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The Republican National Convention that will begin Monday in New York City has stirred up the expected buzz in the various parties gearing up for the event. From the hundreds of thousands who will flow into New York to protest one hears a variety of intentions "We’re going to Central Park whether we get a permit or not!". From the corporate press, "Hard-core anarchists plan to release live mice on Broadway". Thanks to them the discussion has once again been reduced from one focusing on policy issues to one fixated on the standard and passe "protesters vs. police".
Meanwhile Republican Mayor Bloomberg is trying to appease the angry citizens by offering discounts at the Pokemon Store to visiting activists. And the cops are of course saying that….
Here, the equation leaves the realm of the standard arithmetic of protest. While the usual suspects utter the usual remarks, the policemen have found themselves in a funny position and might be on our side of the barricades rather than the opposite.
Well that might be wishful thinking. However, the largest police union in the country that represents the NYPD, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association is sharply poised against both the City of New York and Mayor Bloomberg, the opportunistic media mogul who invited the Republicans to NYC in the first place. According to PBA spokesperson Joseph Mancini, the police have not been happy with mayors since Ed Koch, who is now the Chairman of the Convention Host Committee, and they have been working without a contract for the past two years. Furthermore, NYPD wages rank 145th in the United States out of the top 200 paid departments. This is taken as a slap across the face to the women and men who regard themselves as heroes of September 11th.
The city expects all of its employees to follow suit with the contract negotiations reached with District Council 37 ACFSME who represent 125,000 workers from clerics to hospital employees. These negotiations took place 6 months ago and ended with little satisfaction. Bloomberg has offered the same 5% increase over three years to the cops but the PBA is insulted to be offered the same wage increase as "paper pushers".
Tactically speaking, the policemen have become increasingly militant, by confronting the mayor at his every stop. On August 9th, hundreds of off-duty police officers and firefighters, who are in the same contract battle as the cops, crowded the streets in front of a meeting Bloomberg was attending. The air was tense with police and firefighters chanting slogans "Shame on you!", "No zeros for the heroes" and even "No contract, No convention!." According to the New York Times, one off duty officer actually threatened the Press Secretary of Bloomberg, Edward Skyler, yelling "Eddie, we know where you live!"
Apparently they also know where Bloomberg lives. A few nights ago a group of officers visited the mayor’s house at 1 AM for a wake-up call. They shouted that the Mayor should not be allowed to sleep while the cops still had no contract. The police have applied for sound permits for their scheduled demonstrations during the convention and spokesperson Mancini has told me that they do not plan to break the law. Did they have a permit for the 1AM demonstration? I doubt it.
While police are banned from going on strike in New York City, the possibility of it is on everyone’s mind. The president of the PBA Patrick Lynch repeatedly emphasizes that they have not "ruled anything out". It is unlikely that the police would actually hold an announced strike, however, they might call in sick during the RNC. The cops in Boston used the Democratic National Convention in their contract negotiations and made a clear threat that unless they were made happy, convention security would be up in the air. This tactic worked and brought them a 14.5 % wage increase. In New York when the question of a strike comes up Bloomberg tries to manipulate the sensibilities. "You’re not going to have a wildcat strike," Bloomberg told reporters. "The people who are sworn to defend this city, they certainly would not do that at all."
On one hand, the police won’t go on strike because they are sworn defenders of the status quo and on the other they might because they are heroes of 9-11. There is no talk of class struggle, of budgetary priorities or political allegiances. The arguments have been reduced to sentimentality and "we deserve more than other workers."
For a casual reader of the mainstream press who holds high hopes for the spoil of the RNC this interesting situation might seem promising. Will the cops go on strike and function as a supporting factor to the masses planning on confronting the right wing extremists?
An August 17th letter sent to George W. Bush on behalf of the cops reveals the vast discrepancy between the police politics and the political view that will flood the streets of New York for a week:
"Dear Mr. President:
As incredibly busy as you must be, it may have escaped your attention that New York City’s police officers and firefighters the heroes of 9/11 are engaged in a bitter contract dispute with the city’s Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg. For that reason, we are taking the unusual measure of writing to you to inform you of our predicament and to make a personal appeal for your help and support in the effort to correct what has become a perennial injustice inflicted on these crucial first-responders."
So far so good.
"….The unfair treatment at the bargaining table has compelled us to take to the streets with informational picketing a planned campaign outside Madison Square Garden and spontaneous sessions at various other locations. Unless our contract situation changes drastically between now and then, we intend to continue this public awareness campaign up until, during and after the Republican National Convention at the Garden."
A mild threat. When I talked to Mancini he emphasized the "informativeness" of these picket lines. The "informational" picket lines in front of Madison Square Garden took place at the end of July. The reason why they are not the plain old do-not-cross-these "picket lines" is because they are not aimed at disrupting the preparations of the convention. More importantly, they are not aimed at demanding the solidarity of the other unions who are working inside of the Garden around the clock, converting the stadium into a convention hall. This stance is disappointing in the least and affirms that the cops aren’t willing to employ direct action to achieve their goals.
"Most of our members vote Republican in national elections and are generally sympathetic to traditional GOP principles, especially those that embody the fundamental spirit of patriotism that has infused the American landscape since the time of the Founding Fathers. Love of country and the instinct to protect its freedoms and citizens are second nature to us.
"We, the front-line domestic troops in the global war on terrorism and crucial first-responders in the homeland-security aspect of that war, have been disrespected by Mayor Bloomberg’s collective bargaining policies. …. In Boston, faced with a similar situation, a Republican Governor, Mitt Romney, found a way to settle the issue quickly and without distracting from the Democratic Convention. Can’t we do something here to give the Republican Convention the undivided attention it deserves?"
Here, something is revealed that should actually not come as a surprise, but has been omitted from the discussion within the media and amongst protest organizers contemplating the possibility of a disruption of the convention. For obvious reasons, we shouldn’t be surprised that the police have an allegiance to the State and that they would not dare jeopardize this most important gathering. While poised sharply against Republican Bloomberg for his budgetary decisions, the same hardline stance is not taken by the police officers in their letter to the President. Instead we hear praise and "War on Terror" talk. This is where the PBA stands, they are well organized and will not let individual members act out-of-line.
But even though there won’t be a NYPD Bloc burning cop cars on 7th Ave this Sunday, their contract struggle will certainly effect the demonstrations. On August 24th, the negotiation between the City and the PBA went into an arbitration similar to what happened with the Boston Police Department before the DNC. Whether or not the issue will be settled before the Republicans invade New York City is still up in the air but the fact of the matter is that the approximately 20,000 NYPD officers who will be mingling with demonstrators will have their contract on their mind. When asked how he sees the relationship between disgruntled cops and protesters Mancini is reluctant to answer, and tells me that their "issue is not about national policy or the war." But then he says "If the protesters show solidarity with us we will show solidarity with them.
A last minute phat contract will keep the batons heavy, the pepper spray pressurized and the barricades in place. With a lack of contract dissatisfied cops will be asking themselves who they are protecting, for whom and what games are being played in New York City power politics, and most importantly what their role is in the whole sham. A distant possibility but it is still tempting to imagine a few off-duty defectors joining the thousands of mutineers in the street…
ALI TONAK can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org