As the Republican National Convention approaches its nauseating climax, it’s worth noting and remembering how much the Republicans deserve to regret their decision to hold their celebration of bad political faith in New York City.
In the early winter of 2003, half of America’s cities reported that they could no longer provide adequate amounts of food to meet the needs of urban residents applying for emergency assistance. The hunger was especially great in New York, where the Bush downturn was severely compounded by the concentrated local impact of the September 2001 terror attacks. Bush responded to the dire urban indicators with a deficit-generating budget combining massive military expenditures with even more massive tax cuts that tilted towards the already super-wealthy in what was already the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation. The U.S. Conference of Mayors pointed out that this budget was nearly $ 4 billion short of what Bush’s own plan for “educational reform” required. It even, the mayors noted, cut support for regular policing, the need for which is rising as states accelerate the release of prisoners to save money partly in response to reduced federal assistance. By slashing taxes on the well off and diverting hundreds of billions to an imperial “defense” budget that dwarfs the combined military expenditures of all possible “enemy” states, Bush guaranteed that the federal government would not significantly help the nation’s cities or the rising number of (disproportionately urban) poor.
This was before the Administration requested and received $87 billion for invasion, reconstruction, and occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to the National Priorities Project, that imperial allocation – reflecting national policymakers’ indifference to the need for reconstruction in the “homeland’s” dangerously impoverished and ghetto-ridden cities – has come at no small cost to the nation’s leading urban areas: Los Angeles ($937 million), Atlanta ($110 million), Chicago ($905 million), Detroit ($166 million), Kansas City ($ 121 million), Las Vegas ($161 million), and New York City ($ 2.73 billion), Dallas ($352 million), and Houston ($563 million) (National Priorities Project, “The Cost of War for States and Selected Cities,” at www.nationalpriorities.org/ Issues/Military/Iraq/CostofWar.html).
Bush’s special imperial assessment extracted $119 million from Baltimore, which opened the holiday season by laying off 710 education workers as part of an effort to close a $52 million deficit in the city’s public school. “Cities and states,” left reporter Tim Wheeler reported last winter, “are facing similar deficits, to the tune of a combined $150 billion, thanks to Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, his war policy, and the economic recession.”
It was all very consistent with the vapid emptiness of Bush II’s comments at a church-sponsored community development center during an event marking the 10-year anniversary of the 1992 Rodney King riot at that memorable urban conflagration’s epicenter in South Los Angeles. According to Peter Drier, director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College in Los Angeles, “reporters might have expected” Bush to use this poignant anniversary “to announce a new initiative to address the nation’s serious urban problems.” Instead, however, Bush used the occasion “simply,” as Dreier notes in a passage worth quoting at length, to “tout his most visible urban program – encouraging urban churches to sponsor programs such as homeless shelters, food shelters and drug counseling. His proposal added no funds for these worthy, though Band-Aid efforts, but simply called for redirecting existing money. Also, by pushing $1.3 trillion in tax relief, mostly for the wealthy, Bush made it impossible for the federal government to provide any significant aid to the nation’s cities or poor. George W. Bush came to Los Angeles bearing only rhetoric. ‘You know, we live in a great country,’ he said. ‘I’m proud of America. I’m proud of what we stand for. Oh, I know there’s pockets of despair. That just means we’ve got to work harder. It means you can’t quit. It means you’ve got to rout it out with love and compassion and decency. But this is the greatest country on the face of the Earth. And it is such an honor to be a resident of such a great land…Out of violence and ugliness came new hope,’ he said, in the middle of a neighborhood where only 23 percent of the commercial buildings destroyed by the riots were back in business, where there are 43,800 fewer jobs than there were in 1992, and where more than one-third of the residents live in poverty.” (Peter Dreier, “America’s Urban Crisis A Decade After the Los Angeles Riots,” National Civic Review, v.92, n.1 [spring 2003]).
“The Republican War on the Cities”
The truth is, the federal government, under the lead of what the left urban-ecological writer Mike Davis calls “the Republican war on the cities,” has been disinvesting in cities for more than two decades. This anti-urban civil “war” has created massive shortfalls in the municipal monies available for subsidized housing, job training, public education, welfare and much else of pressing need in the nation’s abandoned urban core. Between 1977 and 1985, under the influence of “Reagan revolution in urban finance,” the federal government’s contribution to the budget of New York City fell from 19 percent to 9 percent. For Los Angeles, the comparative decline was from 18 to 2 percent. “For cities with more than 300,000 inhabitants,” Davis notes, “the average federal share of the municipal income stream…plummeted from 22 percent in 1980 to a mere 6 percent in 1989.” The consequences were especially harsh for impoverished inner-city neighborhoods, particularly reliant on federal assistance and already reeling from the savage, policy-enabled deindustrialization of central metropolitan districts.
They were exacerbated by the federal government’s determination to “shift the costs of many national problems onto Democrat-dominated localities,” including immigration regulation and the noxious, racist Republican-led War on Drugs. The latter has led to an expensive militarization of the cities, provided a steady stream of black and brown bodies to the prison industrial complex, deepened many minorities’ already extreme labor market disadvantages with mass, racially disparate felony marking (1 in 3 black adult males now possesses a felony record), and done nothing to stem the ravages of substance abuse.
The “Reagan-Bush era’s various anti-urban policies,” Davis found, “combined with huge tax subsidies to suburban retail and office development” to create a spectacular “new Spatial Apartheid” between fiscally starved and disproportionately black and Hispanic urban centers and very disproportionately white, affluent and over-funded suburban rings. Reaganite policy “subsidized white flight and metropolitan re-segregation” by “exiling core cities into the wilderness” and “smothering commercial suburban developers and renegade industrialists with tax breaks and subsidies” – a process that reapportioned away cities’ “once-decisive political clout in national elections” and entrenched “suburban voters and their representatives as the political majority in the United States.” (Mike Davis, Dead Cities [New York, NY: The New Press, 2003], pp. 247=253).
No More European Vacations for America’s Ghetto Poor
Three days after Bush II landed on the Abraham Lincoln to declare victory in Iraq, Michael Powell, chief of the Washington Post’s New York bureau, provided an interesting perspective on the current White House’s response to the fiscal and social crises of urban America. “The traditional conversation heard during national recessions – in which the federal government, Republican or Democratic, talks of rescuing state and local governments, had,” Powell noted, “been turned on it’s head” by the Bush team. “While cities and states slash budgets for public hospitals, firehouses, and schools even as they raise [regressive sales, P.S.] taxes to make ends meet, the Bush administration talks of cutting more taxes. Federal tax cuts enacted under Bush have led to a $10 billion drop in total revenue for the states, many of which link their taxes to those of the federal government.” “The Bush administration,” a leading urban policy expert (Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution) told Powell, “is fundamentally indifferent to the fiscal crisis of the states.”
Actually, however, Republican “conservatives” within and outside the White House quite openly and honestly endorse that crisis. “They say,” Powell observed, that “squeezing states and cities will produce better services for less – or force them to turn to the private sector.” Powell cited a recent study produced for the radically regressive Republican think-tank The Heritage Foundation – a White House favorite second in influence only to the equally humanitarian American Enterprise Institute – by Ohio University professor Richard Veeder. Veeder compares hard pressed-states and cities slashing human services programs needed by children and families to an affluent family that needs to “tighten its belt:” “instead of eating out three days a week, the family eats out once. Instead of taking European vacations, the family goes to Florida.” It was fine advice for the millions of Americans who lacked the time and money for any kind of vacation or for dining out and who depend on government simply to keep their heads above water. The insult and injury have been compounded the Bush administration’s unfunded urban mandates around education, immigration, and homeland security.
Bush was “wearing a wartime halo,” noted Richard Schrader, a New York City labor and political consultant, in the spring of 2003, “but someone needs to ask him why we can rebuild Baghdad but we can’t rebuild Ground Zero and our cities and states.” (Michael Powell, “Rescue’s Just Not Part of the Plan,” Washington Post, May 4, 2003, B1). As Schrader spoke, Tom DeLay was seeking to alter the formula for the distribution of federal transportation money in a way that would have cost New York City $300 million a year (Timothy Williams, “Mayor Slams RNC Cruise Plans,” Newsday, November 19, 2003).
Powell and Schrader might have added that the Bush administration ignored numerous warnings that might well have been used to prevent the events that created Ground Zero in the first place (see Edward S. Herman, “Bush vs. Security,” Z Magazine [October 2003]). Those events were manipulated by state and dominant media to create a political environment in which it became possible for the right-nationalist White House to conduct a monumentally irresponsible, expensive and illegal invasion of Iraq, equate criticism of its regressive and morally and fiscally irresponsible domestic policies with treason, and initiate the most dangerous assault on cherished American civil liberties in half a century.
To make matters yet worse in New York City, the Bush administration pressed the Environmental Protection Agency to “omit cautionary language about the possible hazard from air pollutants such as asbestos, cadmium, and lead after the World Trade Center towers fell.”‘ This was according to the EPA’s Inspector General, which also noted that the EPA’s early statements failed to include proper guidance for cleaning indoor spaces, leading lower Manhattanites to return to their homes before they were completely safe. Large numbers of emergency and construction workers spent weeks at the center of destruction, most without respirators, falsely encouraged by the EPA’s September 18th declaration that the air was “safe.” (Mark Kaufman, “Details on 9/11 Air Quality Questioned,” Washington Post, August 27, 2003, A23)
Thousands who worked in lower Manhattan during and after the terror attacks saw “their lives turned upside down by illness without access to care.” This was according to Dr. Stephen Levin, who headed a program at Mt. Sinai Hospital that screens people with Ground-Zero-related illnesses. Last year Levin told New York Magazine writer Greg Sargent that the Bush’s administration’s failure to approach his 9/11 patients with a comprehensive and serious response is “an intolerable outrage,” from “a public-health standpoint.” “Many of the people who spent months in the pit at ground zero,” Sargent learned, “have respiratory ailments. And no health insurance. And no help from the government.” “There is a patchwork, at best,” Levin reported, “of treatment” for those who have breathed in the “hydrochloric-acid mist released by plastics smoldering in the wreckage” and/or the “huge amounts of concrete” that was “ground into powder so fine that it could be inhaled deep into the lungs” (one wonders if Bush’s heralded 7-minute mile running times have fallen since his own visit to the site of destruction). The telling title of Sargent’s article was “Zero for Heroes” (New York Magazine, October 27, 2003, available online at www.newyorkmetro.com/nymetro/ news/politics/columns/citypolitic/n_9384/).
It was all quite graphically and literally reminiscent of the New York Daily News’ famous headline characterization of Republican President Gerald Ford’s failure to approve a desperate loan request from New York City: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.”
Enemy Urban Territory
As the Ford episode reminds us, there’s a rich pre-Rove history to the conflict between urban America and the Republican Party. It’s not for nothing that Republican presidential candidates have long written off the nation’s largest cities, whose voters naturally tend to shun “the more reactionary of the two business parties” (as Noam Chomsky aptly describes the Republicans), which is hardly to say that the Democratic Party has earned its urban dominance with genuinely progressive and city-friendly policies and positions. It’s not for nothing that Republican policymakers and operatives at the state and federal level work assiduously to dilute and depress the voting power of urban populations. Of course, Republican leaders love to rally their disproportionately white, wealthy, suburban, rural and Evangelical Christian constituents against the dark predatory urban hordes: the allegedly violence-prone, sex-crazed, and drug-addicted denizens of rotten, sociopathic, and disproportionately African-American and Hispanic urban boroughs.
Republican white America’s main policy initiatives for what its sees as the Enemy Territory of urban America are two-fold: (1) right-statist mass surveillance, arrest, incarceration and felony-marking and (2) neo-liberal “privatization.” The two initiatives are intimately linked to each other in a toxic relationship of dialectical inseparability that is symbolized by the rise of massive private prison firms like the Correctional Corporation of America (CCA). The more the state retreats from meaningful commitment to urban social welfare and the management of balanced, equitable development, the deeper grows the chaos of inner-city life and the more public officials rely on scandalously expensive and ineffective means of urban militarization implemented under the aegis of the “War on Drugs” to pretend to address the urban crisis. The “left hand of the state” (as the late French sociologist Pierre Bordieu called public programs and services that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent and embody the victories won by past struggles for justice and equality) withers but the at-once regressive and repressive “right hand” is strengthened, consistent with Republican doctrine – falsely sold as “laissez-faire” – calling for policymakers to “starve the beast of government.” Consistent with original usage by charter American state-capitalist architect Alexander Hamilton, the “beast” is understood to mean the common people and most especially the disproportionately poor and “colored” people of the cities – the same essential element that the American Founder John Adams referred to (in defense of the perpetrators of the Boston Massacre) as “a mob…a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues, and outlandish jacktars.” (quoted in David McCullough’s entertaining John Adams [New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2001], p. 67). Republican/republican hostility to the people that are structurally concentrated in cities is an old American problem.
Why Did They Come to New York? Crass Exploitation
All of which raises the interesting question of why the city-impaired Republicans wanted to hold their convention in the nation’s quintessential urban setting in the first place. Moderate Republicans can say all they want about the party’s desire to bond with New York City as part of its effort to refashion itself as a “big tent” organization open to all voters, i.e., even urban blacks. The deeper truth, of course, was that the Republicans have chosen New York City for their quadrennial theme show to wrap Bush II’s re-nomination in the nationalistic, media-choreographed, and obedience-inducing aura of 9/11, which – the Republican PR story runs – sparked the simple, Godly Bush II to move swiftly and heroically to “rid the world of evildoers” and advance the cause of “Freedom.” This, it should be noted, is why they took the unusual step of pushing their convention into September. Their goal was crass exploitation – as always.
Paul Street ([email protected]) is an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois.