Throwing the book at people is nothing new, but in our post-9/11 world the screws are tightening. Take San Francisco, whose District Attorney is Terence "Kayo" Hallinan, a progressive fellow. Indeed, in his 2000 re-election bid Hallinan survived years of abuse in the San Francisco Chronicle for supposedly being altogether too slack a prosecutor, with poor conviction rates and kindred offenses betokening softness on crime.
Yet this is the same Hallinan who's hit two gay AIDS activists with an escalating barrage of charges, currently amounting to forty-one alleged felonies and misdemeanors, all adding up to what he has stigmatized in the local press as "terrorism." That's a trigger word these days, as Sarah Jane Olson, a k a Kathleen Soliah, recently discovered when a judge put her away for twenty years to life for actions back in the 1970s.
Held in San Francisco County Jail since last November 28 are Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli. Neither man has been able to make bail, which Hallinan successfully requested to be set at $500,000 for Petrelis and $600,000 for Pasquarelli.
Why this astonishing bail? What it boils down to is that the two accused are dissidents notorious for raising all kinds of inconvenient, sometimes obscene hell about AIDS issues. They've long been detested by San Francisco's AIDS establishment, which Petrelis in particular has savaged as being disfigured by overpaid executives, ineffective HIV-prevention campaigns and all-round complacency and sloth.
They've taken kooky positions. Pasquarelli, for example, believes that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. Petrelis hasn't scrupled to form alliances with right-wingers in Congress when it suits his tactical book. Being attacked by them can be an unpleasant experience. Who wants to get phoned in the middle of the night and be asked whether your wife has got your syphilitic dick in her mouth?
The two were thrown in jail because of an escalating campaign they launched late last year amid calls for an expansion of quarantining laws across the country, prompted by fears of bioterrorism. Petrelis and Pasquarelli took after an SF public health official, Jeffrey Klausner, for seeming to endorse quarantining of people with AIDS. They also assailed the media, notably the San Francisco Chronicle, for relaying what the two claimed were inflated statistics about increases in the rates of syphilis and HIV in San Francisco. The higher the stats, the more dollars flow to various AIDS bureaucracies. The Chronicle claimed tremulously that not only had its reporters been showered with filthy nocturnal calls to their homes but that there had been a bomb threat against the paper.
On the basis of what has surfaced so far, the charges and bail are way out of kilter with the facts of the case. Their severity defies logical explanation, unless we acknowledge the loathing Petrelis and Pasquarelli inspire in San Francisco's respectable element and among some well-known organizers.
Take Kate Sorensen, an AIDS activist who herself was held on $1 million bail for leading demonstrations outside the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia. The DA there took her to trial on three felonies, though she was only convicted of a misdemeanor. Such experiences have not evoked any solidarity with the San Francisco pair. Wrote Sorensen recently, "I will fight for our right to demonstrate. I will fight for our right to free speech. I will fight this police state, but I will not fight for you."
This self-righteous stance was elicited by an open letter of concern addressing the prosecution of Petrelis and Pasquarelli. Organized by the radical gay civil libertarian Bill Dobbs of Queer Watch, the open letter (go to www.openletteronline.com and look under "Politics & Activism," then "Petrelis-Pasquarelli") has been signed by hundreds, including many well-known gay figures like Harvey Fierstein, Scott Tucker, Barbara Smith and Judy Greenspan. The letter questions the motivation for the charges and makes the scarcely extremist demand that the two get fair legal treatment and reasonable bail.
Moderate though the terms of the letter are, it has aroused much fury from the San Francisco gay establishment, whose animus against Petrelis and Pasquarelli was what apparently prompted Hallinan to have the pair charged and arrested in the first place. On November 15 Martin Delaney of Project Inform, Mike Shriver of the mayor's office and fifteen others published a letter in the Bay Area Reporter urging people to pressure Hallinan, demanding "full prosecution of Pasquarelli, Petrelis and their collaborators."
Petrelis and Pasquarelli have a potent posse howling for their heads. "They fucked with the wrong people," said a health official quoted in the San Francisco Examiner on January 23. The "wrong people" include a broad swath of liberals and leftists in and out of government, the AIDS establishment and media figures.
Time was when a decent death threat used to be a badge of honor in the Fourth Estate. Jimmy Breslin recently recalled to Dobbs his glorious "Son of Sam" days, when violent threats were so routine at the New York Daily News that the paper's switchboard operator was wont to ask callers whether they were registering "general death threats" or "specific death threats for Mr. Breslin."
Granted, Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein is a terror survivor of "Attack by Lizard in the LA Zoo," and his wife, Sharon Stone, is the marquee celebrity for one of Petrelis's targets, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, but Bronstein should remember that Daily News phone operator and get off his high horse.
Hallinan's got a radical past and even radical pretensions. He knows as well as anyone that conspiracy charges have long been used to smash protest. And he knows as well as anyone that militant protest is at the cutting edge of social conscience. It's easy to grandstand about the foul tactics, the obscenities, the all-round vulgarity of Pasquarelli and Petrelis, but should this add up to a demand that they be thrown into prison for years? Of course it shouldn't. Judge Parker Meeks Jr. should resist the entreaties of the posse and cut the preposterous bail drastically or release them on their own recognizance. Hallinan should get his sense of perspective back, and drop the drastic charges.
Talk about rebuilding New York, and sooner or later someone will pipe up that out of crisis comes opportunity. It depends on where you stand. Right now what poor and working-class New Yorkers have got is crisis, and unless a force of historic proportion develops to shift the course of things, what will follow is more of the same.
Taking the crisis part first, it's well-known that New York has lost 95,000 jobs since September 11, less well-known that it lost 75,000 in the twelve months prior, and that even in boom times 1.5 million people, most of them with jobs, were turning to soup kitchens. Now those kitchens have had to turn people away for lack of food, and grassroots community agencies, to which for at least ten years government has outsourced a whole range of human services, are themselves against the wall. This past autumn Mayor Giuliani ordered every city department other than fire, police and the board of education to cut its budget by 15 percent, meaning nonprofit groups with city contracts took a similar cut. Governor Pataki froze state money at a cost to nonprofits of more than $200 million. Meanwhile, foundations warned they'd make fewer grants, smaller grants, their capital having been clobbered on the stock market. And in fashioning end-of-year appeals, every group strove to connect to 9/11, because that's the trigger for charitable giving. September 11 relief funds are bulging with $1.1 billion. There's so much cash available for grief counseling that the big charities are fairly begging to give it away, but for tackling the material sources of grief-as-everyday-life among people who can claim no direct link to the twin towers--that's trickier.
At the Good Old Lower East Side, a tenants' rights and neighborhood preservation organization, we are looking at a worst-case loss of $200,000 out of our $500,000 annual budget. Meanwhile, the work goes on--only now we worry because one of our organizers has had asthma attacks from the air downtown while at housing court, because a lot of people we work with are depressed and scared, because the supposed era of good feeling ushered in by the tragedy hasn't stopped landlord harassment or evictions, because gentrification steams forward in the Lower East Side, because low-income people never just have housing problems; they have employment problems and health problems and family problems and immigration problems, and all of those are getting worse. From our counterparts in other groups, in areas from children's rights to prisoners' rights, we hear the same story of too little money and too much need. Drug and alcohol abuse is up, domestic violence is up, homelessness is way up (30,000 adults and children in city shelters, an all-time high). In December some 30,000 New York City recipients of public assistance hit federal time limits for welfare; in 2002 19,000 more will lose their benefits, left to compete with 95,000 displaced workers for jobs and services that are barely there.
One has to be a keen shopper for silver linings to see opportunity in all this, but for the past months, in a variety of venues, groups like ours have been meeting with legal services agencies, immigrant groups, unions, community activists, progressive politicians, economic policy analysts and others to discuss a people's agenda for rebuilding. For years politicians have been pronouncing on the value of work; now the state's commitment to work, but also to a living, must be tested. And if there are to be tax incentives to private companies, there must be a return in jobs, environmental safety, an expanded economic infrastructure--transportation, housing, communications, health, education. People are asking, Can we think of rebuilding that enhances all of New York's boroughs? Can we look at those holes where the towers stood and boldly imagine a different city, a better city? And can we mobilize an army to fight for that vision?
Even in the best of times that would be difficult. Now there's recession, and unless some major revenue sources are tapped, State Senator Eric Schneiderman says, "we're looking at something that makes the New York fiscal crisis of the 1970s look like a picnic in Coney Island." Only a fraction of the $20 billion that Bush promised to the city in September has materialized. The state and city are both running many billions of dollars in deficits; when the governor and mayor come out with their budgets in January and February, they are likely to strike at every social program, the better to impress Washington with their resolve to shoot the wounded. Again, the nonprofit service contractors, which are small and diffuse but account for about 15 percent of the city's budget, will be an attractive target. So will the city's civilian work force, already shrunk by 20 percent since 1993.
Schneiderman, for one, is calling for a freeze on about $4 billion in state tax cuts scheduled to go into effect in 2002; for reinstatement of the city's commuter tax; for repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws, which, he says, would save the state hundreds of millions a year. There are other ideas, including exacting sacrifices from the top 10 percent of New York's population, who doubled their wealth in the boom, and from city property holders, whose average tax rate has been frozen for ten years. The point is for New York's social justice forces to be organized, ready to struggle for every dollar and demand every good. Some of the bigger unions are saying they might want to give Mayor Mike Bloomberg a "honeymoon." Some in the media are still flogging the idea that there's a "new" New York, more generous, more one-for-all. It's the same New York, just worse. Only the rich have opportunity by right. The rest of us have to fight for it.
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The September 11 attack on the World Trade Center led journalists and image-makers to rediscover New York's working class. In an extraordinary essay in Business Week titled "Real Masters of the Universe," Bruce Nussbaum noted that during the rescue effort, "big, beefy working-class guys became heroes once again, replacing the telegenic financial analysts and techno-billionaires who once had held the nation in thrall." Nussbaum fulsomely praised "men and women making 40 grand a year...risking their own lives--to save investment bankers and traders making 10 times that amount." In The New York Times Magazine, Verlyn Klinkenborg, describing the construction workers who formed the second wave of rescuers, wrote, "A city of unsoiled and unroughened hands has learned to love a class of laborers it once tried hard not to notice."
Until September 11, working-class New Yorkers had disappeared from public portrayals and mental maps of Gotham. This contrasted sharply with the more distant past. When World War II ended, New York was palpably a working-class city. Within easy walking distance of what we now call ground zero were myriad sites of blue-collar labor, from a cigarette factory on Water Street to hundreds of small printing firms, to docks where longshoremen unloaded products from around the world, to commodity markets where the ownership of goods like coffee was not only exchanged, but the products themselves were stored and processed.
Much of what made post-World War II New York great came from the influence of its working class. Workers and their families helped pattern the fabric of the city with their culture, style and worldview. Through political and ethnic organizations, tenant and neighborhood associations and, above all, unions they helped create a social-democratic polity unique in the country in its ambition and achievements. New York City became a laboratory for a social urbanism committed to an expansive welfare state, racial equality and popular access to culture and education.
Over time, though, the influence and social presence of working-class New Yorkers faded, as manufacturing jobs disappeared, suburbanization dispersed city residents and anti-Communism made the language of class unacceptable. Then came the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, which saw a rapid shift of power to the corporate and banking elite. When the city recovered, with an economy and culture ever more skewed toward a narrow but enormously profitable financial sector, working-class New York seemed bleached out by the white light of new money.
The September 11 attack and the response to it have once again made working-class New Yorkers visible and appreciated. Not only were the rescuers working class, but so were most of the victims. They were part of a working class that has changed since 1945, becoming more diverse in occupation, race and ethnicity. Killed that day, along with the fire, police and emergency medical workers, were accountants, clerks, secretaries, restaurant employees, janitors, security guards and electricians. Many financial firm victims, far from being mega-rich, were young traders and technicians, the grunts of the world capital markets.
The newfound appreciation of working-class New York creates an opening for insisting that decisions about rebuilding the city involve all social sectors. Whatever else it was, the World Trade Center was not a complex that grew out of a democratic city-planning process. We need to do better this time. Labor and community groups must be full partners in deciding what should be built and where, how precious public funds are allocated and what kinds of jobs--and job standards--are promoted. Some already have begun pushing for inclusion; others should begin doing so now.
In the coming weeks and months, we need to rethink the economic development strategies of the past half-century, which benefited many New Yorkers but did not serve others well. Might some of the recovery money be better spent on infrastructure support for local manufacturing, rather than on new office towers in lower Manhattan? And perhaps some should go to human capital investment, in schools, public health and much-needed housing, creating a work force and environment that would attract and sustain a variety of economic enterprises.
Winning even a modest voice for working-class New Yorkers in the reconstruction process won't be easy. Already, political and business leaders have called for appointing a rebuilding authority, empowered to circumvent zoning and environmental regulations and normal controls over public spending. The effect would be to deny ordinary citizens any role in shaping the city of the future. As the shameful airline bailout--which allocated no money to laid-off workers--so clearly demonstrated, inside operators with money and connections have the advantage in moments of confusion and urgency.
But altered perceptions of New York may change the usual calculus. On September 11, working-class New Yorkers were the heroes and the victims, giving them a strong moral claim on planning the future. Rightfully, they had that claim on September 10, too, even if few in power acknowledged it. It ought not require mass death to remind us who forms the majority of the city's population and who keeps it functioning, day after day after day.
San Franciscans will vote on whether to create a public power company.
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Liza Featherstone will be reporting periodically on the antiwar movement for The Nation. This article is part of the Haywood Burns Community Activist Journalism series, sponsored by the New World Foundation and the Nation Institute.