The Democratic primary race for president has taken an interesting and disturbing turn as we approach the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday. It’s nothing new to say that money runs politics. Still, we have now reached a new level where self-funded billionaires are distorting what’s left of a faulty U.S. democratic system. A process that historically and currently deters full participation in the electoral process for people of color, women, the poor and the working class is now also directly and primarily funded by the richest individuals in the land — candidates who can use their unrestricted funds to further their unaccountability to the general voting populace and to rework their image as needed.
Democrats and others were astonished at the success of Donald Trump in 2016 through his overt appeals to white supremacist ideology and his use of his billionaire label to convince many white people that he had the business acumen to run the country and keep the “others” out. Not to be outdone, the Democratic establishment is now flirting with their billionaire of choice to be the establishment candidate to beat Trump.
Democrats are hoping that the incompetence, bluster and corruptness of Trump is enough to make some white people reconsider their vote in 2020. Although several moderate candidates are in the race, they seem to be getting eclipsed at this stage by a certain democratic socialist. In steps a new billionaire to save the day: Michael Bloomberg, who claims that he is best positioned to beat Trump based on his experience as mayor of New York and his newfound interest in racial justice and economic uplift for the Black community, a key Democratic demographic. Bloomberg has used tens of millions of dollars to paper over his mayoral record and to make payouts to surrogates, including a startling number of Black ones, to play up his newfound interest in the Black community. This includes Bloomberg singing the blues about how sorry he is now for the devastation wrought by stop-and-frisk policing during his three-term mayorship of New York.
Shortly before he entered the presidential race, Bloomberg went to the Christian Cultural Center, a Brooklyn-based Black church, and offered the following apology:
I can’t change history; however, today, I want you to know that I realize back then I was wrong, and I’m sorry.… Over time, I’ve come to understand something that I long struggled to admit to myself. I got something important wrong. I got something important really wrong. I didn’t understand … back then the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities. I was totally focused on saving lives, but as we know, good intentions aren’t good enough.
This message is now part of his stump speech: a bid to say “I’m sorry” right before he needs Black votes.
For those of us who lived under Bloomberg, we recognize that replacing one overt bad billionaire actor with another more discrete one is not much of a change. Bloomberg’s policy was not just something he inherited from the overtly right-wing Rudy Giuliani, it was something he embraced and elevated to astronomical levels.
Bloomberg’s New York
As Bloomberg recently stated in a newly discovered tape (and something anyone living in New York during his reign already knows), the former mayor bragged about his stop-and-frisk policy, which he claimed was a route to stopping crime. When activist and civil rights communities rallied against these draconian methods, the Bloomberg administration (with support from other elected officials both liberal and conservative) defended the practice at every turn, despite overwhelming evidence that the targeting of Black and Brown youth for search and arrest did little to bring down crime or to take guns off the streets.
These encounters were incessant during a 20-year time span that included Mayor Giuliani’s two terms. During the Bloomberg years, the stop-and-frisk practice went into overtime. From 2003 to 2013, there were over 100,000 stops per year. In 2011 alone, there were over 685,724 people stopped, well into the last of Bloomberg’s three terms as mayor. Over 90 percent of those stopped were Black or Brown men between the ages of 14–24.
During Bloomberg’s administration, I was a practicing attorney in New York and one of several lawyers who worked on the class action lawsuit Floyd v. City of New York. The lawsuit, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), resulted in stop-and-frisk being declared unconstitutional because it was racially biased in its targeting of Black and Brown young men.
As the Racial Justice Fellow at CCR, my biggest contribution to the class action suit was finding the original named plaintiffs who represented a cross section of young Black and Brown New Yorkers who were targeted by the New York City Police Department under Mayor Bloomberg. Plaintiff David Floyd became a suspect for finding the spare key to an apartment building his godmother owned and letting a neighbor onto the premises. Plaintiff Lalit Clarkson, a schoolteacher, was leaving a bodega after purchasing an item and got stopped and questioned for fitting a description.
What’s important to remember is that most of the people stopped during these encounters were not accused of a crime; the stops were police-initiated. This means the police used their broad powers of “law enforcement” to pick and choose who they would question and who they would frisk and/or search. Bloomberg stated in his “apology” that the purpose of these stops was to recover guns, not to investigate crimes that are “afoot,” which is the legal rationale for allowing stops. Meanwhile, less than 1 percent of stops resulted in gun seizures. Statistics further show that based on stops, a higher percentage of guns were found on white New Yorkers than Black and Brown ones.
What Bloomberg Wrought
While in private practice, I handled dozens of criminal cases and individual police misconduct civil cases based on these stops. Most of the cases involved young Black men being stopped on the street or pulled over in their car, not because they were suspected of an actual crime or even that they fit the description of a suspected criminal assailant, but because they were young and Black. Under stop-and-frisk, being young and Black was reason enough for the police to search for guns, and/or take down their information, enabling police to create a database full of Black and Brown men who were never convicted of — and, in some cases, never even arrested for — a crime. Those who responded to the police harassment by asking questions often faced charges of obstruction of justice and resisting arrest, throwaway charges that were always at the disposal of the police to “teach” Black men a lesson on “civility” and the racial justice order on New York streets.
As a 20-year resident of Albany projects in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, and as a community organizer who helped create copwatches, where we followed the police and video-taped them when they stopped people on the street, “know your rights” workshops, and anti-police brutality campaigns, I saw firsthand the reign of terror of the stop-and-frisk policies on the Black community. The Bloomberg administration and the brass at the New York City Police Department continually spoke about “stopping crime” and seizing guns as an excuse for their policy. Never did they mention the high cost of stopping, patting down, searching, pulling down people’s pants, making them drop to their knees, cursing, bullying, assaulting, pointing guns and arresting millions of innocent people on these notions. People were then left to face court dates, possible jail time and fines, time lost from work and firings (not to mention the emotional trauma) on the whim of a capricious mayor who used the police force to terrorize its most vulnerable residents.
What many don’t connect about this period in New York’s history is the beginning of the gentrification crises that began to shift the demographics of its neighborhoods. For poor Black and Brown residents, the communities of Bedstuy, Crown Heights, Red Hook and Flatbush all began to feel under siege as rental prices and property taxes surged post-9/11 when Manhattan real estate prices regained their footing and Brooklyn became a relatively inexpensive alternative. At the same time the police used their stop-and-frisk tactics, mobile cameras and extra police at subway stations to “protect” the new white residents from the alleged danger of the “native” inhabitants. Some older Black residents wanted to migrate back to the South partly to escape overt harassment — the same way their parents and grandparents once left the South. As one report in The New York Times stated in 2010 when Bloomberg was mayor:
“Life has gone full circle,” said Ms. Wilkins, whose grandmother was born amid the cotton fields of North Carolina and moved to Queens in the 1950s.
“My grandmother’s generation left the South and came to the North to escape segregation and racism,” she said. “Now, I am going back because New York has become like the old South in its racial attitudes.”
After stops, many felt powerless and abused. People were reduced to tears because the police would not listen to them, telling them to “shut the fuck up,” constantly threatening them, and at times, physically abusing and arresting them. I witnessed it many times living in Brooklyn. As an organizer, I tried to prevent it or minimize it, and as a lawyer, I tried to win compensation. The sheer scale of it was terrifying for those of us who knew that just by stepping out of our house or visiting a friend in the “wrong” neighborhood, our life could be altered. Instead of “fighting crime,” Mayor Bloomberg and his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, can be credited with re-establishing a class of crimes that are as close to the “Black Codes” — laws used after the Civil War to target Black people for arrest — as we have come in modern times, where guilt was predetermined by the color of your skin. Billionaire Mike, your apology is not accepted.