Mayor Bloomberg’s Language

A massive police action undertaken in the middle of the night against an unarmed, defenseless, and mostly sleeping group, with the aim of their forcible removal and the incidental destruction of most of their personal property was ordered, we learned, ostensibly in the name of “guaranteeing public health and safety.” Why in the middle of the night?

The overall tone of Bloomberg’s statement takes us back directly to the chaotic and terrified New York after September 11.

Police at Zuccotti Park, New York, November 15, 2011. From atlantic.com.

A massive police action undertaken in the middle of the night against an unarmed, defenseless, and mostly sleeping group, with the aim of their forcible removal and the incidental destruction of most of their personal property was ordered, we learned, ostensibly in the name of “guaranteeing public health and safety.” Why in the middle of the night? “This action was taken at this time of day to reduce the risk of confrontation, and to minimize disruption to the surrounding neighborhood.” By the same logic, a thief breaks into a house at an hour when its residents are least expected to be home, or least ready for confrontation, so as not to raise the alarm and bring out the neighbors. A surprise attack by an overwhelming force is not the action of a brave man, nor of a man entirely sure of himself. Surprise is the weapon of the weak, but has been chosen by the strongest in the name of minimization and harm reduction, the language of risk management, imported into a political arena, an arena for the struggle of ideas and concepts, from the realm of economics, the household, where the financial sector’s failure to minimize risk and reduce potential harm led us directly to the crisis that caused the mayor to call out the armored might of the NYPD to quash a bunch of campers, kick over their tents like sandcastles, destroy a library of over 5,000 books, and throw away countless personal possessions, each of which had a story of its own, all so that a neighborhood may not “be disrupted.”

But what is a neighborhood? Who decides what belongs there and what doesn’t? The mayor knows and the mayor decides: “There have been reports of businesses being threatened and complaints about noise and unsanitary conditions that have seriously impacted the quality of life for residents and businesses in this now-thriving neighborhood.” Vague reports, vague threats: this does not even rise to the level of the terrible phrases foisted on the public in recent years, like “credible intelligence.” And oh, the noise, the “unsanitary conditions,” that have made businesses unhappy, “quality of life,” a phrase popularized by Bloomberg’s precursor, Rudy Giuliani, but remains no clearer today than in 1993: it’s a phrase that simultaneously encapsulates and occludes the very struggle at issue in Zuccotti Park. What does it mean to live a life of qualities? Is quality, by definition immeasurable, only describable, something that can be charted by the cleanliness of a street, the absence of certain smells, certain people? Is the absence of dirt, smells, noise, and people what the mayor means by “thriving?” Is there really a right not to see certain things, and can the mayor of New York City destroy individual property in its name?

Alas, this property was erected on a too-fragile foundation: “The law that created Zuccotti Park required that it be open for the public to enjoy for passive recreation 24 hours a day.” “Passive recreation,” another phrase that sums up Bloomberg’s New York. This is bureau-speak to say that you can’t play a game of touch football in Zuccotti Park, but why not apply it more broadly, for instance, to the making of speeches and the holding of assemblies? Is that a violation of the passivity or the recreation, or both?

“Ever since the occupation began, that law has not been complied with, as the park has been taken over by protesters, making it unavailable to anyone else.” Here begins a litany of charges against the protesters, which, as they multiply, become increasingly incoherent and contradictory. This first count is purely tendentious: the park was not “unavailable to anyone else” until the police themselves erected barricades around it. Maybe it was a less nice place to walk your dog or take a lunch break than it used to be. There were funny people and they smelled funny, and they had to shout over the drum circle, but the City of New York has no problems telling people where they can and cannot walk their dogs and where they can and cannot have lunch, smoke cigarettes, make out, et cetera. The protesters barred no one entry to the park, a fact that the police would use against them to encourage drug users and drinkers, as the New York Daily News reported, to “take it to Zuccotti,” helping to create the very conditions the mayor cites in his brief; the protesters threatened instead what the City of New York views as its sovereign right to control the use of space.

But that’s not the real reason that the riot gear and the bulldozers and the helicopter and the floodlights were called out at 1 AM on November 15th.  “I have said that the City had two principal goals: guaranteeing public health and safety, and guaranteeing the protesters’ First Amendment rights. But when those two goals clash, the health and safety of the public and our first responders must be the priority.” No, no . . . it was all about health and safety first! Not, however, the health and safety of the protesters, who were somehow seen as alien to the public. One way to correct the prospective imbalance between First Amendment rights and the nebulous right to public safety would have been to allow the protesters to erect winterized structures and ensure they had adequate access to clean bathrooms and did not have to rely on the strained good-will of local businesses. That would have minimized the risk of disease, of a tubercular protester, god-forbid, spitting near an area where a resident of a thriving neighborhood might walk.

The city did not do this, instead, the mayor explains, in the interest of public health and safety, “several weeks ago the City acted to remove generators and fuel that posed a fire hazard from the park.” Recall that they did this several hours before a snowstorm had been forecast. To cause people to freeze in the name of public health, to cry fire when the danger is from cold, that’s humane and responsible governance.

The mayor’s final justification, however, rests simply on a diktat, “make no mistake—the final decision to act was mine . . . ” followed by another round of confusing double-speak, “I could not wait for someone in the park to get killed or to injure another first responder before acting. Others have cautioned against action because enforcing our laws might be used by some protesters as a pretext for violence—but we must never be afraid to insist on compliance with our laws.” First the mayor says that he could not wait for an actual law to be broken, for instance manslaughter or homicide, so he acts preventively on the suspicion that a law could at any moment be broken. This is the logic that leads to thought-crime, unless of course one believes that there’s an imminent menace. True there have been sexual assaults and theft and drug use in the park, but this is true of other neighborhoods in New York as well. The city does not raze a city block because a rape occurs in a building. Zuccotti Park, however, became the most-policed ground in the country. From the beginning it was treated as an enemy zone, subjected to a level of scrutiny that most of us only have nightmares about. But then the mayor insists the midnight assault was all about compliance with existing laws, presumably the one enforcing “passive recreation,” or the various anti-homeless statutes. Hero of crime prevention or bureaucrat of enforcement, both sides are present, neither convinces. What emerges between the lines is the invocation of “pretext to violence.” Bloomberg attributes the violence to the protesters and the thought to some mysterious, unnamed “others,” but to anyone who has been following the city’s campaign against the protesters from the beginning, it’s clear that what the mayor was casting about for was precisely a pretext, and a pretext to do exactly what he did last night: raze the park in the most aggressive way possible, through maximum force projection, and under a media blackout, staking everything on the hope that the protesters would behave peacefully, in exactly the opposite way that he would later characterize them. Why was the media blocked? Says Bloomberg, “[We had to] protect the members of the press. We have to provide protection and we have done exactly that.”

The overall tone of Bloomberg’s statement takes us back directly to the chaotic and terrified New York after September 11, 2001, and what only a handful of principled civil libertarians then feared in that peculiar state of emergency has largely come to pass: a police force swollen by Homeland Security investments no longer knows how to deal with citizens as citizens, visualizing them instead as threats; a national security godfather state has replaced the language of law with the rhetoric of sovereign “Public Safety,” a political idea rooted in Jacobin paranoia and the Terror; and when disputes over law and the public good arise they are increasingly settled by the arbitrary decisions of an executive power simultaneously terrified of appearing weak and of showing its might in the fair light of day.

What the press and the public at large have been protected from, in fact, is an opportunity to participate in understanding their own history. Last night’s action was not an attempt at law enforcement or protection: it was an effort to erase the last two months in Zuccotti Park. The midnight raid wasn’t just cowardice, it was the fantastical act of a tyrant who believes he can wipe the slate clean, and so exact revenge for slights to his power. To look at images of the park as it appeared after the cleanup, or with the army of orange-vested sanitation workers with their power-hoses, is to glimpse Bloomberg’s utopia, a semi-public space that is meant to be always and utterly vacant of meaning and content and individual associations, a plaything put away for the night.

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