life in NYC

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Fri Jul 17 07:58:50 PDT 1998

I had the New York City street artist Robert Lederman on my radio show last night. Lederman has been arrested 33 times for such grave offenses as selling paintings on the sidewalk, handing out leaflets, holding up signs, organizing demos, and, perhaps the gravest offense of all, drawing pictures of Rudy Giuliani with a Hitler moustache. Lederman is rightly obsesed with the privatization of public space and the corporatization of everything - a worldwide phenomenon, for sure, but which is very advanced here in Rudy's New York. Giuliani, for example, has essentially privatized Central Park, turning it over to a foundation led by right-wing hedge fund hotshot Richard Gilder (a major contributor to Gingrich's Progress & Freedom Foundation, and a large stockholder in the ill-fated ValuJet airline). According to Lederman, hundreds of people are arrested in Central Park every week now for "quality of life" infractions, which include, apparently, the crime of having black or brown skin. It is now illegal to give a speech in Central Park without a permit, to have a gathering of more than 20 people without a permit, and even to carry a protest sign without a permit. Rudy has also banned demos in front of City Hall - despite the fact that he himself led a near-riot of drunken cops making racist noises about ex-Mayor David Dinkins in City Hall Park when he was first running against Dinkins.

Also, big chunks of the city have been turned over to Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) - private quasi-governments run by capital, who handle sanitation and "security." Lots of the folks arrested for QOL violations end up sentenced to community service, which often means sweeping and painting for the BIDs. Rudy's been steadily replacing unionized city workers with various forms of low- and unpaid workers - workfare people clean the parks and sweep the streets, a private foundation (the Doe Fund) has been putting ex-druggies to work emptying trashcans on the Upper West Side (they're paid, but not much, and required to enroll in a forced savings program to teach the bourgeois virtues), and the QOL folks are slaving away for the BIDs in a way that would make a Mississippi jailer proud.

Though there's been a bit more grumbling over the last few months about the Disneyfication of New York, the broad nature of this crackdown hasn't provoked all that much notice, much less opposition. Lederman's trying hard, and the ACLU has been filing some lawsuits, but the ruling class has been solidly behind Rudy. Of course there was some embarrassment when his workfare guy said on TV the other week that "work makes you free"; evoking the slogan over the entrance to Auschwitz is not a way to make friends in New York.

Is anything like this going on elsewhere in the country?


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