Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Taste of Things to Come
I got an e-mail around 4.30 this afternoon from an organization called Picture the Homeless, for which I went to one low-dollar fundraiser at a bar three or four years ago at which I must have written down my e-mail address, because I've been getting their stuff ever since. Usually I delete their stuff without a look, but this one was titled "BREAKING NEWS: Let Our People Go!" I thought that seemed worth a look.

It was. PTH was one of the participating groups in what the Times described as a "boisterous protest" Tuesday morning, culminating in arrests, at a breakfast event for business leaders where Mayor Bloomberg was speaking:

Mr. Bloomberg was about five minutes into his remarks when at least 100 people barged into the main ballroom at the Grand Hyatt New York hotel in Midtown, holding signs that read, “Mayor Bloomberg, Talk to All New Yorkers,” and chanting, “This is what democracy looks like.”

He stood stone-faced as the protesters filed in and surrounded several of the tables packed with bankers, developers and other business leaders who had paid up to $249 a head to hear him and others speak.
One of the protesters, Wanda Imasuen, of the Brooklyn-based organization Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, said that it was the exclusivity of the audience that spurred hers and several other groups representing low-income and immigrant city residents to disrupt the event.

“We don’t have a voice, we’re not at the table and we demand to be at the table,” Ms. Imasuen said. “We demand that the mayor gives us a meeting, not for corporate America to decide the fate of all New Yorkers.”

I actually attended an event last night at the New York City District Council of Carpenters building downtown, on "green jobs" and the federal stimulus proposal, at which a questioner mentioned this Bloomberg event today. Like many who speak up at such things, she seemed a little... well, let's go with "overwrought." The gist of her question was about why "labor wasn't at the table" in a conversation regarding the Future of New York City, which is how the conference was branded by Crain's New York Business magazine. The panelists weren't unduly upset; one of them, the political director for the Carpenters, stated "for the record" that, yes, the union was and is interested in the future of New York City, but they didn't worry that they wouldn't be a part of it because they weren't attending a breakfast that Crain's was doing. "Crain's has a lot of breakfasts," the director said.

But while some of us snickered at the exchange, the fact of this protest today makes me think she was onto something. People feel cut out of the action here: they see the mayor overturning term limits without needing any recourse to voters who had repeatedly supported the two-terms-and-done standard. They see Wall Street firms squandering unimaginable sums... and then getting billions more showered on them by the federal government with no strings attached. (I know there's another side to that story; I'm just talking about popular perception here.) The notion picks up steam that the rich and powerful--the people enjoying a swank breakfast at the Grand Hyatt New York hotel--are playing by a different set of rules. (As one admittedly oversimplified take on just how different, compare the state-of-the-art "Future" website, linked above, with that of FUREE, the group to which the protester quoted by the Times belongs. I could have designed and coded that thing. In 1999.)

If the whole game is rigged, the relative costs and benefits of doing something like barging into that room, waving signs and shouting slogans, start to look different than they do when you're convinced that you can get a fair hearing through the traditional channels. The eight arrests made at the scene, including someone from Picture the Homeless, will prove more than worthwhile to those detained given the publicity and, probably, fundraising surge likely to follow.

A few minutes later this afternoon, a colleague mentioned that Bloomberg has hired a prominent liberal advocate in the city to advise on his campaign. Reaction in the office ranged from "this proves he knows he's vulnerable" to "this is one more indication that he's just trying to scare potential opponents out of the race by co-opting key voices and locking up talent." There was also a bit of sentiment that this individual was "selling out"... though the person who raised that point also conceded that s/he might do the same if given the same opportunity, and that the advocate's likely next position--either in Bloomberg's third-term City Hall or his foundation--would provide a platform to do a lot of good.

As things stand right now, I don't see how Bloomberg loses this year; he's got too much money and too solid of a record, and the two guys most likely to run against him are, for very different reasons, fatally flawed candidates. (Personally, I'm still undecided about the race; the question remains unanswered whether a Bloomberg convinced of his own infallibility and ossified in his thinking is preferable to a Democrat who comes pre-corrupted by all the compromises New York City Democrats must make before they can get to that level.) But there is real anger and resentment in the city these days. I would be very surprised if Tuesday morning's protest is the last we see this year.


The Navigator said...

I should note that, just as I expressed agnoticism/skepticism about the degree of influence exerted by the DLC and the New Dems of the 80's/early 90's, I'm just as skeptical about the effectiveness of rude, uncompromising protests and guerilla theater like this kind of stunt. I think it does work, sometimes, in some ways, to accomplish some good, but much of the time it doesn't and a good deal of the time it's counterproductive. Yet I'm certain it's an important voice to have - I'm just never sure where, or when, its importance will be made manifest. For starters, having a loud, uncompromising voice on the (far?) left makes the center-left position look mainstream rather than extreme. Yet I don't know if Code Pink did a damn thing to make softer-voiced anti-war Dems more accepted or influential; I can't see it.

So ultimately it's hard to know whether to sympathize with these folks. If they genuinely didn't have a seat at the table, and the publicity, new donations, and apparent pressure on Bloomberg give them more access, then you'd have to say it was worthwhile, and they'd have my sympathy and support. But I can't tell from where I sit.

David said...

I'm definitely sympathetic with them--though I share your skepticism that they actually advanced their own cause by this stunt, and ultimately I probably would find almost as much to disagree with as to favor in what they want to see happen in terms of substance.

But they feel disrespected and ignored and marginalized, and my sense is that's valid. And much as I'm not thrilled to admit it--I voted for the guy last time, I might well do so again, and at bottom I think he has an absolutely correct approach to governing--I think their grievances are pretty well grounded in the experience of those communities over the course of this mayoralty. Even a symbolic gesture to suggest that they have a part and a stake in "the Future of NYC" was probably pretty satisfying.