This is an era of revolution, aristocracy, democratic fervor and authoritarian violence. It is a confusing time, when Russell Simmons, who hawks a credit card that bears his moniker, and Alec Baldwin, who does commercials for Capital One, both claim solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, the very identity of which stands opposed to a nefarious financial sector's abuse of American society and politics. It can sometimes be difficult, therefore, to identify heroes and villains reliably. In the wake of the eviction of Liberty Plaza Park, though, two city officials have emerged to fill those roles very clearly.
On the one hand, there is City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic to New York at age 18 and earned his degree from City College while driving taxis. He went on to get a masters degree and taught for 14 years at Washington Heights' Gregorio Luperon High School, which he helped found. (Full disclosure, I once held a teaching artist residency at that school.) On the City Council, Rodriguez became chair of the Higher Education Committee, where he ensured that City University of New York's budget did not suffer during a time of recession.
Part of an immigrant population and representing a neighborhood that is routinely subject to police brutality, Rodriguez himself was beaten by the New York Police Department (NYPD) during the eviction of Occupy Wall Street on Monday night. His offenses? Standing up for justice and exercising his constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech, free assembly and petition for redress of grievances. The councilman, who had recently led an 11-mile march from Washington Heights to Liberty Plaza Park, using his public stature to bring attention to the suffering of the urban poor during a period of staggering wealth accumulation for the 1 percent, was held without arraignment for more than 12 hours, denied access to an attorney, his friends, family and co-workers left to wonder if the state in which they had last seen him – bleeding from the head – has been addressed by medical professionals.
Rodriguez, upon release, indicated his cuts and bruises, telling well-wishers assembled to welcome him back into freedom, “This does not compare to the reality of working class New Yorkers: that they've got to be assaulted every day.”
On the other hand, there is Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who as the man in charge of a media conglomerate, has devoted his life to endless acquisition of wealth and power, becoming, at present, the 12th-richest man in America. When he is in America, that is – the mayor chooses to spend a considerable amount of time in his $10 million 6,000-square-foot mansion in Bermuda, lined with palm trees and furnished with tacky upholstery.
Bloomberg, by contrast, keeps the company exclusively of other extremely wealthy people, including his longtime, live-in girlfriend, Diana Taylor, the former New York State superintendent of banks who sits on the corporate board of Brookfield, which owns Zuccotti Park. His positions toward the working people Rodriguez represents is visible in his tendency to threaten public employees' jobs – not just teachers, but the very sanitation workers he sent to demolish, among other things, Occupy Wall Street's 5,000-volume people's library.
His honor also brazenly announced his inclination to prioritize public safety issues over the Bill of Rights, even when the “fire hazard” in question was so unthreatening that it appears not to have bothered him for three weeks until 1 AM one night. In a press conference, Bloomberg copped to this judgment. “From the beginning,” said the mayor, “I have said that the City had two principal goals: guaranteeing public health and safety and guaranteeing the protestors' First Amendment rights, but when those two goals clash, the health and safety of the public and our first responders must be the priority.” The mayor's oath of office, for the record, reads, “I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York and the Charter of the City of New York and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of the mayor of the City of New York to the best of my ability.”
While Rodriguez takes abuse and incarceration for his defense of the 99 percent, Michael Bloomberg sides with his friends in the 1 percent at every turn, siccing his militarized police squad on peacefully protesting civilians and authorizing them to use batons, mace, tear gas, sound cannons, bulldozers and fists to squelch dissent. Rodriguez and Bloomberg show that there are at least two ways to devote one's life to public service – that we inhabit a political moment in which exist both nationally coordinated anti-democratic brutality and the most radical stance politicians in America have felt enough courage to take in a generation.
It is the best of times; it is the worst of times.