At first glance, Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City and elite business tycoon, would appear to be a respectable, balanced speaker for Williams College’s 225th Commencement ceremony. Bloomberg’s history and track record as a three-term mayor, however, would suggest otherwise. Looking at his time in office, Bloomberg’s intolerant, antidemocratic, authoritarian political orientation becomes all too clear. Let me explain.
To begin with, Bloomberg’s endorsement and intense escalation of the NYPD’s ostensibly preventative stop-and-frisk policy illustrates a profound abridgement of civil rights and the freedom America purports to stand for. More specifically, it undermines the notion of racial equality under the law. Stop-and –frisk, a prevention tactic allowing police officers to stop-and-frisk individuals on suspicion of criminal activity, was first approved by the Supreme Court in 1968. Despite its legal underpinnings, many have criticized the NYPD’s implementation of this practice on the grounds that it does not actually prevent crime. In addition to this, many have challenged the law on the basis that those being stopped were unfairly, racially profiled. The backwardly racist character of the NYPD’s implementation of this practice is evidenced by the fact that over 80% of the 4.4 million people stopped between 2004 and 2012 were African American or Latino.[i] Similarly, its inefficacy is exemplified by the statistics revealing that approximately 1% of these 4.4 million stop-and-frisks resulted in the seizure of a weapon, and moreover, only 0.2% stops actually yielded guns.[ii]
Over the past few years, David Floyd, an African American stopped-and-frisked by the NYPD, has challenged this policy through the legal system with an array of federal class action lawsuits against the NYPD, police commissioner Raymond Kelley, and Mayor Bloomberg. In a momentous decision announced last August, Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy is unconstitutional, as it violates the fourth (prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure) and the fourteenth amendments (guaranteeing racial equality under the law). Despite this decision and the piles of evidence supporting it, Bloomberg remained vehement in his support of the policy, arguing that it prevents crime and keeps guns off of the streets while rightly targeting those suspected of crimes (i.e. African American and Latino youth). This authoritarian, implicitly racist attitude is embodied in the shocking fact that during Bloomberg’s time in office, from 2002-2011, there was an astonishing 600% increase in forcible stops.[iii] The year he assumed office, 2002, was marked by 97,296 forcible stops, whereas, in 2011, 685,724 stops were reported. The unnecessary and authoritarian nature of this policy and its benefactors is illustrated by the Guardian’s recent survey of retired police officers which indicates that of those retiring “before 1995, only 9.1% felt high pressure to write stop-and-frisk reports”.[iv] On the other hand, since 2002, 35% of NYPD officers surveyed responded that they “feel high pressure to write stop-and-frisk reports”.[v]
Even if one hasn’t read the NY Times bestseller, The New Jim Crow, by civil rights litigator and legal scholar, Michelle Alexander, it is likely that they still recognize the two-tier, socially and racially disparate nature of the US legal system. In her work, Alexander focuses on the Drug War as a legal means of enforcing racial and socioeconomic modes of discrimination and oppression that have been rampant in this country since its founding. Likewise, as Angela Davis astutely pointed out in her speech last month, Americans, primarily those of African American and Latino descent, are disproportionately incarcerated (we have 25% of the world’s prisoners and 5% of the population and the highest incarceration rate in the world) by the US legal system and prison-industrial-complex (i.e., the ever-expanding for-profit prison industry). This flood of racially and socioeconomically disparate incarcerations is reproduced and propelled by practices like the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy and individuals bolstering it, most notably, former mayor Bloomberg. In effect, although he postures as a moderate who sincerely cares about helping New York City, the US and the world at large, Bloomberg’s policies have perpetuated the oppressive system of socioeconomic and racial inequality and discrimination which has, for a long time, been plaguing the American public.
Bloomberg’s anti-egalitarian, undemocratic, authoritarian stance is further illustrated by his reaction to the peaceful, democratic protesters of Occupy Wall-Street. In the midst of the Occupy protests in November, 2011, NYPD officers armed in riot gear swept Zuccotti Park to clear peaceful protesters and their property from the premises. Many protesters and supporters objected to this on the grounds that it violated their right to the first amendment, and furthermore, that it impeded democracy insofar as it stymied their direct involvement in the political sphere. In their confrontation with police, hundreds of nonviolent protesters, many of whom were college students, were arrested. Bloomberg, still mayor at the time, justified the actions in a press conference, arguing that “The First Amendment protects speech…It doesn’t protect the use of tents and sleeping bags to take over a public space”.[vi] He continued that the “prolonged presence of demonstrators in the confined area had begun to pose a health and safety risk to protesters and the public.”[vii] This is perplexing because, in reality, testosterone-raging police officers armed with batons posed far greater a threat to the health of the protesters (here are some shocking yet revealing images: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nypd-twitter-campaign-mynypd-backfires-article-1.1765159) . The true intentions of Bloomberg’s statement become evident when looking to the fact that not too far from Zuccotti Park, one can rent a $10-a-night room in what has been referred to as “Manhattan’s secret tenement”, or simply as “hell”.[viii] In Bloomberg’s eyes, this cramped, single-room occupancy “hotel” or ‘human kennel”, composed of small rooms forged out of chicken wire—truly an embodiment of the socioeconomic inequality the Occupy movement was protesting—remains a nonissue, posing no health threat to the public. At the same time, however, peaceful protesters camping in a public park are forcibly removed and arrested for engaging in a politics beyond the scope of the voting for this or that party once every four years. Why? Because they made Bloomberg and his ilk feel uncomfortable by raising the valid and pressing issues of the widening gap between rich and poor and massive income inequality in the US. This discomfort was precipitated by the fact that the protesters undermined the presently flawed binary (i.e. democrat or republican) system of representative government by participating in democracy in an open, direct way.
In light of Bloomberg’s unambiguously antidemocratic, authoritarian, and implicitly racist policies and views, it is paradoxical and utterly hypocritical for an institution promoting noble causes, such as, “the liberal arts”, civic virtues, diversity, and tolerance, to invite such a speaker to lead the Commencement ceremony. The Williams College Mission and Purposes states that “Williams seeks to provide the finest possible liberal arts education by nurturing in students the academic and civic virtues, and their related traits of character”, and furthermore, that “civic virtues include commitment to engage both the broad public realm and community life”. This written statement, gallantly emphasizing the importance of political engagement, open-mindedness, civic virtue and community engagement, is contradicted and undermined by Bloomberg’s approaching Commencement address. Thus, one might wonder why a tolerant, “liberal” intuition like Williams would honor someone who disregards democracy, undermines direct political engagement and perpetuates a system of oppression, socioeconomic and racial inequality. It is time that the actions of this institution begin resembling its statements and gestures towards liberalism and tolerance.
– Mendy Bindell