Bloomberg's Long War Against Protests

The New York City mayor's decision to clear out Occupy Wall Street is just the latest example of his autocratic leanings

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Reuters

If you were surprised that New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg sent heavily armed police into Zuccotti Park in the middle of the night to break up the Occupy Wall Street demonstration—despite the fact that a poll released the same day shows 58 percent of registered New York voters think the camp should be permitted—you shouldn't have been. To New Yorkers familiar with Bloomberg's past reactions to protests, the real surprise is that he didn't do it sooner.

The first protest Bloomberg tried to suppress was against the impending invasion of Iraq on February 15, 2003. The city, citing only vague security concerns, refused to grant a permit to march, allowing only a stationary rally and cramming attendees into a narrow penned area. Hundreds of thousands of protesters were unable to get within earshot. 

During the Republican National Convention in 2004, the NYPD took an especially aggressive approach to handling protesters. Although there was not a single incident of protester violence, 1,800 arrests were made, many of them pre-emptively. (They were held until after the RNC ended and then released, often without charges.) The city has had to pay millions of dollars in settlements for wrongful arrests, but has successfully blocked efforts to force the release of records on what the NYPD was doing and why. Even more remarkable, the NYPD conducted an elaborate spying operation on potential protesters for a year before the RNC, traveling all over the country to attend meetings posing as activists. As The New York Times reported, "in hundreds of reports stamped N.Y.P.D. Secret, the Intelligence Division chronicled the views and plans of people who had no apparent intention of breaking the law, the records show. These included members of street theater companies, church groups and antiwar organizations, as well as environmentalists and people opposed to the death penalty, globalization and other government policies."

In the wake of September 11, the NYPD put together an impressive, sophisticated operation to prevent terrorist attacks. But critics worry that the city is incapable of distinguishing democratic dissent from legitimate threats. Police habitually interrogated protesters they arrested about past protest activities until it was exposed that they were doing so, and they still monitor protests with a heavy hand."The NYPD is engaged in massive surveillance, they videotape every demonstration," says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "They did it at the RNC and they do it at Occupy Wall Street."

Despite Bloomberg’s socially liberal views on issues from immigration to abortion and gay marriage, he is no civil libertarian. "When Bloomberg started as mayor, the first thing he did was disband the Decency Commission, a Giuliani legacy that censored art," recalls Lieberman. "We thought, 'Wow, this would be a different era.'" But after Bloomberg's response to anti-war demonstrations, they knew better. "He’s not Giuliani, but he’s not the great champion of protest rights that he would claim," says Lieberman.

The police even made a show of force at rallies for school funding. As The Times noted on Sunday, "at no point during this vigorous protest season has the presence of white-shirted police lieutenants seemed more absurd than at a gathering where a young child carried a sign reading 'Don’t take away my music class.'"

This is all part of Bloomberg's essential persona: an authoritarian, if often benevolent, dictator who loves law and order. If Bloomberg is hard on citizens exercising their First Amendment rights in the public commons, he takes an even dimmer view of misdemeanors, even the most minor. During his tenure the NYPD has escalated the aggressive policing tactics - more frequent police use of "stop and frisk" and arrest for "quality of life crimes" - that were begun under his predecessor Rudy Giuliani. In 2010 over 50,000 people were arrested in New York for marijuana possession, more than during the 19 years of 1978 through 1996 combined.

This isn't just the mayor who banned smoking in bars, restaurants, public parks and beaches. Under Bloomberg the NYPD has handed out summons for violations of etiquette from smoking cigarettes on outdoor subway platforms to pandhandling. Last summer an imperious police officer forced me off the subway and gave me a $75 ticket for walking between subway cars, an action so routine many New Yorkers are surprised to learn it is illegal.

Bloomberg is often referred to as a liberal, but that’s an over-simplification at best. In addition to his autocratic streak, he is a former investment banker. Bloomberg frequently complained that Occupy Wall Street antagonizes a key industry. "The city depends on Wall Street,” he said in October. “Let's not forget, those taxes pay our teachers, pay our police officers, pay our firefighters.”

When Bloomberg announced a previous plan to evict the campers to clean the park, he was met with an outcry and an effort from the protesters to do the cleaning themselves. Bloomberg uncharacteristically backed down. As Politico's Ben Smith notes, Bloomberg learned his lesson, waiting until concern about safety concerns began to slightly dampen public enthusiasm for the protests. As early as November 2, Bloomberg was threatening to take action. But this time he was wise enough to go in without warning.

Like most approaches to public policy, Bloomberg's zeal for law and order has benefits as well as costs. Crime continued to drop in New York during the Bloomberg years, reaching impressively low rates. Even fans of Bloomberg’s, such as Columbia University’s urban history professor Kenneth Jackson, say he has a “take-charge, type-A” personality. But they describe it as a virtue. "If you don’t have that personality, you don’t become mayor of New York City,” Jackson, editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City, told me for a feature about Bloomberg. “You have to be autocratic because you have to be self-confident, strike back.” And strike back he did.

About the Author

  • Ben Adler is a journalist in New York City. He has been a reporter for Newsweek, Politico, and The Nation and has written for The American Prospect, New York, and City Limits, among other publications.