or sources would you say you relied on?

de Blasio:The Nation was one for quite a while—literally. That was a big influence, particularly early on. It’s not like I have a group of theorists I turn to regularly. I think I took an interest, and so when anything went by, I paid attention. But I really think it’s experiential; I really think it comes from personal stories, starting with my own life and then going out farther and farther into communities.

And, look, there’s a certain empathy that you should have in this work. I get very, very affected by the personal stories. I feel a bit like an oral historian: I’ve been out there just listening to thousands and thousands of people, and it really gives you a sum total. So, for example, the effects of the economic crisis—I had a real strong early imprint on how bad that was, and it was huge. I mean, I value public-opinion polling, I value focus groups—I don’t mean to sound hokey here. But I think it is amazing how much some of the trends that we later saw—for example, on the campaign last year—were evident through a lot of anecdotal information, just from human interaction. So I really lean on that.

Alterman: You often talk about yourself as part of a progressive movement. But a lot of people would say there is the potential for conflict between being a movement leader and being the mayor of New York City. So I’m wondering what you think is the role of the movement, and what is its role in your mayoralty?

de Blasio: So let me start by framing it—why do I say movement? My earliest political experiences were clearly in movements: the disarmament movement, the Central America movement, a lot of different things. That is the template that makes sense to me personally, and I think elected office is supposed to be an offshoot of that ideal. So, for me, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a council member or you’re mayor. There’s a consistency to how you make change—in my view, progressive change—and how you connect it to the grassroots.

So I have never felt a contradiction. I have never felt there’s anything inconsistent about thinking in movement terms and having an executive office. I think there are elements of the executive office that demand a different skill or different priorities or create a much more nuanced reality than if you’re just in the movement and you’re just speaking to one issue, for example. But I don’t think there’s a fundamental contradiction. In fact, I would argue that, when done right, elective office—particularly executive elective office—allows movement ideas to really flower, to really take shape. And that’s exciting to me.

I certainly know my share of progressives who think the only way to push the spectrum is from the outside, or that the only way to make change is to organize it from the grassroots. I think it is a true statement that the most persistent and profound social change begins at the grassroots—there’s no question in my mind about that. But I don’t think government, elective office, is like a no-fly zone. I’ve always felt it’s a necessary part of making change, and the fact that we, as progressives, have not had as much experience in recent decades doesn’t negate the concept.

Look at history: La Guardia, whose desk is right there inspiring me every day, is one of the great examples locally. There’s a rich history—from the Progressive Era, 100 years ago, to the present—of progressive governors, progressive mayors, progressive legislators. So I’ve always felt that was normal and necessary.

Alterman: And you see evidence of a vibrant progressive movement in the city today?

de Blasio:I think there is a clear movement in this city today fighting inequality. Fast-food workers are one of the most obvious manifestations. The efforts of the more progressive unions to organize new sectors, the fight for paid sick leave—this is all pieces of a movement. Do they all meet in the same room? Not necessarily. Is there one coordinating council? No. But is there a coherence when you see a lot of progressive labor [unions] and a lot of advocates, nonprofits and media organizations fighting for bringing up wages and benefits? Absolutely.

I think it’s been incredibly effective. I think our job was to give a lot more shape in government to what that movement could achieve. But I’m quite convinced that a lot of people laid the foundation over the last decade so that this could happen now. So that has every element, to me, of what a classic and effective movement is. I think there was clearly a movement around policing issues—and, again, a very effective one, particularly around stop-and-frisk: very broad, lots of focal points of leadership, some better known than others, but it was quite a broad and deep movement. Lots of community leaders, clergy, elected officials, organizations—and it worked. It redefined the debate and forced action. (Continued)

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Blood On Their Hands: The Racist History of Modern Police Unions

By Flint Taylor
In These Times

Jan 14, 2015 – Outraged by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s statements concerning the killing of Eric Garner, Patrick Lynch, the longtime leader of the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the NYPD’s officers union, recently made the outrageous assertion that the Mayor had “blood on his hands” for the murder of the two NYPD officers.

In Milwaukee this past fall, the Police Association called for, and obtained, a vote of no confidence in MPD Chief Ed Flynn after he fired the officer who shot and killed Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed African American; subsequently, the union’s leader, Mike Crivello, praised the District Attorney when he announced that he would not bring charges against the officer.

In Chicago, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), a longtime supporter of racist police torturer Jon Burge, is now seeking to circumvent court orders that preserve and make public the police misconduct files of repeater cops such as Burge, by seeking to enforce a police contract provision that calls for the destruction of the files after seven years.  And in a show of solidarity with the killer of Michael Brown, Chicago’s FOP is soliciting contributions to the Darren Wilson defense fund on its website.

Such reactionary actions by police unions are not new, but are a fundamental component of their history, particularly since they came to prominence in the wake of the civil rights movement. These organizations have played a powerful role in defending the police, no matter how outrageous and racist their actions, and in resisting all manner of police reforms.

New York

In June 1966, New York City Mayor John Lindsay, responding to widespread complaints of police brutality, called for a civilian review board. Five thousand off duty NYPD cops rallied at City Hall in opposition, and the head of the PBA, leading the campaign against civilian review, intoned that “I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups, with their whims and their gripes and shouting. Any review board with civilians on it is detrimental to the operations of the police department.” Invoking the specter of increased crime, the PBA mounted a massive public relations campaign against the measure, and it was defeated in a referendum that year.

In 1975, in response to proposed budget cuts that included police layoffs, the PBA ordered a rampage through the city’s black and Puerto Rican communities, with thousands of off duty cops waving their guns, banging on trash cans, and blowing whistles for several nights until Mayor Abe Beame obtained a restraining order.

Ten years later, after Mayor Ed Koch revived the issue of civilian review in the wake of a white cop killing Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly and mentally ill black woman, the PBA again condemned the idea, staged a work slowdown in response to the attempted prosecution of the officer, Stephen Sullivan, and pressured Koch into reinstating Sullivan even though he had been criminally charged with the killing.

In 1992, when David Dinkins, the first (and only) African-American Mayor of New York City sought to implement a civilian review agency to investigate allegations of police misconduct, the PBA organized another City Hall rally in protest. This time, the crowd of officers numbered 10,000, with PBA members hurtling barricades, jumping on cars, blocking the Brooklyn Bridge and kicking a reporter. Some of the rally’s participants carried signs showing Dinkins with a bushy Afro haircut and swollen lips, with racist slogans, including ones that ridiculed him as a “washroom attendant.”

In the mid-1990s, the independent Mollen Commission, appointed by Mayor Dinkins to investigate police corruption, documented widespread police perjury, brutality, drug dealing and theft in the NYPD, and found that “by advising its members against cooperating with law-enforcement authorities, the P.B.A. often acts as a shelter for and protector of the corrupt cop." These findings were seconded by senior NYPD officials and prosecutors who were quoted by the New York Times as saying that they would continue to “have trouble rooting out substantial numbers of corrupt officers as long as the P.B.A. resists them."

The Times further quoted these officials as complaining that the PBA, “fortified with millions of dollars in annual dues collections . . . is one of the most powerful unions in the city. As an active lobbyist in Albany and as a contributor to political campaigns, the P.B.A. has enormous influence over the department and is typically brought in for consultations before important management decisions are made."

In the Abner Louima case, the PBA’s role extended beyond reactionary advocacy and agitation to active participation in a conspiracy to cover-up the brutal crimes of its members. In 1997, an NYPD officer sexually assaulted Louima in a Precinct Station bathroom by violently shoving a broken broomstick into his rectum. His attacker and three of his police accomplices were charged with criminal civil rights offenses.

Evidence in the criminal proceedings revealed that a PBA official had chaired an early meeting with the implicated officers, one of whom was a PBA delegate, at which they fabricated a false story designed to exonerate one of the conspirators. Even after the officers were convicted, the PBA continued to defend the officers, both publicly and with financial support, and to advocate for them with their fabricated version of events—with none other than Patrick Lynch claiming that “people with a political agenda have fanned the flames of this incident,” leading to an “innocent man  . . . being punished beyond belief.”

More recently, Lynch and the PBA, together with the NYPD sergeants and captains associations, after condemning Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin’s order that sharply limited the NYPD’s discriminatory stop and frisk policies, unsuccessfully sought to appeal her order after Mayor de Blasio made good on his campaign promise not to appeal.

And this past year, confronted with another indefensible case of NYPD violence, PBA President Lynch again went on the offensive. In August, after the medical examiner determined that Eric Garner’s death at the hands of officer Daniel Pantaleo was a homicide by means of a chokehold, Lynch declared that the examiner was “mistaken” in finding that the death was a homicide, and that he had “never seen a document that was more political than that press release by the [medical examiner].”

In a classic case of doubletalk, he further asserted that it was “not a chokehold. It was bringing a person to the ground the way we’re trained to do to place him under arrest." He chastised Mayor de Blasio for not “support[ing] New York City police officers unequivocally.”

In December, Lynch praised the Staten Island Grand Jury’s decision not to charge Panteleo, while accusing Garner of resisting arrest, brushing off two police misconduct lawsuits—one for sexual assault during a search— brought against Panteleo and idolizing him as “literally an Eagle Scout,” a “model” cop, and “mature, mature” officer.

And once again, the PBA unleashed a work slowdown in further protest of Mayor de Blasio that lasted several weeks.


In Chicago, the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents CPD patrol officers, has a similarly notorious history.  (Continued)

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The NYPD’s Mini-Rebellion, and the True Face of American Fascism

By Andrew O’Hehir
Progressive America Rising via Salon

Jan 5, 2015 – In 1935, with Hitler and Mussolini forging a historic alliance in Europe and the world sliding toward war, Sinclair Lewis published the satirical novel “It Can’t Happen Here,”which depicted the rise of an indigenous American fascist movement.

Lewis is a fine prose stylist, but this particular book has an overly melodramatic plot, and is highly specific to its era. It has not aged nearly as well as “Brave New World” or “1984,” and not many people read it today. (At the time, it was understood as an attack on Sen. Huey Longof Louisiana, the populist firebrand who was planning to run against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, but was assassinated before he could do so.)

But certain aspects of Lewis’ fascist America still resonate strongly. His clearest insight came in seeing that the authoritarian impulse runs strong and deep in American society, but that because of our unique political history and our confused national mythology, it must always be called by other names and discussed in other terms.

Oh, yeah — Happy New Year, everybody! Now let’s get back to fascism. When the “Corpo” regime installed by tyrannical President Buzz Windrip in “It Can’t Happen Here” strips Congress of its powers, tries dissidents in secret military courts and arms a repressive paramilitary force called the Minute Men, most citizens go along with it. (Yeah, some of that sounds familiar — we’ll get to that.) These draconian measures are understood as necessary to Windrip’s platform of restoring American greatness and prosperity, and even those who feel uncomfortable with Corpo policies reassure themselves that America is a special place with a special destiny, and that the terrible things that have happened in Germany and Italy and Spain are not possible here. No doubt the irony of Lewis’ title seems embarrassingly obvious now, but it was not meant to be subtle in 1935 either. His point stands: We still comfort ourselves with mystical nostrums about American specialness, even in an age when the secret powers of the United States government, and its insulation from democratic oversight, go far beyond anything Lewis ever imagined.

I’m not the first person to observe that the New York police unions’ current mini-rebellion against Mayor Bill de Blasio carries anti-democratic undertones, and even a faint odor of right-wing coup. Indeed, it feels like an early chapter in a contemporary rewrite of “It Can’t Happen Here”: Police in the nation’s largest city openly disrespect and defy an elected reformist mayor, inspiring a nationwide wave of support from “true patriots” eager to take their country back from the dubious alien forces who have degraded and desecrated it. However you read the proximate issues between the cops and de Blasio (some of which are New York-specific), the police protest rests on the same philosophical foundation as the fascist movement in Lewis’ novel. Indeed, it’s a constant undercurrent in American political life, one that surfaced most recently in the Tea Party rebellion of 2010, and is closely related to the disorder famously anatomized by Richard Hofstadter in his 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”  (Continued)

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