In normal times, a group planning a major push in next year's City Council elections built around cutting the police force in half, putting a moratorium on arrests, canceling rent and canceling debts would be written off as the spit-for-brains wing of the Democratic Party.
But a time in which the coronavirus and Donald Trump in the White House are both realities, as well as the gains the Democratic Socialists of America has made in both the State Legislature and the Chicago City Council over the past two years, makes even the more far-fetched goals of the NYC DSA impossible to dismiss.
Never mind that suggesting that the city could lose half its 34,000 cops at a point when murders and shootings are far above last year's levels is ridiculous, that ceasing to make arrests in that climate is even nuttier, and that canceling rent and debt are the sort of ideas that even landlords and bankers who live on Utopia Parkway wouldn't accept.
The DSA is under the impression that if Mr. Trump's disregard for American institutions and ideals can play on the right of the political spectrum, why not aim for something equally radical on the left? Especially when it's burrowing its way to power in city and state legislative bodies, rather than starting at the White House.
But its most-successful candidate, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, online idol of millions though she may be, has yet to translate her Twitter following into true political power as she heads toward her second term in Congress. And at least a half-dozen of the 34 current Council Members who are barred from seeking another term next year are among those who thought it was a good idea to cut the NYPD budget by more than the $1 billion it was actually reduced for the current fiscal year, meaning their replacements won't necessarily push the body further to the left.
The national DSA backed four state-legislative Democratic primary winners, who are virtually assured of winning election in November, in addition to supporting incumbent State Sen. Julia Salazar in Brooklyn. The group also endorsed six winning Council candidates in Chicago.
Will Pendulum Start to Swing Back?
But the bruising budget battle over how far to cut the NYPD inflicted scars and burned bridges as some on the left overreacted as frustration set in that the Council was not going to do a full buckle.
There were threatening phone calls and demonstrations outside the homes of some Council Members who had moments of sanity that alternated with their decision to overwhelmingly pass a bill that criminalized the compression of suspects' diaphragms by cops trying to make arrests. Council Speaker Corey Johnson, initially apologetic that the police cuts didn't go deeper, disappeared for a couple of weeks, as the realization sank in that much of the city's population—whose votes he would have sought had he run for Mayor next year—did not share the fury of the Occupy City Hall zealots, and wanted police strength to be maintained even while favoring some reforms.
When the Green New Deal, backed strongly by the DSA, with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez one of its two congressional authors, drew fire for calling for a guaranteed income to be provided even to those "unwilling to work," the defense was that this was a first draft that was deleted in an updated version.
But while NYC DSA's criminal-justice platform was first approved in early June, the manifesto containing its comprehensive list of reforms that was released in September included some changes that didn't look quite so compelling as summer wound down.
Item 8 on the group's general reforms read: "Reduce policing to improve public health. To reduce the spread of disease in and out of prisons, New York should place an immediate moratorium on all arrests until after the crisis subsides."
A Caban Comeback
This latter idea reeked of what might be called Creeping Cabanism, in honor of Tiffany Caban, who barely missed being elected Queens District Attorney last year despite her favoring the closing of Rikers Island but opposing the placement of any of its inmates in the borough jails that would remain. It should not shock anyone that Ms. Caban is one of the more-prominent prospective candidates for Council seats who will have NYC DSA's backing.
Under the heading of "Long-Term Goals for a People's Bailout," immediately following a call for "State ownership of business and worker control," was this item: "Divest from the NYPD and invest in social services. We will need emergency support and strengthened social services in the coming weeks and months and probably even years. Now is the time to cut the NYPD's almost $6 billion budget and instead divert those funds to non-carceral approaches to direct service delivery and addressing social problems."
Another section of the platform called #DEFUNDNYPD got more specific, stating, "Cut NYPD budget & police force by 50% immediately." It went on, "End Stop & Frisk, Close Rikers, No New Jails, Free Them All." And it concluded, "Police do not keep us safe. They enforce white supremacy and exploitation by the billionaire class with violence."
It's not so much that such thoughts are way outside the mainstream. It's that the rhetoric doesn't seem to have evolved beyond college classrooms in which professors and their students seek stature by posturing.
The impression of suspended adolescence wasn't helped by another totem ancient enough to be part of my college days (which ended 45 years ago): digressing from local issues to ask those seeking the NYC DSA's endorsement for Council seats earlier this summer to pledge that they would not travel to Israel, in order to show their solidarity with the Palestinian cause. The argument offered by a DSA spokeswoman at the time was, "The State of Israel receives more U.S. military aid than any other country does."
Method to the Madness?
Asked Sept. 22 about the proposals concerning the police and a moratorium on arrests, former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer responded, "That's insane; nobody wants to do that." Speaking about the problems a moratorium on arrests would have in dealing with mentally ill people who are prone to violence at a time when there are diminishing treatment options, so they are more likely to be sent to Rikers Island, the former Acting Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman said, "Like the guy who derailed the A train, and then we find out that he's a likely candidate for [previously] throwing concrete through a bus window? And we shouldn't have locked him up on high bail? Are you joking?"
Mr. Ferrer, who ran for Mayor in 2001 and 2005, getting the Democratic nomination in that second campaign while giving first voice to "Tale of Two Cities" argument (he proved no match for Michael Bloomberg's spending excesses and a solid record during his first term), recalled being interviewed by DSA back then. When he told its leadership that one of the issues in the race was whether an ordinary working person should reasonably expect that when he went to his car in the morning, its battery would not have been stolen overnight, he recalled quizzical stares, as if it was impolite to mention street crime as a greater concern than the schools-to-prison pipeline.
But, he said, DSA's sometimes-pie-in-the-sky agenda is "not about socialism. It's about a disconnect between what people are offering out there. And people are tired of the lack of choice—and the choices."
That was how Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was able to overcome the disadvantages she faced 27 months ago when she defeated 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley—at the time the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives—despite a lack of funding and no labor or political endorsements worth touting.
'People Want Change'
"Crowley was a very serviceable, more-than-adequate Congressman" in a district split between The Bronx and Queens, said Mr. Ferrer, a former Bronx Borough President. "That wasn't what people wanted. People want some prospect of change, with all that connotes."
He rejected as unfair a comparison between the DSA's radical ideas and Mr. Trump's radical practices in office, but added, "The reason why Trump did so well [in 2016] is because he tapped into a frustration with our politics. People felt marginalized, frustrated and screwed over, and those feelings haven't changed" for workers who are at the other end of the political spectrum.
While many of those who didn't like his platform in the 2005 challenge to Mr. Bloomberg perceived him as "a dangerous radical," Mr. Ferrer said, the different type of dissonance he encountered during his interview with the DSA about what that mayoral election was about will be in play next year in the Council races. "That is going to be the cutting edge of the issue here: what resonates with the elites, and what resonates with ordinary working people."
No rational person thinks that cutting the police force in half is a workable solution, he said. But for too long, he continued, those in the political establishment considered it gauche to question any aspect of the NYPD's spending, including the "Giuliani and Ray Kelly-inspired move of police officers to foreign countries" with the stated aim of conducting anti-terrorism work.
"There's a debate to be had about using Police Department resources more efficiently," he said.
It wasn't clear whether he was talking about the squandering of officers' time and good will during the mayoralties of both Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg on the overuse of stop-and-frisk—an effective crime-prevention tool when used properly—or the failure to civilianize thousands of jobs that good-government experts as well as District Council 37 said didn't have to be performed by higher-paid cops.
'We Use the Injured?'
When I mentioned the NYPD barrier unit, which consisted of more than two dozen officers responsible for positioning both wooden and metal barriers at demonstration sites, Mr. Ferrer said he had asked that question going back to his days more than 30 years ago as a City Councilman. The response he got, he recalled, was, "We use the injured officers to do that."
He said he had responded, with some skepticism, "To lift those heavy barriers? Is that what we do?"
"It's like the Pentagon," he said of the NYPD, "because nobody's ever permitted to ask probing questions," including whether the number of desk jobs held by cops was designed to placate the police unions rather than the best way to deploy personnel.
"It's almost apostasy to question those things," Mr. Ferrer said.
On the other hand, he said, the department and its officers have long taken an unfair rap for their dealings with emotionally disturbed persons, a responsibility he said became theirs by default after other agencies found the task too daunting and politically perilous.
"We have to finally get our arms around the mentally ill," he said. "That's a real government failure: we keep sweeping it under the rug, crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. And it hasn't worked. But we have to hold people accountable for the outcomes. It's not fair to put it all on the police. And we have to keep the dangerous [EDPs] from harming themselves and harming other people."
Shaping the Debate
The more-outlandish NYC DSA ideas regarding defunding the police and placing a moratorium on arrests in deference to the coronavirus are "not popular and they're not going anywhere," Mr. Ferrer said. "They don't expect to have success. They expect to have an impact on the debate."
When I noted the number of leftist Council Members who can't seek another term (including Rory Lancman, the driving force behind the diaphragm-compression aspect of the new law criminalizing chokeholds) and wondered whether, even with 35 open Council races with no incumbent, counting the retirement of Ruben Diaz Sr., DSA could have a major impact in reshaping Council priorities, Mr. Ferrer said, "They've already made inroads," in reference to how much the budget debate had centered around cutting the NYPD.
"People are growing frustrated with the toxic nature of our politics and the widening gaps in income," he said. "We should examine this [city] budget. Nobody wants to defund the police. But to the extent that [NYC DSA] affects the debate on these very important issues, I certainly hope they have an impact."
He concluded, "The power of Black Lives Matter is that people are saying, 'I can't take this anymore,' " referring to the too-frequent cases of unarmed black people dying at the hands of the police. "What's so hard to understand about that?"
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