Podcast podcast
Jun 03 2020

Seth Barron and Nicole Gelinas discuss the eruption of lawlessness in Midtown Manhattan and other parts of New York City and the inability of Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD to quell the worst criminal violence.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis, cities across the nation have seen large demonstrations in the last week. Many have degenerated into urban riots, with violence, looting, and property destruction, in a wholesale collapse of public order. In New York City, clashes between protesters and police in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan turned violent over the weekend, followed by fires and looting in midtown and the Bronx on Monday night. Meantime, the city’s elected officials refuse to tell demonstrators to stay home amid the escalating violence and a still-active coronavirus pandemic.

Audio Transcript

Seth Barron: Hello, welcome to 10 Blocks, the podcast of City Journal. My name is Seth Barron. I'm associate editor at City Journal. Joining me today is Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City journal. Hi Nicole.

Nicole Gelinas: Good afternoon, Seth. I hope you're doing well.

Seth Barron: Yeah, I'm doing well. We're here to talk about the current civil unrest that's broken out across the country and in New York City. Right now, as I speak, I hear helicopters buzzing around a few blocks from my house. There's a few thousand people in Washington Square Park, chanting with signs saying defund the NYPD, all kinds of vulgarities, which aren't fit for a family podcast.

And the area every night has been besieged by looters and arson. There was a fire down in my corner the other night, police vans have been torched. There's been all kinds of violence. The mayor's daughter was arrested during a big protest.

Nicole, what's your take on what's going on and how is this going to impact New York City?

Nicole Gelinas: Well, yeah, I can't say that it's been any better up here. I mean, I'm probably 30 blocks north of you, just west of Midtown. I took a, we obviously, we had looting and unrest last night. Multiple, small skirmishes around here. And today I walked around and businesses just receiving piles of lumber to just board up everything. I mean, hundreds of minority men, essential workers, having to go out during a pandemic that's still raging and board up restaurants, stores, office entrances, cultural organizations, all around Midtown and Times Square.

It really looks like a war zone out there. And I think this is really going to hurt our longterm recovery. I mean, the City has 350,000 people who work in retail. A lot of these stores, I know a lot of people don't like chain stores, who cares about Sephora? Or whatever. But they're really going to be thinking twice about reopening.

I mean, they already had a real challenge in reopening after three months with pandemic lockdown. And it's like, well, were their customers going to be coming back into office towers and be the foot traffic to go into these stores? Are the tourists going to come back? And now they just have another huge uncertainty. If they open up and bring staff back and spend and invest a lot of money just to get back up, are we going to see riots that just take away all of the investment that they just made and just set them back again?

I think we're going to see a lot of stores boarded up indefinitely, which just sends a horrible message around the world about where New York is right now.

Seth Barron: Yeah, that's a good point. I mean, we've heard a lot about the second wave of infection that's upon us in the fall. Who's to say there couldn't be a second wave of riots? Because New York City does not seem like they've done a very good job of containing it. We have 36,000 police officers and we spend six, seven billion dollars a year, on our police force.

It has some of the most advanced equipment, the best trained, supposedly, officers in the world, logistically, strategically, tactically, I think they're well ahead of the curve. Yet, a few hundred thugs, looters, anarchists, what have you, seem to be stymieing the police. Is this a failure of the police department? Or is it that they're not allowed to exercise, to really show force?

Nicole Gelinas: I think it's really a failure of the civilian government, the de Blasio administration appoints the police commissioner. They control police strategy. It is not at all clear what the police strategy is here.

In order to execute a strategy competently, which perhaps the NYPD is or is not doing, we would have to know what the strategy is. There's two things going on, right? We've got peaceful protests. It is so cynical for New York City politicians to encourage people to go out and endanger themselves during a pandemic, when the reforms that the peaceful protesters are calling for, Albany State legislature and the City council could have an emergency session today, pass these reforms, pass the reforms for more accountability on police brutality, pass the reforms to release police disciplinary records. I mean, those seem to be the concrete asks for peaceful protest.

Instead, we have a political class that is basically safe at home telling protesters who are minority, but also some-non minority people, "You have to endanger yourselves, or we're not going to listen to you. We're not going to do this." What kind of message is that? But the other thing we have is a offshoot of this, which is, anarchist provocateurs, common criminals, and there's a lot of them. I mean, there's at least a few hundred, probably a couple of thousand of them targeting Manhattan businesses, to break windows, to vandalize, and to steal.

I think with the peaceful protests, realistically, the best the NYPD can do is crowd control if the political class won't tell people to stay home. But I don't see how this goes on with the looters, much longer. I mean, we can't have the Manhattan and the City tech space destroyed because a small fraction of the protesters, but big enough to do a lot of damage, just is not going to stop until everything is burned down.

Seth Barron: Well, it's interesting. You said a few things there that piqued my interest. One is this idea that the political leaders you're talking about, they keep differentiating between, well, there's the peaceful protesters and then there's the rioters and the looters. And they're like, yes, they're not protesters.

At the same time, they decry supposed police brutality when the police step in to stop rioting and they say, "You're just hurting peaceful protesters." So it's like they want to have it both ways. Well, these are protesters, but they're not protesters.

Another thing that interests me is this idea that I guess this, maybe we should break this up. But two weeks ago, Governor Cuomo went on television every single day and warned us that anyone who went outside was going to kill their neighbor. Anyone who broke quarantine, anyone who was being careless, was trying to kill his mother. De Blasio too. But now, all of a sudden, because people want to protest what everyone acknowledges to be deep, systemic structural racism that goes back 400 years, it has to be addressed immediately. And so you can waive all the pandemic restrictions, for that purpose. It seems a little jarring.

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah. I mean, it's striking that you have a completely Democratic political class with the leverage of power still held by white men. I mean, there are two minority leaders of the state legislature, [inaudible]. But we have a Democratic political class, but yet the very basic concrete asks, they're not able to do. I mean, people have been asking for fast release of police disciplinary records, which I think is a good idea, for at least three years. And Albany and City hall have just been arguing for three years on how do we do that?

It just shows contempt for misguided, naive, but truly peaceful protesters, to then go on Twitter and say, "We are with you in these protests." I mean, basically the political class are saying, "You've got to go out and risk killing your grandmother. Otherwise we're not going to listen to you."

And meanwhile, the gay rights protest is canceled. The June parade, which is like a parade combination, March for Action, it's canceled. The Puerto Rican Day Parade is canceled. Environmental Parade. I don't think if anyone asked for a license to hold an environmental parade today, it would be given.

Basically we're seeing that all of these protest movements, it's okay. They can stay home, they can protect their lives. It's only the Black protest movement that the political class is going to say, "No, we're not going to listen. You have to go out there and put yourself in danger for us to listen to you."

Seth Barron: Well, I suppose so, but it's not clear to me that, for one thing, it's not clear that the protests are actually driven by concrete demands. Yes, Jumaane Williams and some other political leaders have said that the problem is police, rules about the release of police discipline records and ending choke holds and things like that. I'm not so sure that that's really what's driving the people who are marching on the streets.

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, I agree. I mean, I think as Errol Lewis wrote today, that's a problem with all modern movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party is there's no concrete demands. It's like people are going to continuously march and, in a sort of disorganized manner, even when some demands are met.

But that's, I mean, that is not going to work in this environment. Even peaceful protests where the purpose is like we're going to shut down traffic for the day, or we're going to occupy the Met, that is just going to kill the City's recovery. I mean, there's just, we can't put up with that for very long before we've basically lost hundreds of thousands or millions of jobs, permanently. I mean, so we have to, I think we need some responsible political leader who just has to say, "We understand your concerns. This is not the time to be peacefully protesting."

And for violent looters who are not protesters, we released all of these looters this morning, basically on their own [inaudible]. I mean, there has to be a credible threat of real jail time and real prison time if you're going to be looting stores during a pandemic.

Seth Barron: Or at least, to hold them for two days. I mean, if you could arrest people, slow walk their case and just hold them to let them cool down for a couple of days. But to arrest people and then immediately turn them back onto the streets is basically saying that what you've done has no punishment and you can go do it again, continue. Yes, come back tomorrow night and the fun will resume.

Nicole Gelinas: Right. And I think it's a little bit disturbing that yes, there are a lot of people who say peaceful protesters don't condone any of this looting. And that's fine. I think that's true of many, many people. But I see more and more as this goes on, people, quite reasonable people, usually under their own names on Twitter and elsewhere saying, "Well, but people have to loot because otherwise no one's going to listen."

So it gets back to what you were saying before, is this protest, or is this just looting? I mean, some of it does seem to be an escalation of the actual protest. And if we're going to do this until we've solved all of the problems of racism and inequality in the world, we're going to be left with no tax base. I mean, 15% of Manhattan at least has already left. What are the prospects of people coming back into a war zone?

And that's tens of billions of dollars of tax revenue that we don't have to pay for afterschool programs, that we don't have to pay for fixes to public housing. I mean, this is destroying the tax base that we use for constructive poverty alleviation.

Seth Barron: Yeah. It seems like there's a great deal of denial among the political class. As you were saying before, for instance, Jumaane Williams put out his, he's the public advocate of New York. And he put out a 10 point list of what he wants, including all of these public safety demands and reforms.

But one of the things he says is, we can not have any budget cuts. Instead he has a $20 billion revenue raising plan targeting only, and he's very clear about this, only targeting billionaires and multi-millionaires. Well, $20 billion, even if you're a billionaire, even if you're 50 billionaires, which I don't even know if New York has, is nothing to sneeze at. This idea that you can just continue to soak the rich. I mean, this really is soaking the rich. We'll just tell the billionaires to pay up.

But as you've pointed out, these are people who have options. They don't have to stay here. What do you make of this? I mean, is this just cloud cuckoo land thinking?

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah. I mean, I guess I shouldn't venture to go out on a limb, but I would be very surprised if you could find five billionaires in the city right now. I mean, the rich have basically left Manhattan. I mean, there's two, we're not rich here, but there's two U-hauls out there. More middle class, upper middle class people, leaving in a panic during a pandemic.

I mean, this idea that people are going to come back for the prospect of paying much higher taxes for lower public services and be in this uncertain environment of civil unrest, is just not going to work. And by the way, these protests are probably going to cost tens of millions of dollars in police overtime. They're doing tens of millions of destruction on the writing side to private and public and MTA property. Insurance for running a store is probably going to go up, insurance on an office building, if they're not self-insured.

This idea that we're already supposed to be talking about, how do we cut the budget over the next month? I mean, we've probably got a $20 billion budget deficit. We're going to spend the next month consumed by protesting and looting, come out of this into the new fiscal year with no idea how we're going to fund basic services and expect a billionaire and a millionaire class to come back into a disaster to pay higher taxes.

Yeah, that's really asking for a miracle.

Seth Barron: Where do we go from here? What kind of cuts? I mean, the cuts that have been proposed so far, I see the council is talking about seven to eight percent reductions, I believe, across the board. Is that correct?

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah. I'll give Corey Johnson credit, in that he did before all this started, he called for seven percent across the board budget cuts last week. Now, he didn't detail what those cuts should be. All of these politicians, as you know, are terrified of public sector unions.

But it's, I mean, we're not going to get out of this with massive reductions to the budget. It's do we do these wisely to preserve basic public services and amenities? Or do we wait and just slash everything in a panic and be left with an even smaller tax base, because we can't service the tax base?

But I would turn around and ask you, what are we? We have a mayoral election next year. We have City Council elections next year. What do you think of the current crop of prospective candidates? And if you maybe don't think well of them, where are we going to get some leadership to get us out of this?

Seth Barron: Well, I'm not super impressed with the current crop of candidates. Corey Johnson and Scott Stringer, at least on their Twitter statements have been outrageously obsequious to the, and deferential to the principle that protestors, rioters, and just people strewing chaos throughout the City, have the right to just do this as long as they feel like it. That it's okay for the entire City to be held hostage by what, let's say, even if there's like 5,000 protestors who want to say their piece, that they have the right to just gum everything up.

This is kind of a side point, but then I'll get back to it. I've noticed that there's, even though Martin Luther King is held in such high esteem and veneration, there's a real misunderstanding of what his message was about civil disobedience. The point of civil disobedience is that, if you believe a law is unjust, you will intentionally break it and assume the consequences of doing so. Which could mean going to jail, getting hurt, losing your house.

I mean, there's all kinds of consequences, depending on what society you live in. Dying. But people today in New York and the political leaders are number one [inaudible], this seem to believe that if you say you're protesting, well, then you're in a sanctuary state. You're in a sanctuary condition. You're exempt from policing.

So I see all these people saying, so and so was, these people are peacefully protesting by sitting in the middle of the street or disobeying a policeman's orders. And then they were arrested, knocked down, or arrested or told to move. And that's police brutality.

But that totally misunderstands the, misreads, the meaning of civil disobedience. It's very frustrating to me. Regarding finding someone to, who's going to maybe be a better candidate at this point. I don't know, maybe someone who's going to say, "Let's let the police do their jobs." I don't know if New York is ready for the return, for Giuliani part two, but maybe. And someone who's willing to take on the unions.

Nicole Gelinas: What do you say about civil disobedience? And of course, the sort of, to the extent that there are any leaders of this movement, they would then say, "Well, this is why that didn't work. This is why we have to do this." But actually, as our colleagues, Ralf and Coleman say quite frequently, all of the statistics are pointing in the right direction in terms of, how often do police use their weapons? What kind of how, community policing, which DeBlasio has been doing for six and a half years, I mean, where was the result of that?

But certainly, police on civilian shootings, statistically are down from, in the hundreds back in the 1970s, to very, very unusual every year, this year. That's not to say that we can't do better, but things have been improving. They are just not anywhere near perfect.

But 21 years ago, when I first came here, the big movement was the mass civil disobedience protest because of the death of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx, an innocent man shot by police because the police thought he had a gun and it was his wallet. Terrible thing, many, many politicians lined up to protest and to be arrested, there were probably tens of thousands of arrests, but it was all very peaceful. I mean, there was no resisting arrest. There was, the crowds were well controlled by the police. There wasn't any sort of anarchy or chaos.

And obviously, this is not like that. And I'm not saying the police are innocent. There are some episodes over the weekend that should be investigated. This is a problem of bad civilian management of the police, and a very bad reaction to that. But to say, we're going to put up with weeks or months of mass protest, chaos, and have in any way a city to recover, is just is not making a lot of sense.

Seth Barron: I totally agree. Very little of this is making sense. And this idea that the principle of passive resistance no longer applies, should no longer apply to the protestors, but to the police who are supposed to go limp at the prospect of mob violence, is just absurd.

Nicole Gelinas: Right. I mean, an example of that was the two police cars that drove through the crowd over the weekend. And of course, no one is saying it is a good idea for police officers to drive through a crowd. But it was completely taken out of the context, like all over Transit Twitter, all over Safe Streets Twitter, which is mostly white men. People saying "This is police deliberately ramming into a peaceful crowd."

But if you look at the videos, the crowd throws down a metal barrier to block one of the car's passage. The other car drives into a blind trap. The crowd starts to move behind them. The choice is, you sit there, you get surrounded. The hostile crowd is already throwing projectiles. Someone is jumping on the car.

Are they going to wait and be dragged out of the car where the crowd seizes their guns? Are they going to have bombs thrown into the car, which has happened multiple times over the past few days? There were just no good choices in that situation. It's their fault for making such a tactical error to get themselves into that choice. But there's no subtlety or middle ground here. It's just, the police tried to run over peaceful protesters, which is just not at the case in any fair, factual narrative.

Seth Barron: No. And none of the leaders who are condemning it, although I will give Bill de Blasio a little bit of credit in that he pushed back on the idea that the police were necessarily wrong. He said, "This was not a good situation. I wish it hadn't happened that way, but what were they supposed to do?" And it's true. And no one will answer that.

Nicole Gelinas: Yep. And we've had two young ladies arrested for tossing Molotov cocktails, which are basically bombs, but they were also manufacturing bombs to hand out to the crowd. It's not insane to say this is a strategy to trap police vehicles and then bomb them.

Seth Barron: Yes.

Nicole Gelinas: That this is just a peaceable crowd that wants a dialogue with the police, is just far beyond the bounds of reality.

Seth Barron: Far beyond the bounds of reality is where many of us feel we are. Nicole. Thank you for joining us today on 10 Blocks, it's been a pleasure speaking with you. As always.

Nicole Gelinas: Likewise, and stay safe out there.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

More from 10 Blocks