Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Michael Bloomberg’s Unseemly Companions

Earlier this month, while taking him to task for the out-of-control building spree currently affecting north Brooklyn, I opined that, despite my criticism, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has, in my view, thus far largely been a good mayor for the city. That is a judgment I may have to re-examine given Mayor Bloomberg's pandering response in the wake of the shooting of 23 year-old Sean Bell outside of a Queens strip club early Saturday morning.

To be sure, something went terribly wrong in those early morning hours outside of Club Kalua on 94th Avenue in Jamaica, Queens. Police fired 50 rounds at a car of unarmed men departing a late-night bachelor party, hitting the vehicle 21 times. The shooting apparently stemmed from undercover police surveillance of the club and followed what officers and witnesses said was the vehicle's ramming of an undercover officer and an unmarked NYPD minivan. Sean Bell, who was to be married that day, was killed, while front-seat passenger Joseph Guzman was shot at least 11 times and back-seat passenger Trent Benefield was shot three times. The most complete account I have found of what allegedly happened was penned by Newsday correspondent Deborah S. Morris. Quoting New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly that the nightclub in question "had a chronic history of narcotics, prostitution and weapons complaints," and that the three men who were shot were moments before involved in street altercation where one of them - Guzman - made reference to a firearm.

Even if all of this turns out to be the case, Queens district attorney Richard A. Brown will almost certainly and absolutely should impanel a grand jury to uncover what lead to such an overwhelming and deadly display of violence on the part of the police, and to punish any officers who are found to have acted in violation of the law. Of the NYPD officers who opened fire on the African-American Mr. Bell’s car, their racial make-up is mixed: two are black, one is Hispanic and two are white.

However, when Mayor Bloomberg addressed reporters yesterday flanked by the Reverend Al Sharpton and City Councilmen Charles Barron, and pronounced that "to me that (shooting) sounds excessive and unacceptable," before any investigation had taken place, he appeared to be catering to the lowest common denominator of New York city's political landscape. Despite the presence of decent public servants such as Queens councilman Leroy G. Comrie, Jr. (who did, however, go along with the city council's recent 25 percent pay raise for what is a part-time job), the presence of Sharpton and Barron on any mayoral platform should be a cause for shame and reflection among all New Yorkers.

Who can forget Sharpton's cynical exploitation of Tawana Brawley in 1987, or his conviction in 1998 for making defamatory statements against former Dutchess County prosecutor Steven Pagones in connection with that case? In 1987, Brawley was found naked inside a garbage bag, smeared with dog feces and with racial epithets written on her body, four days after disappearing from home. Though Brawely initially contended that a gang of white law enforcement officers had abducted and raped her, a grand jury declared that the entire story was a hoax. Not before Sharpton, though, as well as attorneys Alton H. Maddox, Jr. and C. Vernon Mason, made statements claiming that Pagones was among those who had assaulted Brawley. Alton H. Maddox, Jr. and C. Vernon Mason were later convicted along with Sharpton, and also disbarred for good measure. Sharpton was found liable for $65,000 of the total damages and, not willing to reach into his own pockets, had an acquaintance pay the penalty. If such a man wants to be a service to his community, humbly attempting to rebuild his reputation at ground-level rather than political grandstanding for personal gain might be a good place to start but, of course, that is not the Sharpton way.

For his part, Charles Barron has marked out a career as probably one of the most morally bankrupt public officials in the United States, which is quite something given the current gang running Washington. In September 2002, Barron welcomed Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe to City Hall here in New York, apparently pleased with the rapes and murders that Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party have been committing against poor blacks and white farmers alike in that African nation.

Perhaps Barron's fêting of the pitiless despot Mugabe gave the latter the necessary energy to return to Zimbabwe and embark on Operation Murambatsvina - Operation Drive Out Trash - which, as The Guardian in 2005 described thusly:

Zimbabwe's police have used sledgehammers and bulldozers to reduce brick homes to rubble, and they have torched flimsy shacks. At the same time, thousands of informal businesses have been destroyed, with more than 20,000 traders arrested, their possessions smashed or irretrievably confiscated by those entrusted to uphold the law...The onslaught came like a military raid with overtones of a Zimbabwean Kristallnacht. As on November 9 1938, when rampaging Nazi mobs violently destroyed Jewish properties and businesses, the Zimbabwean police have completely disregarded the law, focusing instead on wholesale destruction.

The campaign was also described as "slow genocide by bulldozer," and Amnesty International described "heart-wrenching scenes of ordinary Zimbabweans who have had their homes and livelihoods completely destroyed crying on the street in utter disbelief."

Whatever his motivations, it is also bitterly ironic that Bloomberg's pandering to a convicted criminal like Sharpton and a supporter of tyranny like Barron occurs on the same week that Staten Island drug dealer Ronell Wilson finally goes on trial for the March 2003 murder of two black New York City policemen, Rodney Andrews and James Nemorin (a native of Haiti), both executed with shots to the head from a .44-caliber handgun. Following the murders, neither Sharpton nor Barron could bring themselves to express condolences to the victims' families, nor could they bring themselves to muster any outrage at the execution of two men. The pair maintained, as one critic put it, "a perfect silence" in the face of a killing of exactly the kind of officers that the NYPD needs more of, officers of color with roots in and an understanding of urban communities.

I will still keep an open mind and hope that Bloomberg recovers some of the backbone that he has demonstrated in breaking with his own Republican party over issues as diverse as gun control, abortion and the share New York City should get from the nation's anti-terrorism budget. But it would be hard not to argue that, this week, Bloomberg reached the absolute nadir of his term as mayor thus far.

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