by Tom Angotti
Seems wherever we New Yorkers go these days we hear about the great job “our”mayor’s doing. They say that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has cleaned up the streets, cut the crime rate and pulled the city out of debt. He’s made unruly New York more civil, going after taxi drivers, jaywalkers, street peddlers and homeless people. And he’s oh so popular!
Back here at home, the sound bites praising Rudy fly right by us skeptical natives. Every day the local press reports that someone else has called the mayor a fascist. The Mayor replies with highly uncivil tongue lashings. Hizzoner gets a thrashing in the City Council because he routinely muzzles city employees and insults community and civic leaders. Complaints of police brutality have tripled. A federal court has reprimanded City Hall for witholding permits for demonstrations the Mayor doesn’t approve of. And the Mayor has made his government a military bunker. The New York Times, which supported his election, thinks “Mr. Giuliani acts as if the government owns information that belongs to the public.”
Truth is, it’s only cleaner and more orderly in the neighborhoods where three-piece suits define the fashion. In the neighborhoods without a Starbucks, where tourists never tread, most improvements can be traced to the hard struggles and efforts by people who live and work there. The inflated Giuliani reputation, a product of Madison Avenue, not Bedford Avenue, covers up the fact that crime declined at the same rate under his predecessor, Mayor David Dinkins, and the downward trend is a national one. Were it not for the Wall Street boom, the City would be broke and the pain from Giuliani’s service cuts would be unbearable.
The biggest omission in the Giuliani fairy tale is the degree to which he has become the hero for the bare majority of white folks in New York City › and the big majority in the ‘burbs › while arousing deep distrust among African-Ameri-cans, Latinos and other minorities. With less than half the eligible voters showing up at the polls, he got 80% of the white vote and less than 20% of the black vote.
The Mayor has been the darling of right-wing elements in the mostly white police force and has resisted even moderate calls for an independent police review commission to investigate police brutality. At a 1992 City Hall rally, he egged on a group of rowdy, beer-soaked cops yelling racial slurs. He sharply criticized David Dinkins, the city’s first African-American mayor, for restraining the police during the Crown Heights riots. The rather mild-mannered New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, commenting on the army of police sent to occupy Harlem during the peaceful “Million Man March”this year, said the Mayor “abused the power of his office by turning a large section of Harlem into a police encampment. By doing that he humiliated thousands of perfectly peaceful and law-abiding residents whose only offense was that they are black…. Rudolph Giuliani would never, but never, treat an entire neighborhood of white people the way he treated the people in the vicinity of Lenox Avenue.”This is the Mayor who reportedly told a Washington Post reporter, when asked about African-Americans and Latinos, “they’re alive, aren’t they?”
Giuliani’s nightstick is not only for blacks. A recent peaceful vigil to commemorate the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man in Wyoming, was attacked by an army of police because the marchers stepped off the sidewalk into the street.
Giuliani’s distaste for first amendment rights of speech and assembly seem to stem from a twisted philosophy of government. Newsday quoted the Mayor as saying: “Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do and how you do it.”
Neighborhoods and Planning
For community development efforts in neighborhoods this mayor has been a disaster. His administration routinely ignores the 59 advisory community boards, and has done nothing to support community-based planning. Far from “reinventing”government, the imperial Pooh-bah has chased out independent civil servants and installed only loyalists. Consequently, few agency heads will stick their necks out to support community initiatives that don’t have City Hall’s explicit blessing. And any person or organization that criticizes the Mayor will not get that blessing. For example, the city’s largest non-profit provider of housing for people with AIDS was cut off by City Hall because they criticized the Mayor.
Here are a few samples of this administration’s record. While blabbering about the “quality of life,”Giuliani has set out to take over thousands of community gardens for housing sites › in the city with the lowest ratio of open space per person in the country. His administration is closing down the city’s last landfill and planning to truck most solid waste through low-income waterfront neighborhoods already saturated with noxious facilities. At the same time he has cut recycling and waste reduction efforts. His energetic enforcement of welfare “reform”has cut off a major source of income in some neighborhoods, and put welfare recipients to work for the city with unliveable wages and no job protection. His budget this year included less money for education and mass transit, despite a $1 billion surplus. In Albany and Washington, he has gone along with and even cheered budget cuts that affect education, health care and social services.
So it’s Giuliani time! The hero of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, arguably the richest neighborhood in the world, is hopping around the country looking for Republican support for a possible run for national office. He fits right in with the Republican tough guy image. He’s New York’s Pat Robertson, full of populist rhetoric, mean-spirited and unyielding before the powerless.
What about Fascism?
The Honorable Mayor is quick to denounce those who sling the epithet of fascism his way, citing prejudice against Italian-Americans. He may be right about some of the criticism. Not everything that’s undemocratic is fascist, and most fascists aren’t Italians.
But fascism is not an Italian thing, nor is it popular among Italian-Americans. Consider the rarely discussed anti-fascist and progressive traditions in Italy and among Italian-Americans. The first Italian-American mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia, who had a brash and uncivil style like Giuliani, was an early and consistent opponent of fascism and a strong supporter of civil liberties, the New Deal and social reform. For every right-winger like Al D’Amato and Rudy Giuliani there’s a liberal like Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro.
Also, fascism is institutional, national and systemic, and cannot be installed in one city or by one person. The victims of apartheid and Nazism understand the horrors of living in a fully militarized state based on terror and the repression of working class people.
Having said all this, Rudolph Giuliani and his Republican comrades across the country have taken us a big step towards fascist rule. Even more alarming than Giuliani’s support for the reactionary elements in the police and government, his breaches of constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly, and his plays to racist sentiments, is the absence of any serious challenge to him from the financial establishment that can make or break a politician. Wall Street elites appear to be perfectly content to be represented by this nasty fellow. The press is gentle and intimidated. Historically, fascism has overcome democracy when the ruling class loses its ability to rule through democratic means, and government violations of human rights and freedom are condoned.
Another warning is the support given Giuliani by large sections of organized labor. The main municipal union, District Council 37, backed Giuliani in exchange for a pledge that there would be no layoffs. The price we paid: the municipal workforce has declined by several hundred thousand due to attrition and buy-out schemes. And the union will not organize workfare employees who are replacing city workers. Many fascist regimes have historically assumed a corporatist form, gaining support from both business and unions. Something to keep in mind in our discussions about labor and community at the Planners Network Ç99 Conference.
Yes, it can happen here. African-Americans understand fascism after living for 200 years in slavery and another 100 years under Jim Crow. Racism, after all, is at the core of the U.S. experience with fascism. Rudolph Giuliani is now a front-runner for the New York Senate seat soon to be vacated by Daniel Moynihan, and is testing the national waters for a possible run for higher office. If he comes to your town, I hope you’ll greet him with the same incivility he shows us here at home.