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Land Matters: The Bloomberg Paradox

Considering all the fans that Michael Bloomberg has won among people who work for a better public sphere, it’s disturbing that he and the New York City Police Department continue to push ever harder for the department’s stop-and-frisk approach to crime prevention. This policy, which a federal judge flatly rejected in its current form in an August decision, asserts that any person—but often certain persons, eight out of 10 of them black or Latino—could be stopped by the police, questioned, and patted down basically at random on the street for “behaving suspiciously.” There is no exact definition of what constitutes this behavior, and even if there were, it’s clear the police would continue to flout it regularly as they have for much of the past decade. A tactic that should be used with great discretion has unfortunately become a widespread and quite successful campaign of intimidation.

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In his 12 years in office, which end in December, Bloomberg has done a magnificent job of making a physically better New York a central priority, a transformation that may well define his legacy. He inherited the shock and ruin of Ground Zero, and while working through that also thrust the city forward civically with new parks, better streets, and more trees, putting many great people in place to help steer it all, guided by the best of design. The High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hudson River Park, Governors Island, and Freshkills Park are the proof—epic parks not for a generation but a century. Bloomberg said he wanted green space within a 10-minute walk of every New Yorker, and if he hasn’t delivered on that by the time he’s out of office, it won’t be for a lack of drive. Then, as if to show that he is hardly a one-note politician, came his performance during Hurricane Irene, when he proved himself a gifted manager and calmer of the masses. The city dodged the worst, and it was a useful practice run before Hurricane Sandy, for whose chaotic aftermath a mayor like Bloomberg was in many ways made.

And yet all the while there is the deep humiliation of stop and frisk. There is the fact of it and Bloomberg’s ongoing defense and unwillingness to consider the harm it is doing. The numbers of stop-and-frisk incidents are frankly incredible and do not in any way suggest a fair or efficient policy. If they did, Bloomberg might emphasize something other than that frisking black and Latino persons saves black and Latino lives. It’s their very own program! (And people talk about the South.) “As recently as 1990, New York City averaged more than six murders a day,” Bloomberg said in his response to the decision of Judge Shira Scheindlin to order major modifications to the practice of stop and frisk. What is striking is that such a modern mayor is still reacting so strongly to the crack epidemic, which began to wane two decades ago in New York.

There has been nothing this summer to make black Americans, in particular, believe that racial harassment is easing. In June, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. In July, George Zimmerman was acquitted of shooting Travyon Martin. In August, the mayor of New York was defending a policy that violates privacy and is racially driven. It is not Bloomberg’s aim to intrude on the civil rights of minorities in New York. It is his effect. It is no less pernicious than lousy infrastructure or a lack of parks to the life of the city, particularly one where inequality is growing only starker. His administration seems to be saying that some people are supposed to enjoy their lush, renewed city, while others must be discouraged from hanging around in it too long.

Bradford McKee

Comments September 10, 2013 4:29 PM
Excellent article, green space 10 minutes away is what it should be for every human being. September 11, 2013 12:55 AM
The frisking and park space remind me of the sugar tax and notion of the nanny state when lumped together. Bloomberg wants the city to be safe, green, and healthy to a fault. The implications to equality and civil rights are not his aim, but that does not make them any less real despite his desires for everyone to play nice. March 11, 2014 10:50 AM
I love this article. It is so rare that we speak out against injustice in our society when our voice can actually be heard far and wide. Brad KcKee's awareness and courage is inspiring. There is hope yet for the human race! No pun intended.
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