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Giuliani, Altar Boys & Weasels

The American mass media calls him “America’s mayor.” Critics often label him a fascist. Whether he’s the populist hero who “took charge” on September 11, 2001, or the frightening face of a new American Reich, it appears Rudolph Giuliani will carry George W. Bush’s torch into the 2008 presidential election. I guess this only makes sense, since, like Bush, Giuliani’s failing political career was rescued by the terrorists that attacked New York and Washington, DC on September 11.

When Giuliani emerged from the dust of the World Trade Center, it seems the national media caught a quick case of amnesia, preferring the iconic image of a hero over reality, quickly forgetting Giuliani’s dismal tenure in office and his sorry performance on the morning of September 11.

Before picking up the “hero” moniker, Giuliani was commonly referred to in the city he governed as a “fascist” and a “thug.” These accusations didn’t just come from civil libertarians. Former New York Mayor Ed Koch likened Giuliani to the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. According to Koch, Giuliani “uses the levers of power to punish any critic.” Koch went on to explain, “He doesn’t have that right—that’s why the First Amendment is so important.”

Giuliani’s disdain for freedom of speech is best exemplified by the case of Robert Lederman, an artist who specializes in drawing caricatures of Giuliani as a dictator and depicting his policies as transforming New York into a police state. Lederman was arrested 40 times during Giuliani’s reign for displaying his art at political demonstrations and on the streets of New York. Lederman was never convicted of a crime. In a similar fashion, Giuliani ordered paid advertisements for New York magazine removed from public buses because the ads touted the magazine as “possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn’t taken credit for.”

According to the New York Times, the Daily News and the New York Post, then attorney general candidate Eliot Spitzer went on record in October 1998, saying, “the current Mayor thinks he’s a dictator, and does not have sufficient respect not only for other branches of government, but also for the citizenry and its opportunities to speak out and be heard.”

Spitzer’s complaints, like Lederman’s arrests, stemmed from Giuliani’s “zero tolerance” policies, which he argued would improve the quality of life in New York by addressing small crimes such as jaywalking, drinking in public, marijuana possession and panhandling, and non-crimes such as Lederman’s persistent expressions of free speech. Under this policy, New Yorkers were handcuffed and dragged off to jail for drinking beer on their front stoops —the New York City equivalent of hanging out on the porch. Marijuana possession arrests increased by well over 4,000 percent. Eventually almost 70,000 people sued the city for police abuses such as strip-searching suspected jaywalkers. In 1999, James Savage, the president of the New York City police union, referred to Giuliani’s zero tolerance policy as a “blueprint for a police state and tyranny.”

The hunting of altar boys

Giuliani shored up control of the police department by appointing crony Howard Safir as commissioner. Safir then enhanced the department’s Street Crimes Unit into what New York journalist Nat Hentoff described as a “rogue” operation that made “Dirty Harry look like Mahatma Gandhi.” Fashion-wise, the unit had more resemblance to Guatemala’s notorious military death squads, wearing “We Own the Night” t-shirts, and shirts citing Ernest Hemingway’s “There is no hunting like the hunting of man” quote—quite a variation from standard issue uniforms.

This is the police unit that became notorious for shooting African immigrant Amadou Diallo 40 times as he reached for his wallet after being ordered to show identification. When New Yorkers took to the streets to protest the shooting, Giuliani told the press that people were protesting due to “their own personal inadequacies.”

Eventually the Giuliani-sanctioned machismo infected other units in the police department. When undercover officers asked a man on the street to sell them marijuana, the man, Patrick Dorismond, took offense to being called a drug-dealer and got into a scuffle with the unidentified officers, who shot him dead. Giuliani issued a knee-jerk defense of the killers, telling the press that Dorismond was “no altar boy.” Salon.com pointed out that, in fact, he was an altar boy.

When Safir left, Giuliani appointed Bernard Kerik to take his place. Kerik later plead guilty to accepting gifts and loans from businesses with alleged crime ties while he served as commissioner.

Little weasels

By the time September 11, 2001 rolled around, Giuliani’s approval rating, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, hit a Bush-like 37 percent. Hizzoner got downright weird, proposing a Taliban-style “decency panel,” operated out of his office, that would have the power to determine what would be considered “art” in New York City. In 2001 he ordered a city-wide ban on pet ferrets, claiming that there was something “deranged” about opponents of the ban, arguing that “excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness.”

Weasels weren’t the only ones to get the boot in Giuliani’s New York. Hizzoner boasted of moving people from welfare to workfare, where thousands of people earned less than two dollars per hour replacing an equivalent number of parks department employees whose positions were downsized. During this period, 13,000 welfare-dependent City University of New York students were forced to leave school and enter the menial workfare force, where less than six percent of participants transition to real employment paying minimum wage or more.

Mega real estate developer Donald Trump described Giuliani as “maybe the best [mayor] ever.” Ralph Nader called him “the oligarch’s mayor.” Giuliani took credit for a high-end real estate boom while presiding over double-digit rises in homelessness, cutting public spending on affordable housing by nearly half and housing for the homeless by nearly three quarters.

Today, America’s mayor lives and breathes a 9/11 mantra. Forget the details of his tenure in Gracie Mansion. He’s an iconic American hero—the leader we needed when George W. Bush was AWOL on September 11.

But was Giuliani really the hero of the day?

On September 11 New York was left without an emergency command center because Giuliani, against the advice of the police and fire departments, decided to locate the center in the third World Trade Center building, above fuel tanks containing tens of thousands of gallons of fuel—this despite a 1993 terrorist attempt to topple the towers. It was this decision that put him on the street on September 11 instead of inside a command center coordinating operations. Ironically, this decision also put him in front of hundreds of press cameras, sparking his transformation into iconic, dust-covered hero.

While our hero was wandering the streets, however, there was no communication between the police department, whose helicopter pilots determined that the towers were in danger of collapsing, and the fire department, whose real heroes were rushing into the towers. And there was no communication between the police officers who identified an open stairway for escape from above the fire and the 911 operators who were telling soon-to-be-dead office workers to stay put and wait for firefighters.

Whatever possibility existed for communication between the police and fire departments, whose radios operate on different frequencies, evaporated when Giuliani visited a makeshift fire/police command center that formed in his absence and ordered to police brass to leave and accompany him uptown. This effectively put the fire department and police department leadership in different physical places with no communication between them.

Arbeit macht frei

A month after the September 11 attacks, firefighters took to the streets to protest against Giuliani’s decision to limit the number of uniformed firefighters and police officers sifting through the rubble for remains. They accused the administration of speeding up the cleanup at the cost of possibly discarding the remains of victims. Giuliani, in signature style, ordered Peter Gorman, head of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, and Kevin Gallagher, head of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, to be arrested at the protest site. A spokesperson for Gallagher told the media that “The mayor fails to realize that New York City is not a dictatorship.” Gorman went a step further, joining hordes of New Yorkers who called the mayor a “fascist”—which brings us back to the fascist issue that dogged Giuliani throughout his tenure as mayor.

Giuliani often answers the charge by accusing his detractors of ethnic bias—as if “fascist” were somehow an ethnic slur against Italian Americans. The charge itself, however, stinks of anti-Italian-American ethnic bias, ignoring the role New York’s Italian-American community has played in democratic politics—giving the city, for example, its most revered mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia. The fascist charges don’t stem from Giuliani’s ethnicity, they stem from his actions and statements. Giuliani, in his own worlds, explains that, “freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be. Freedom,” he explains, “is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.”

And you thought George W. Bush was dangerous.

Dr. Michael I. Niman’s Artvoice articles are available at www.artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com and available globally through syndication.