Making Change: The Silence of the Lambasters

Print More

On a bitter January afternoon, the end of Michael Bloomberg’s first work day as mayor, about 100 protesters mustered on the steps of City Hall. Affixed to the stately metal gate outside, a small sign neatly proclaimed in blue marker, “Demonstration here.” After hello kisses on each cheek, one young activist asked another, “What does it mean when you know everybody else here?” The first protester shrugged. “I guess it’s pretty small.”

Members of more than 25 antipoverty organizations from around New York came to this “People’s Inauguration” to implore: “I love New York, but does New York love me?” Their four main demands–for schools, jobs, social services, and quality of life for all communities–were outlined in informational packets and emblazoned on clusters of purple, red, green and blue balloons. By design, this was not so much a protest as a plea.

In the final months of 2001, poor people had plenty to protest. Widespread layoffs fed skyrocketing unemployment; almost 3,000 families were shoved unceremoniously off the welfare rolls into an abysmal economy; drastic budget cuts sliced in just as the federal government pledged billions of dollars in aid. With a new mayor, a two-thirds–new city council and a largely new roster of commissioners–all more inclined, at least at first, to pay more attention to post-September 11 rebuilding than to poverty, hunger and homelessness–the city seemed ripe for civil disobedience.

Yet for reasons both concrete and intangible, the character of dissent became, for a spell, muted and tame. After September 11, 2001, activists were more than willing to protest larger, national and international issues–globalization, war, Ashcroft. But on the local level, the lion’s roar of civic activism quieted to a mew. Rallies squeaked instead of screamed; protests planned before the 11th morphed into vigils or press conferences. “People just didn’t want to be out making noise,” says Benjamin Dulchin, director of organizing at the Fifth Avenue Committee.

Dulchin was not alone. On December 18, 2000, about 75 immigrants and supporters from the Coalition for the Human Rights of Immigrants had marched through the garment district, accompanied by Andean musicians, for International Migrants’ Day. One year later, the coalition decided an indoor press conference was a safer alternative for those immigrants who still feared INS roundups. “It’s the way things are phrased,” explains volunteer Jane Guskin (often catching herself and switching, mid-word, from “protest” to “picket”). “If we can’t do a march, what about a procession or vigil?”

Even those without fears of deportation were subdued. At the end of October, Community Voices Heard (CVH), along with activists from Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), Make the Road by Walking, Grass Roots Organizing for Welfare Leadership (GROWL) and other local poverty groups tried to attend an invitation-only “listening session” about welfare reform with federal Health and Human Services officials at the Marriott Marquis hotel. Normally, says former CVH board member LaDon James, they would have chanted vociferously until they were granted an audience with HHS Assistant Secretary Wade Horn. This time, they simply handed fliers to the low-level officials who finally emerged. “We wanted to be a little more boisterous,” says James. “We were much more quiet than we normally would have been.”

On September 10th, West Side SRO Law Project held a vociferous rally protesting HUD’s delays in fixing up brownstones where SRO tenants live. Now, though, “There’s a lot less thinking like, ‘We’re gonna storm the barricades, sleep in the streets, get media attention for it,'” says project director Adam Weinstein. “‘Let’s all go camp out on the federal building,'” he exhorts rhetorically. “Suddenly, that doesn’t seem like such a good idea.”

To veteran civil liberties champion Norman Siegel, the post-9/11 hush is unprecedented. “This period is sui generis, one of a kind,” says the dean of dissent in New York City. “I was the head of the Civil Liberties Union for 15 and a half years. I haven’t seen any period comparable.”

_______

After September 11, the temporary state of suspended animation that gripped the city–the shock and attempts to cope–affected community organizers as surely as everyone else. They needed time to drum up emergency funding. They were busier than ever trying to provide extra services, including counseling, food, and shelter, to clients and to themselves. Some felt the sting of anti-immigrant backlash; some had to help locate missing members or volunteers.

Meanwhile, media attention to poverty gave way to coverage of the war. With many area reporters shipped overseas or covering the war from home, mainstream media outlets simply didn’t have as much room to cover local campaigns. “For a time,” says Weinstein, echoing a widespread sentiment, “if it wasn’t about September 11th or anthrax, it wasn’t going to get any attention.”

But an even subtler change was at work. After such tragedy, many antipoverty advocates felt that to complain about anything else, no matter how relevant, was to be selfish–or at least to be perceived as such. “Individual problems seemed smaller,” says Weinstein. “It wasn’t like we were all chomping at the bit on September 12th to go take over the HUD offices downtown. Emotionally, it takes a certain kind of energy to do that.”

For immigrants, there were more concrete repercussions to fear than feeling inappropriate or irrelevant. Undocumented immigrants and even some legal immigrants–those here on student or H-1 visas especially–avoided public protests of INS detentions for fear of getting arrested or deported. Organizing efforts for immigrants, says Guskin, had to be “presented in a way that will provoke sympathy rather than antagonism.”

Yet with the National Guard on every corner, even native-born Americans felt intimidated. In the planning session for the HHS protest, planners advised demonstrators to hold back if they felt more vulnerable than usual. Mindful that the National Guard was taking over some police posts, some CVH members decided to avoid actions that could get them arrested. “You may have a nervous person holding a gun,” James postulates. “Before, there would have been fear of getting arrested, but it would have been civil disobedience. Now there’s a fear of getting hurt.”

_______

By the end of December, that feeling was starting to dissipate. “As our heroic firefighters have shown, the moratorium on direct action is over,” one activist exulted cautiously, invoking firefighters’ November clash with cops over Ground Zero staffing, in an email call to action for the massive February 2 protest against the World Economic Forum.

But while raucous acts of civil disobedience returned, most of that energy was funneled into national and international issues that seemed more pressing, like United States foreign policy or the defense of rapidly eroding civil liberties.

It’s the paucity of opposition to local injustices that is distressing, says Siegel. “What surprises me is the lack of the legal, peaceful, First Amendment protests–the rallies, the marches, the demonstrations.”

When it comes to domestic and especially local issues, elected officials–including Governor Pataki–still seem “bulletproof, unbreakable,” says Michael Kink of Housing Works, which routinely demonstrates on budget matters in Albany. Normally, if the state government had proposed $18 million in cuts to city programs, “there would be a whole lot more screaming and yelling than we’ve seen this year,” says Kink. Yet after doing just that, Pataki retained a 65 percent approval rating. With the new patriotism in full force, most antipoverty groups didn’t want to risk being branded as unpatriotic by criticizing elected officials too harshly.

There’s another, more mundane reason for the recent hush. Generally, people wait to see what newly elected officials will do; with the new, and seemingly friendlier, administration in City Hall, some groups hope that quiet, behind-the-scenes work may be enough. They may also be afraid to stick their necks out when their very survival may be at stake. “Organizations going into a year of scarcity feel it may be more in their interest to be friends with elected officials than their enemies,” observes Kink. But that appeasement strategy doesn’t always work, he points out: “In a time when there are potential cuts–severe cuts–squeaky wheels get greased.”

Government officials tend to float proposals–such as budget cuts, for example–and then wait for the public to react. When they hear a resounding silence, they go ahead as planned. “With budget cuts that are coming now, there needs to be a visible and vocal opposition to some of the things that are already being proposed–baseball stadiums, things of that sort,” Siegel says.

Another case in point is the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. While louder issues like globalization and war have hogged the spotlight, Giuliani and Bloomberg have been busy making appointments to the LMDC. Stacked with influential people and chaired by the former co-chairman of Goldman, Sachs, the LMDC has already begun to make decisions about how billions of dollars of redevelopment money will be spent.

When Community Board 1 chair Madelyn Wils became the only community appointee to the authority, there was a lot of grumbling at the grassroots, but no collective demands for better representation for ordinary New Yorkers. Debates about redeveloping a huge swath of Lower Manhattan–including hard-hit, low-income immigrant neighborhoods like Chinatown–are now taking place between the rich and the richer.

“The visible quietness on these issues could be very damaging to groups of people who are not capable of protesting,” notes Siegel. “In the long run, the issues will be framed by the government officials in a vacuum.”

Already, government has shown some promising signs that if the people speak, it will listen. At the January City Hall rally, Bloomberg did much more than his predecessor ever did, simply by wading into the crowd, shaking hands and acknowledging the protesters and their demands. And the city’s new HRA commissioner, Verna Eggleston, agreed to meet with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)–after ACORN scheduled a militant City Hall press conference.

While the atmosphere at the rally was chilly and calm, Siegel hopes it was the yawn and stretch of that lion of civil disobedience waking up after a long nap. Now, he says, “the question becomes how long does this mood, or climate, continue.”

Hilary Russ is an Astoria-based freelance writer.