Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Shame of the Cities

The coda to one of the more memorable political documentaries of recent years was written yesterday, when Newark's Mayor Sharpe James announced that he would not seek a sixth term. The 70-year-old James, mayor for the past two decades, was posed to enter a rematch of his victory over Cory Booker in the 2002 mayoral elections, as chronicled in "Street Fight", but withdrew his candidacy at the last minute.**

Watching Street Fight was a sad experience for a variety of reasons. Debra Dickerson nailed some of them: she found that watching the film was
seeing the civil rights movement played out again in documentary form but with black thugs surreally replacing the white ones. This time, it was blacks taking away black folks' jobs for complaining about the status quo. It was blacks intimidating black voters and rigging the ballot boxes. It was blacks using the police to threaten and harass blacks who dared to speak up....James is as arrogant, amoral and corrupt in his power, the power conferred on him by the blood of the Movement dead, as Jim Crow ever was. I have always suspected that blacks would be as fascist, greedy, violent, criminal, and racist as whites if given the opportunity to be so and Sharpe James proves me right, sadly.
She might have added that James' campaign was anti-Semitic as well - the mayor tried to paint Booker, untruthfully, as Jewish, with the obvious presumption that this was, and would be seen as, a bad thing.

Another depressing thing about this film was seeing several of the heavyweights of the black political community come down to Neward to support James. One sensed that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, among others, were turning up to show solidarity with a fellow veteran of the civil rights movement - Booker was barely 30, if that - but could they not have remained neutral? James' record of thuggish machine-style politics was well-known by 2002, and his opponent was hardly some caricature of the Jim Crow past - Jackson and Sharpton were lining up against an extremely promising example of the next generation of African American leaders: a progressive Democrat and a Rhodes scholar who lived in the projects and whose agenda resembled their own.

The documentary lens also turn onto Philly this week, as "Shame of a City" recounts the 2003 mayoral election here. It's playing Friday night the 31st, and next Thursday afternoon, at the Philadelphia Film Festival. From the promo:
While the media offered plenty of reports about the various “complaints of misconduct,” none of them truly captured the rough-and-tumble political street-fighting the way that this unflinching behind-the-scenes documentary does....What will really shock the viewer is the conduct shown by some of our elected officials, their advisors and the political thuggery of their supporters. Power-tripping, race-baiting, manipulative cries of victimization litter the screen. Perhaps the real shame of this city is that we (as Americans) shouldn’t have to accept this as “politics as usual,” but after watching this powerful film, we will probably be too tired, confused and disillusioned to fight what appears to be a systemic problem.
Jesse Jackson also turns up here, shaking the hand of Mayor John Street, who was reelected despite the revelation that the F.B.I. had been bugging his office for a major corruption investigation. (In fact, the revelation appeared to spur a rise in Street's poll numbers, presumably due to outrage at the apparent attempt to influence the election on the part of the feds - even though the bug was revealed by the mayor's own appointed police chief.)

I expect that the film makes Street and his associates look pretty bad - it's been reported that the documentarian, Tigre Hill, was embedded in the campaign of Street's opponent, Republican Sam Katz, so there was bound to be a certain element of suspicion/hostility towards Hill from the Street camp anyway, but I anticipate underhandedness that exceeds normal political negativity. On the other hand, Katz refused to renounce Rick Santorum, and made it clear that once in office he might well offer political and financial support for the national GOP agenda, like NYC's Mike Bloomberg. Katz was also reported to have had some shady business dealings in his past, which he tried to keep under wraps. So, in this case, it was, both literally and figuratively, more black-and-white than Newark in 2002, and it's much less disappointing that Jackson, among others, would campaign for a veteran black Democratic insider. (To his credit, I haven't heard anything suggesting that Street's campaign was anti-Semitic in any sense, although Katz, unlike Booker, actually is Jewish.)

** James' resignation letter says that he is 'an opponent of dual office holding,' because he's also a State Senator - yet he's held both jobs for seven years. This seems to be a weird New Jersey trend - recently, Dick Codey, who turned out to be a terrific interim governor, was simultaneously a State Senator as well. I, too, oppose dual office holding, especially in two supposedly distinct and counterbalancing branches as once, and that blind spot was pretty much the one thing I disliked about Codey's tenure, but now I see that it's par for the course in the Garden State.

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