The trouble with Rudy

Reaction to the killing of an African street vendor by police shows the growing protest power of the city's immigrant communities.


Neal Pollack
February 13, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

NEW YORK -- Ebrima Jobe, a Gambian immigrant who sells sunglasses and videotapes out of a little glassed-in booth on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, heard about the shooting of fellow West African immigrant vendor Amadou Diallo by police almost immediately. He had called one of his suppliers for baseball hats.

"He said he couldn't come that day. We have somebody die, he say, the African people. They shoot Diallo."

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Jobe immediately knew who Diallo was -- the West African community in New York is relatively small -- and immediately knew that he had to do something. "I went to protest. I don't talk about anything, but I hear everybody say they go to City Hall to demand justice from [Mayor Rudy] Giuliani, justice for this guy, because they made a mistake."

Diallo, a native of Guinea, was gunned down in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building by four New York police officers just after midnight on Feb. 4. He had been unarmed, yet officers unloaded 41 bullets at him, hitting him 19 times. Public anger built in New York, spontaneously and quickly. Over the weekend, the streets in front of his former home were mobbed with peaceful protesters, many of whom had never been to a political event in their life.

The quick mobilization in response to Diallo's death is a measure of the killing's shocking brutality. But it also points up the central role of New York's immigrants in building opposition to Giuliani. On Tuesday, more than 1,000 people showed up outside the federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan to protest Diallo's killing. People poured off the subway onto Centre Street, a steady stream from 11 a.m. until well after 2. They were almost entirely African-American or African-born, and very few of them were the usual suspects from anti-police-brutality rallies. For once, the International Socialist Organization, the Free Mumia set, the black Muslim radicals were in the minority.

Instead, people in the crowd were using a different rhetoric, talking about a different kind of politics. "They're trying to pit us against Archie Bunkers, against pro-cop white bigots," one woman told me. "But we know they're not our enemy. It's the poor and the working people, and they're pitting us against one another. Little by little, the people are starting to understand."

The rhetoric of class struggle may have been a little antiquated, or a lot antiquated, but the Diallo rally showed the potential for a new kind of politics. People weren't shouting the usual slogans or going through the usual motions of street protest. Even the Rev. Al Sharpton, the biggest protest hack of all, put aside his usual race rhetoric and appealed for a more universal system of justice.

The absence of white protesters was noteworthy, and yet predictable. The white left in New York is moribund. Aging Upper East Side intellectuals and Vietnam War protesters never show up at protests in this town anymore, and probably never will again. The political landscape of New York has changed entirely. The white intelligentsia isn't angry about anything and has little or nothing to offer the political debate. Their dirty little not-so-secret is that they benefit from Giuliani's repressive policies. Their streets are cleaner, their fear of crime dissipated, their place in the city's socio-political firmament secured. Many old radicals are comfortable now.

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Instead, the burden of protesting the system has fallen to an odd mishmash of people, most of them immigrants, some African-American -- from chestnut vendors to the mothers of Puerto Rican teenagers to cab drivers, who are at the butt end of the new New York City. Like all protest movements, this one suffers from division, from prejudice, from lack of resources. Most of all, the people who are affected by the repressive policies of the Giuliani administration speak dozens of languages and are from every country in the world. They are nearly impossible to organize coherently -- but they are organizing nonetheless.

It's within the city's growing street-vendor movement that the potential, and the tension, of this mainly immigrant anti-Giuliani force is evident. The city plans to ban street vending on 100 downtown Manhattan blocks, the heart of the Financial District, as well as to establish a "warrant" system for vendors, which would create a high-priced bidding war for coveted street slots. The system, already in place in city parks, has resulted in concessions going for $400,000 or more. ABC Television already owns several vending outlets, and McDonald's is bidding for others. One T-shirt concession in Battery Park recently went for $525,000. This latest move is igniting growing militancy by vendors, and the Diallo shooting threatened a conflagration.

Robert Lederman, a New York street artist for who has been a key figure in anti-Giuliani protests -- the mayor called him "the No. 1 quality-of-life criminal in New York City" -- immediately saw the connections between the Diallo shooting and street-vendor repression. Vendors, he says, face shakedowns at the hands of the police every day. West African vendors, like Diallo, often receive the worst treatment, because they're often unlicensed and recently arrived, and thus most unfamiliar with the system.

"Drug dealers get less harassment than vendors in this city," he says, "because it's harder to make a legitimate drug-dealing arrest."

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Some vendors draw connections between the power of the city's Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and the power of the police department. The BIDs offer privately funded cleanup and security services that work closely with Giuliani, and they have been instrumental in drafting legislation banning vendors from hundreds of blocks in midtown Manhattan. Robert Loutitt, the Fifth Avenue BID's vice president in charge of public safety, was a police officer in charge of the city's peddler squad, which was started under Mayor Ed Koch specifically to rid midtown of unlicensed Senegalese vendors. The Downtown Manhattan BID, which is currently trying to ban vending around Wall Street, is also raising money to build its own police station and train its own private police force. In Lederman's mind, vendor bans and police brutality are public crimes with the same roots. To him, they represent nothing more than a class struggle for the heart of New York City.

But attempts by Lederman and others to link the Diallo killing to the cause of street vendors fell flat at a rally Wednesday, showing the limits of attempts to mobilize this disparate mass. Just a day after 1,000 people showed up to protest Diallo's death, a crowd of only 200 showed up to protest the vending ban, smaller than expected. Food vendors complained that street artists didn't know what it was like to work for a living. Artists complained that food vendors never showed up when their butts were on the line. The police corralled everyone into a barricaded "protest area," and stood by in case anyone decided to bust out. The vendors listened to a hectoring lecture from Jeff Cicsio of Big Apple Food Vendors, the owner of 500 vending licenses. Cicsio wasn't talking class struggle, or "Off the Pigs."

"For the most part, the police are good, hard-working people," he told the vendors. "There are a few bad eggs, and get them out of the box." Then Cicsio berated the crowd for passivity.

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"Last year you were very successful," he said to the crowd. "A lot of you came out. We should have had twice as many guys here today. You came to America with a dream: to make a living, to have a better quality of life for your families. They gave you a permit, but now they're telling you that you can't use it because they're closing the sidewalks ... They want you out, and you have to realize that. You gotta take a stand ... This is America. You have rights. Don't let anybody push you around ... So why aren't more of you here?"

The Pakistanis, the Chinese, the disabled veterans, listened, but didn't respond. They hadn't come to be degraded. An advocate for vendors in Chinatown rolled her eyes. "He's mistaking their silence for passivity," she said. "They're just bored. If they understood that he was talking down to them, they'd be booing him off the stage."

Lederman took the microphone and did the best he could. Instead of complaining that there weren't enough vendors, he said, "I'm very glad to see all of you here today. And I want to ask you one question: Are you proud to be vendors?" The biggest cheer of the day went up.

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"Are you proud to earn an honest living as a vendor?"

"YEAHHHH!"

"Well, Mayor Giuliani's been saying some very nasty things about all of you. He says you congest the streets. He says you're dirty. He says you're a bunch of criminals. Is that true?"

"Nooooo!"

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"Let me tell you what the truth is: Mayor Giuliani is the biggest criminal in New York City!"

The vendors shouted wildly.

It's obvious that in New York, and in other cities across the country, a movement is building that will eventually take the place of the old left, because the issues at hand, like police brutality, gentrification and sweatshop labor, are of little concern to the old order. It has yet to find its leaders. African-Americans and the labor movement are just beginning to recognize its power. But the reaction to the Diallo killing shows that Giuliani better recognize it, too.


Neal Pollack

Neal Pollack has been the Greatest Living American Writer since the dawn of American letters in the early 1930s, or possibly before. He first came to the public’s attention writing for McSweeney’s in the late 1990s, and then through the publication of "The Neal Pollack Anthology Of American Literature," the greatest book in American literary history, and possibly in the literary history of all the Americas. The author of dozens of books of fiction, nonfiction, fictional nonfiction, poetry, screenplays, interviews, and diet tips, Neal Pollack lives in a mansion on the summit of Mount Winchester with his beleaguered manservant, Roger. He has outlived Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and many more, and will outlive all of you, too. Follow him on Twitter at @Neal Pollack

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