Last Wednesday night, a thirty-two-old British citizen named Milo Yiannopoulos, a prominent member of the “alt-right” who had previouly attacked a transgender student during a speech at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, was prevented from speaking at the University of California at Berkeley by a group of anonymous, “black bloc” anarchists. Liberals and conservatives, united in their outrage over the violation of Yiannopoulos “free speech,” jointed hands with Donald Trump to condemn the protesters. “Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” the President Tweeted the next day. Ana Kasparian and Ana Kasparian of the liberal Young Turks – a show which has recently hired Trump’s leftist contrarian supporter Michael Tracy – even speculated that the protests might have been a “false flag operation” organized by the far right designed to give the President an excuse to slash federal money to higher education. Cynical ex-liberals and far-left observers like me nodded their heads in satisfaction. It was almost as satisfying as watching neo-Nazi Richard Spencer cry on camera. The black bloc had gotten in another good sucker punch against another racist shithead.
The next day, after another white supremacist and professional troll named Gavin McInnes was scheduled to give a speech at NYU, you sent the NYPD, which your predecessor Michael Bloomberg has described as the “seventh largest army in the world,” to make sure it didn’t happen again. I was not at the the Kimmel, Rosenthal Pavilion on Thursday night, but I’ve participated in enough protests in New York City to know how it all went down. There were undoubtedly two or three heavily armed riot cops for every teenage kid who wanted stop McInnes from performing his well-known, and well-worn, act at the famous liberal university in lower Manhattan. Clubs were employed. People were shoved. Plastic zip ties were place around wrists. Arrests were made, and even though the speech went on as planned, McInnes’ supporters in the right-wing media quickly declared him to be a victim. Congratulations Mayor De Blasio, you had dutifully guarded the private property of your well-endowed alma mater. You had also let a foreigner — McInnes is a UK born Canadian – violate the spirit of a great multicultural institution in what used to be the most progressive big city in America.
Mayor de Blasio, as someone who stands a mere 5’11” tall, I sometimes envy your imposing physical stature. Even though it would make it a real hassle to buy new bicycles or running shoes, who wouldn’t want to be 6’5″? I supported you in late 2014 against the NYPD after they turned their backs in an obvious act of insubordination. I admired the way you honestly talked about your biracial son, but I also noticed how you seemed all but invisible last year during the Iowa Caucuses. Not only had you subsequently backed down in the face of the not so subtle attempts at intimidation by the police unions, you had endorsed the corrupt neoliberal Hillary Clinton over the progressive Bernie Sanders. While I don’t live in New York City and couldn’t vote for you, I had once shared the hopes of many New Yorkers that you would be a radical break from the fascist Rudy Giuliani or the prissy authoritarian moneybags Michael Bloomberg, that you might even be another Fiorello La Guardia.
Sadly Mayor de Blasio, you are no Fiorello La Guardia. Fiorello La Guardia, who stood 5’2” to your 6’5”, and who governed New York City during the rise of Adolf Hitler, made it perfectly clear what he thought about Nazis and white supremacists. They weren’t welcome in New York City. That not only meant regular death threats – people would send him bullets along with notes signed with swastikas – it also meant his being targeted by Joseph Goebbels himself. After Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State under Franklin Roosevelt, apologized to the German government on La Guardia’s behalf, La Guardia proved how far ahead of the Roosevelt administration he was. “I still stand by what I said and repeat it again,” he said referring to Adolf Hitler, “the fuhrer is “oberschwein” stupid, childish and paranoid.” I can already anticipate your objections. While obnoxious, Milo Yiannopoulos and Gavin McInnes are no more Adolf Hitler or Joseph Goebbels than a fourteen-year-old jerking off to a copy of Playboy is Hugh Hefner. Nevertheless, unlike you and many other big city, Democratic Party mayors, Fiorello La Guardia did not let an exaggerated fetish for law and order prevent him from making the enemy feel unsafe. When the German government demanded increased protection for a visiting Nazi delegation, La Guardia assigned them a police bodyguard made up entirely of Jewish police officers commanded by police Captain Max Finkelstein.
The Nazis reacted to Finkelstein’s appointment with anger. A photo of Finkelstein appeared on the front page of the Nazi newspaper Der Angriff, which decried the choice of Finkelstein and the other Jewish officers as a “provocation” and wondered how Americans would react if their diplomats in Germany were placed under the protection of black policemen.
Der Angriff might have had a good point if Germany had had any black policemen in the 1930s. La Guardia’s action might also have been more psychologically damaging to Max Finkelstein – who later committed suicide – than it was to the visiting Nazi delegation. Nevertheless, Fiorello La Guardia understood one thing that so few liberal Democratic elected officials seem to understand today. A big city police department is always a political actor. New York City in the 1930s had a very large, unassimilated, and often pro-fascist German immigrant population. Movie theaters in the Yorkville section of Manhattan would regularly show films sponsored by Joseph Goebbels. In 1939, the German American Bund held a rally of 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden. By tapping Max Finkelstein to head the security of a visiting Nazi delegation, Fiorello La Guardia was letting New York’s large Jewish population that the NYPD wasn’t neutral, that it was on their side, that it would protect them from fascist persecution. The courts, in turn, got a similar message. There would be no mass arrests or draconian prosecutions against the Jewish War Veterans for rushing the stage at Madison Square Garden when Fritz Kuhn referred to Franklin Roosevelt as “Frank D. Rosenfeld” or the New Deal as the “Jew Deal.”
Unlike most liberals, I understand that “free” speech is never free, that you get about as much as you’re willing to pay for. Milo Yiannopoulos was allowed to schedule an event at the University of California only because an anonymous donor – whose identity the university will not divulge – was willing to put up $10,000. If there were no arrests at the Women’s March in Washington DC the day after the inauguration, then it was mainly because the organizers put up the money to secure a permit. In the Fall of 2011, when Occupy Wall Street protested the Obama administrations Wall Street bailouts, Michael Bloomberg, like Fiorello La Guardia, left no doubt about whose side he was on, budgeting millions of dollars for a constant and heavily intimidating police presence at Zuccotti Park. Big city police departments, in fact, often serve as paid counter protesters against progressive activists. I have never seen an anti-war or anti-Wall Street rally in New York City that wasn’t immediately surrounded by heavily armed riot police. Police presence at leftists demonstrations, or the lack of a police presence at Tea Party rallies, not only sends a message to the press, it can often serve to mold the character of the demonstrations themselves. Black people, for example, are sometimes reluctant to attend protest marches for fear of the police. Families with children stay home. Undocumented immigrants remain in the shadows. The almost always pro-NYPD New York City tabloids will then, in turn, point out how protests are so often made up of “privileged” white college students.
Mayor de Blasio, the Democratic Party, of which you are a very prominent member, has correctly pointed out that President Donald Trump is a dangerous white supremacist and anti-immigrant demagogue. Somewhat more dubiously they have accused him of being an agent of Vladimir Putin and the Russians. It’s a claim I find no more credible as the idea that the protests at Berkeley were a “false flag operation,” but it’s also a claim that, if true, only lends more weight to request that I’m going to make. If there is a “general strike” anytime this Winter or Spring, let us know that you’re on our side. I am not arguing that the NYPD shouldn’t enforce the law. By all means, New York City police officers should continue to arrest rapists, murderers, drug dealers, and child molesters. I am simply asking that you break with your predecessor Michael Bloomberg and refrain from using the NYPD to intimidate protesters and keep demonstrations artificially small. If an antiwar group wants to protest Donald Trump’s antagonist moves against Iran, waive the permit fee, and keep the interlocking steel barricades off the street. If progressive activists want to stage demonstrations to protest the Republicans do not do what Bloomberg did in the Summer of 2004 at the RNC and order them to make mass, preemptive arrests. If a pro-impeachment group seizes Zuccotti Park or Union Square, let them stay. All I am asking you, Mayor De Blasio, is to put the interests of the people above the interests of the rich, to value your country more than you value the property rights of the oligarchy.
Mayor de Blasio, be more like Fiorello La Guardia than Michael Bloomberg. Let the police do their job. But have the pigs stand down.