Liberation and Reaction in the Big Apple

Sign in NYC subway. Photo: Jonah Raskin.

I had a near-perfect day in New York on the last Friday in June.  I went to my favorite movie theater, The Film Forum, on Houston Street and watched a classic French gangster flick, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge starring Alain Delon and Yves Montand. Then I ate oven-fired pizza and drank a Moretti at Arturo’s on Thompson Street in Greenwich Village. Two friends from Teaneck, New Jersey joined me at an outdoor table. Every table at Arturo’s was taken. I could hear live music from inside: a standup bass and a sax. Every pizza place and restaurant in the Village was packed. The streets were thronged. After 18 or so months of lockdown New Yorkers acted like they were liberated. You might have thought they had been living under a dictatorship, and in a way they had been. COVID-19 cracked the whip. The bodies of the poor piled up.

It was a warm night so many women and some men were scantily attired. I felt very much the way I’ve felt in the South of France in summer when the French eat and drink at small outdoor restaurants with tables and chairs set up in the street and conversation soar.

I got around the city by subway and by train when I went to Westchester and Columbia counties. I was staying in Brooklyn near the Gowanus Canal in a neighborhood rapidly becoming Yuppified. To visit friends in Manhattan I had a 50-minute or so ride on the F train and also on the 1 and the 6. The subways aren’t the way I remember them from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. I saw no people sleeping in subway cars and subway stations and no signs of crack cocaine, but it’s also a dirty city with garbage everywhere.

While I was in New York, the Democrats held a primary to decide who would be the candidates for mayor and district attorney. Voters cast ballots for their first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth place candidates for mayor. It’s called Ranked Choice Voting and supposedly it eliminates run-offs.

Eric Adams won about 30% of the first place votes. “America is saying, we want to have justice and safety and end inequalities,” he explained at a news conference. “And we don’t want fancy candidates.”

Adams is Black and an ex-cop and he says if he’s elected he’ll stop gangs from menacing Black neighborhoods and also make cops more responsible to communities of color. Not surprisingly, Blacks voted for him. He also had strong support from organized labor. His way might be the way of the future: a Black man who wants more police, more funding for the police, and less police brutality and racism.

Soldiers deployed at Grand Central Station, June 26, 2021. Photo: Jonah Raskin.

When I had conversations with friends—most of whom I have known since 1968 and who are now retired and living comfortable lives—they were about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. The consensus seems to be that politicians and corporate CEOs talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk and aren’t in the least bit eager to reform capitalism. New Yorkers want more racial equality, but they also want law and order and an end to the current crime spree that has been in part fed by the pandemic.

Not long ago, the recording on the PA system on the subway said, “If you see something, say something.” The recording has been changed. It now says, “If you see something, tell a police officer.” The recording also says, “The New York City Police want you to know you are subject to random searchers.”

The liberation of the city doesn’t go to the core of the Big Apple.

New Yorkers are a curious lot. They know the rules and try to follow them, but they also identify with the underdogs and the marginalized. The best news that I heard when I was in New York was that former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s license to practice law was suspended. A New York court ruled that Giuliani made “demonstrably false and misleading statements” while fighting the results of the 2020 election on behalf of Donald J. Trump. Goodbye and good riddance, Rudy.

What’s the take away? Don’t count out the cops and the law and order crowd. Expect moderate Black politicians like New York’s Eric Adams, to capitalize on the Black Lives Matter movement and vault into positions of power.

I recommend Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge starring Alain Delon and Yves Montand. You feel for the gangsters and want them to succeed at their big heist and you despise the despicable cops. Paris is the main stage for the drama. It’s not the Paris of the Eiffel Tour, the Arc de Triomphe, or the cafes where Sartre, Camus and Simone de Beauvoir dreamed up existentialism. It’s a city as gritty as New York. The cops and the capitalists are aligned against the guys who want to liberate their own share of the wealth.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.