What a Friend We Have in Dinkins

Against the Current, No. 31, March/April 1991

Bob Fitch

WHETHER ITS A maggot in the soup on the Battleship Potemkin or a baby who is shot in her bassinet in a Brooklyn tenement, it doesn’t take a political event to start a political crisis But whenever the establishment seeks to run its affairs in the same old way and mass pressure blocks their accustomed channels, the potential for a crisis begins to build.

In New York City, we may have seen the very beginning of such a period. In response to the six shootings of children in July 1990 and the twenty-four cabbies slain so far this year, demands surfaced for Mayor David Dinkins to do something to stop the carnage.

A previous key supporter, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, broke with Dinkins, by publicly calling for a summit on the city’s crime. The mayor’s chief ally in the municipal trade union movement, D.C. 37’s Stanley Hill, in a two-column ad in the New York Times, said that if the mayor persists on the present course, “The city will bleed to death.”

Apolitical crisis forces the left and the political establishment to play opposite roles.

The left has four tasks: (1) It uses the crisis to rouse ordinary people from their private lives, to address the problems of daily life in class terms, through organizational means and by way of political solutions; (2) It shows how the establishment, by virtue of its constant need for self-aggrandizement, caused the immediate crisis; (3) It demonstrates that the problem that sparked the crisis is really linked to a more general crisis of the whole society; (4) It seeks to impose its radical reforms on the political structure.

The establishment’s role in a crisis is just the opposite. Its job is to narcotize and deflate. When a crisis threatens to break out it gets into its “crisis management” mode. But it, too, has four principal points of attention.

1irst, it denies, against all evidence, that there is a problem at all. “What crime? It’s just a statistical oddity. Our programs will soon begin to work We need patience,” etc. Second, when denial becomes inexpedient, the establishment admits there is a problem, but insists that it’s confined to a narrow area of society. Crime, for example, is to be understood strictly as a problem of law enforcement .Third, it makes sure, in narrowly defining the problem, that the permanent government bears no responsibility. And, finally, in addressing the problem that they didn’t create, it insists that all solutions be carried out so they won’t discommode local rich people or cost them any money.

These are the two general models. The principle questions I want to raise are: What should the left actually do? What has Dinlkins’ role been in all this? Has he conformed to the establishment pattern of crisis management?

Let’s go back to January 1990, when Dinkins took office Didn’t Dinkins refuse to admit that crime was a serious problem in this city by his administration’s very first decision to cancel the incoming police academy class?

Was there a crime problem when Dinkins took office? Last year, there were over 450,000 misdemeanor complaints and over 550,000 felony complaints. There were nearly 2,000 murders. New York City ranks first in street crime in America, first in robbery and mugging. Some people might argue that the most appropriate way to address this problem is not to cut the police budget further. But at the behest of his First Deputy Mayor, former Lazard Freres partner Normal Steisel—and in order to reassure the financial community of his budget probity—this is exactly what Dinkins did.

In his preliminary budget Dinkins cut the entire police department allocation of $57 million. As the murders began to mount and more babies got shot, he continued to deny there was a crime problem in New York Or that there was anything that could be done. There was simply no money, he said.
Finally, as even the New York Times began to call for a policy shift, to reassure a terrified city, Dinkins remembered that during the election he’d promised that he’d be the toughest mayor on crime New York had ever seen.

We moved to phase two of crisis management Yes, we have a problem. But it’s a crime unconnected to anything else in society. Dinkins’ solution: to put 1,058 more cops on the street How much would this cost? About $55-60 million. Approximately the same amount he cut from the budget in the first place.

Point three of establishment crisis management is to deny that the current political leadership is responsible for the problem that finally has to be acknowledged. According to Dinkins, whose fault is our crime problem? The Republicans, he says, again and again, for cutting back federal aid to the city. Finally, how will Dinkins pay for the added cops?

Specifically, what class is going to pay? Last October Dinkins said that he’d get back to us on this one. But is it likely the money for more cops will be raised by a progressive income tax? Not if his recent income surtax proposal is a model Dinkins’ surtax proposal was across the board—single-filers who earned over $15,000 all paid the same amount.

But even if more taxes are raised to get more cops on the beat, how will this make people in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods safer? What will the endangered communities get for $57 million. Exactly 13 extra cops in each precinct per shift, probably sometime in Spring 1991.

Dinkins may not do much to solve the city’s crime problem. But he’s very closely followed the establishment’s four points of crisis management.

No matter how inadequate, the establishment always describes its proposals as practical and solid. It always portrays the left’s positions as impractical and non-constructive. Why is this? Because the left refuses to live completely in the present Unlike the press, it retains an historical memory. It remembers what the leaders promised and how those promises help elect them. When the establishment says how much better everything is, the left holds up the record of the past.

The Economic Links

The left is also unconstructive because it doesn’t focus on a single issue. It makes connections:
The left asks, “How can you detach the problem of youth crime from the problem of child welfare?” (The number of foster-care petitions was expected to rise 37% in 1990 and 46% in 1991.)

How can you isolate the problem of crime from welfare grants? In 1975 welfare grants were about 125% of the fed-end poverty level; today they’ve fallen to 87%.

How can crime be detached from the growth of hunger? In 1980 there were less than thirty soup kitchens in the city; now there are over 600.

From unemployment: Forget the official unemployment rate which jumped from 5.2% to 7.2% in one month! (See New York Bureau of Labor Statistics report, July 1990. Since then the deterioration has been steeper, with job loss in the City increasing from about 6,000 per month last summer to 10,000 per month today.)

As shocking as that increase may have been, it doesn’t begin to describe the true dimensions of joblessness in the New York City economy. Consider instead what economists call the Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR). The truth is that in New York City we run the lowest LFPR in the country. No other city comes close. It’s just over 50% for young people (16-25)—the prime crime years.

What’s going on is that in New York there are fewer jobs. Of course the establishment insists that its “post-industrial” policies have produced a veritable explosion of new jobs. And in 1990, there are more jobs than there were in 1980. But not as many as there were in the late 1950s. At the end of the ’50s, according to the Regional Plan Association, there were 4.5 million jobs and 7.5 million people. Today we have over 8 million people and about 3.5 million jobs.

All this may help to explain why there were about 300 murders a year in the ‘SOs and why the 1990 total will probably exceed 2,000. It suggests some reasons why young people can’t form families. Why in some communities the rate for “illegitimate” births run over 80%. It helps to explain the drug plagues and the related AIDS epidemic among drug users.

Why are there fewer jobs? Whose fault is it?

The short answer is that our landlord—international finance capital—lives here, and it wants us, the tenants, to get out It says, with Greta Garbo, “I vant to be alone” Big money, finance, insurance and real estate—”FIRE—wants to get rid of the non-rich, non-professional New York FIRE wants to transform this city into a capitol for finance capital. It wants to get rid of industrial workers, and poor people—all the low-rent types.

The best way to get rid of them is to get rid of factories that employ workers. If you knock down their factories, it is correctly believed, eventually the workers will go away. Besides, every time you replace a factory with an office building, landlords can increase the rent about a thousand percent.

This is why David Rockefeller launched his privately sponsored Downtown Lower Manhattan Plan in 1959—to get rid of the factories and docks the workers and low-rent residents in the entire area from Canal Street to the Battery. This is why more recently Felix Rohatyn’s Lazard Freres bought up big chunks of industrial Hell’s Kitchen on the West Side and industrial Long Island City in Queens: to build its “International Design Center” and to put up luxury high-rise apartment buildings.

This is also why Citibank has bought land in the same area of Queens; why Dreyfus Realty is there. And why a dozen or so former city officials, now serving as “consultants,” together with all the independent authorities.—the Port Authority, the Public Development Corporation, the Urban Development Corporation, etc.—have been mobilized to override the zoning and environmental regulations that up to now protected those communities.

What’s Dinkins’ role in all this? He may think it’s to play tennis, go to fancy-dress fundraisers, ride around in a limousine and preach to the converted about racial harmony.

But the people who financed him don’t care if he plays tennis. The Rockefellers and Rohatyns who backed his election and who he’s appointed as his economic advisors, support him because they want a continuation of the Koch policies of deindustrialization, regressive taxation, contracting out and spatial reorganization of the city. They’re not done yet there are still more neighborhoods left. More factories to convert to office buildings. They want someone who can hold off industrial workers and the residents in the communities for a few more years until they’re through.

They want someone who can protect the power, privileges and rate of return of bi money from little people. And if Dinkins can get the job done, they don’t care if he’s Black They realized that by the end of the 1980s Koch had lost his effectiveness. Dinkins wasn’t his first choice for mayor, but “on balance,” as Rohatyn said recently,”! can’t see that anybody at this stage of the game would have done better than David.” Koch himself said, “I did not think he’d be as good as he is.”

It’s a pattern we see everywhere across urban America. As the ethnic composition of U.S. cities changes, the tough white guy with the big mouth is succeeded by the kinder, gentler, African-American who says he knows how to listen. In Philadelphia Frank Rizzo is replaced by Wilson Goode. In Los Angeles, Sam Yorty is succeeded by Tom Bradley. In New York, Ed Koch by David Dinkins. We’re not supposed to notice that they’re sent out by the same people. Or that they belong to the same party, carry out the same development policies, maintain the same budget priorities, retain the same set of permanent government officials. And that they’re paid out of the same checkbook.

Dinkins’ role is fairly clear. But what about us, the independent left?

Targeting the Enemy

We have to assume the role that’s historically been assigned to the left We can’t let Dinkins and the Democrats continue to get away with blaming Reagan, Bush and the Republicans for the policies of the local establishment that finances, supports and gives political direction to the Democratic Party, which runs this city.

“Think globally, act locally.” Fight where your numbers can make a difference. Apply leverage on the structure that’s most vulnerable to your power.

Activists who consider the Democrats the lesser evil or the more liberal of the two parties seem to ignore the level of government where most of us live and that the Democrats control the cities.

They appear not to notice that the Democrats carry out the same policies in the cities that they criticize the Republicans for carrying out nationally.

1. Trickle down economics. The Democrats insist on the same laissez faire policies for real estate and finance at the local level that the Republicans stress on the national and international level for the multinationals. “You can’t kill the golden goose,” is the tired slogan of both parties. For example, having effectively given up New York’s right to tax the New York Stock Exchange, Dinkins opposes Bush’s proposal for a national stock exchange tax. Tokyo raises $12 billion a year this way.

2. Privatization. The Democrats promote privatization by contracting out at the municipal level—in New York City this means about $3 billion in no-bid contracts especially to non-profit, generally non-union, agencies; the Republicans, of course, operate on the federal level They are also constantly stressing that the private sector should replace unionized workers. They call it “a thousand points of light.”

3. Regressive taxation. Throughout the 1980s the Republicans favored “supply-side” economics—shifting the tax burden to the poor and cutting services. The urban Democrats carried out the same supply-side revolution in the cities. In New York, throughout the ‘SOs personal income tax rates became more regressive. Property taxes on office buildings fell in real terms. Corporate and financial corporation taxes were cut The result is that the tax structure at the local level—because of increasing local reliance on the sales tax and the property tax on tenements that landlords shift to tenants—is more regressive here than at either the state or federal levels.

t Deindustrialization. The urban Democrats carry out deindustrialization by means of a spatial reorganization of urban space rather than by facilitating the global movement of capital—the favored sphere of the Republicans on a national level.

It’s just a difference of scale, not a difference of principle. After all, the urban Democrats and the national Republicans are financed by the same propertied class.

Barbara Ehrenreich of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Felix Rohatyn of Lazard Freres may not find much consensus together on national policy. But they both agree that the Democratic Party is the only party that it makes sense to work through The international banker and the international socialist both argue that the Democratic Party is “the only game in town.”

Here is the question committed socialists like Ehrenreich who urge us to work in the Democratic Party have to answer. if we agree that the left and the establishment necessarily play different political roles, how can we play that role in the same political party?

How can we arouse ordinary New Yorkers and at the same time allow them to overlook that the local Democratic Party is largely responsible for their neighborhood problems? How can we educate militants without insisting on the role of the permanent government? How can we develop programs except at the expense of the real estate and financial class that has created the permanent government and that supplies the funds for the urban Democrats? How can we support the candidates that receive those funds and carry out its policies? Worst of all, how can we serve in the Dinkins administration—like DSAer Carol O’Cleareacain—administer tax policies on behalf of big real estate, and still retain credibility as socialists?

We have to distinguish ourselves from David Dinkins—who is, incidently, also a DSAer—and the Democrats. We can’t be Siamese twins, joined at the waist, and still stop them from devastating more neighborhoods, destroying more jobs, with their cutbacks, callousness and corruption.

Our job is to tax the land speculators, not to cover them with tax breaks and wet kisses.
We have to use the tax money to rebuild communities and reindustrialize the cities, not cut the budget and tax the poor to pay for more cops.

We have to stop the urban Democrats from contracting out urban services and organize contract workers in the non-profit sector who form the lowest income stratum of the working class.

They say “Get the muggers, pushers and homeless off the streets.” We say “Stop the system that turns people into muggers, pushers and homeless.”

They say “Community patrols;” we say “Community control.”

They say “Take back the streets.” We say “Take back the land.”

March-April 1991, ATC 31