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With the Bush presidency in a free-fall and Republicans scrambling to find a candidate with as little connection as possible to the White House, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is back at center stage.
Despised in New York as a lame-duck mayor through much of his second term, Giuliani today is leading in opinion polls among contenders for the Republican presidential nomination.
Giuliani’s popularity is the result of the September 11 attacks in New York. That year, Time magazine declared him its “Person of the Year,” and he became known as “America’s mayor.” He projected an image of a tough but compassionate leader who would unite New Yorkers and “heal the wounds” of a traumatized city.
Another aspect of Giuliani’s appeal is his carefully nurtured image as a moderate on social issues–especially gay rights and a woman’s right to choose abortion–an aberration in a Republican Party where the Religious Right seems to call the shots. This image has been aided by a compliant media that paints Giuliani as able to reach across partisan lines to provide leadership in times of crisis.
The reality could not be more different–and Giuliani’s reign as mayor of New York proves it.
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In 1993, Giuliani rode to power on the wave of a racist backlash against African American Mayor David Dinkins. Once in office, Giuliani was unapologetic in appealing to racist stereotypes to drive through his policies. During his time as mayor, Giuliani led a racist war on working and poor New Yorkers that slashed social services, threw women and children off welfare, attacked union rights and spurred an epidemic of police brutality.
Giuliani has made it clear that he intends to carry this “tough on crime” agenda–now repackaged as “tough on terrorism”–into the presidential campaign.
In a recent New Hampshire appearance, he took a page out of Dick Cheney’s book, suggesting that the U.S. would be more vulnerable to a terrorist attack if the Democrats were elected.
“If one of them gets elected, it sounds to me like we’re going on the defense,” he said. “We’ve got a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. We’re going to wave the white flag there. We’re going to try to cut back on the Patriot Act. We’re going to cut back on electronic surveillance. We’re going to cut back on interrogation. We’re going to cut back, cut back, cut back, and we’ll be back in our pre-September 11 mentality of being on defense.”
Another carryover from the Giuliani years in New York City is his blatant appeal to racism. While campaigning in the South, this “social moderate” defended flying the Confederate flag as an issue of “state’s rights”–the rallying cry of the Jim Crow South 40 years ago.
As for his supposedly liberal credentials on social issues, Giuliani has shown that he is willing to shift positions to appease a right-wing audience.
For example, while he has long been known as a supporter of abortion rights, Giuliani recently backed the Supreme Court decision upholding a federal ban on a late-term abortion procedure misnamed “partial birth abortion” by the right. Giuliani says that if he were president, he would appoint “strict constructionist” judges–a phrase that many consider code for overturning the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
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IF ANYONE wants to know what a Giuliani presidency would really look like, they should go back to his years as mayor of New York during the 1990s.
Giuliani is credited with an urban renewal in NYC that cut crime rates and revived the economy and tourism. While he did create a Disneyland version of NYC, complete with a redeveloped Times Square and booming Wall Street, the reality of what happened to working-class and poor New Yorkers during his time in office is a much darker story.
Giuliani came to power in the context of a racially divided city. During his election campaign, he spoke at a police “protest” –in reality, a drunken brawl of white cops–held on the steps of City Hall against the establishment of a civilian complaint review board. Complete and unapologetic support for the NYPD became a hallmark of his tenure.
As soon as he took office, Giuliani announced a “quality of life” campaign, claiming that by going after small-time offenses, the city would be able to root out more violent crimes.
The symbol of this campaign was Giuliani’s plan to drive “squeegee men”–homeless people who wiped windshields at traffic stops for money–from NYC streets. Giuliani’s cops went after them with a ruthlessness that foreshadowed much greater brutality to come. As the campaign got underway, an off-duty cop shot and killed an unarmed “squeegee man”–and defended his actions on the basis that the man was a “criminal.”
Treating misdemeanors as equal to more serious crimes meant ratcheting up the level of violence and repression in poor, minority communities. The underlying assumption of the new “stop and frisk” policy was that all Blacks and Latinos were potential criminals. A report by then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer found that Latinos were stopped 39 percent more often than whites under the policy, and Blacks were stopped 23 percent more often.
The year before Giuliani took office, 720 people were arrested for misdemeanor marijuana-related offenses; by 2000, the number had jumped to 59,495–an increase of 4,549 percent. During a 10-month period in 1996, 50,000 people detained on misdemeanors were strip-searched by the Department of Corrections.
These kinds of aggressive policies gave a green light to the NYPD to terrorize Black and Latino communities.
When unarmed cousins Anthony Rosario and Hilton Vega were shot in the back and killed while they lay face down on the floor in 1995, Giuliani called the officers and congratulated them on their performance. When Anthony’s mother, Margarita Rosario, began organizing in protest, Giuliani told her that her son died because she was a bad mother.
This attitude was exemplified most starkly when cops tortured and sodomized Abner Louima in a Brooklyn police station in 1997. Even after the killing of Amadou Diallo–shot 41 times in the hallway of his building in 1999–Giuliani maintained his defense of the police and his opposition to any kind of reform of the NYPD.
Giuliani and his supporters defended these actions by claiming that “tough on crime” policies were crucial to a decline in crime statistics. But a look at the statistics shows that the drop in crime began 36 months before Giuliani took office–while Dinkins was still mayor. In fact, the 1990s saw a national reduction in crime, due largely to demographic and economic changes.
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IN REALITY, the dramatic escalation of repression was needed to manage a city that saw an expansion of economic and social polarization during the Giuliani era.
Despite the Wall Street boom of the 1990s, living standards for working class and poor New Yorkers actually declined. By 2000, one in four New Yorkers lived in poverty–basically the same rate as during the 1989-1992 recession a decade before, and nearly double the national average. That same year, New York’s homeless population reached its highest point since 1989, and the city had a shortfall of 390,000 affordable housing units for low-income renters.
These statistics were the result of deliberate policies on the part of the Giuliani administration. Throughout successive budgets, Giuliani cut funding for municipal employees, schools and other social services, while cutting taxes for the wealthy and Wall Street.
Some of the most devastating attacks came through Giuliani’s restructuring of the local welfare system.
In one of the most sweeping attacks on recipients, Giuliani converted welfare offices to “job centers,” introduced “workfare” requirements, cut funding and actively discouraged and prevented poor people from getting the benefits they were entitled to. In 1994, 27 percent of applicants were rejected from welfare. By November 1999, 75 percent of job center applicants and 52 percent of applicants overall were rejected. In the four years following welfare reform, the food stamp rolls were reduced by 35 percent.
These figures weren’t the result of recipients moving off welfare into new jobs. In fact, of the first 5,300 people to enter the city’s job search program, only 265 people were placed.
Instead, people were forced off the rolls and into the Work Experience Program (WEP) to perform previously unionized jobs at sweatshop wages. Thus, between 1991 and 1999, the WEP workforce in the Parks Department grew from 170 to 2,389, while regular Parks employees dropped from 4,285 to 2,101. WEP workers in the Parks Department made $1.80 an hour–compared to an average wage for Parks employee of $8.65.
At the same time, 13,000 students in the CUNY public education system were forced out of college and into workfare programs.
Numerous investigations uncovered the cruel methods used to cut the rolls. At one point, a scandal erupted when it was discovered that welfare centers were “losing” food stamp applications–thus, making it impossible for recipients to apply.
Giuliani’s treatment of the homeless was equally callous. At one point, he housed homeless applicants for emergency shelter–including children–in a former jail. During his administration, spending on affordable housing was cut by 44 percent, and the creation of apartments for the homeless declined by 75 percent. At the same time, police conducted aggressive sweeps to keep the homeless off city streets and out of view.
The real legacy of “Giuliani time” is a city where Wall Street executives celebrate enormous bonuses with spectacular meals, washed down with trophy wines–while the poor are increasingly pushed to the margins. A city whose tourist centers glitter while service cuts leave garbage to accumulate on the streets of working-class neighborhoods. A city where the NYPD’s thugs in blue continue to terrorize minority communities.
At a time when a majority of Americans believe that the war in Iraq should end and more money should be spent on vital social services, Giuliani would represent a return to the heyday of the “Republican Revolution”: a war on the poor that threw women and children into the streets, civil liberties gutted, and “tough on crime” policies that devastated Black and Latino communities.
JENNIFER ROESCH lives in New York. She writes for the Socialist Worker.