Editor’s Note: We republish here, courtesy of Harry Belafonte, his remarks from the inauguration of Bill de Blasio. Belafonte’s speech, while praised by many, also drew some criticism, including from the New York Times’ Jim Dwyer. Following Belafonte’s speech, we publish a rejoinder to Dwyer by Carl Hart.
When Bill de Blasio stepped into the campaign to determine who would lead the city of New York, he stated that he would not let this city remain a community divided; he would no longer let this city linger in the shadows as a parallel story to Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” He inspired us; we listened…and overwhelmingly responded with a joyous sense that all problems are fixable. We made him OUR mayor.
While it is an encouraging sign that statistics have indicated a recent drop in our city’s murder rate, New York, alarmingly, plays a tragic role in the fact that our nation has the largest prison population in the world. Much of that problem stems from issues of race, perpetuated by the depth of human indifference to poverty. As important as changing the Stop and Frisk law is, the change of a law is only the tip of the iceberg in fixing our deeply Dickensian justice system.
Bill de Blasio has been overwhelmingly mandated to make many, who for much too long danced with despair, believe again in the American dream. A dream filled with hope, a dream filled with opportunity and justice.
Bill de Blasio was born at a time when courage and moral vision were often on display. He was touched by the political convictions of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the indomitable courage and wisdom of his wife Eleanor. Martin Luther King Jr.’s valiant leadership of the civil rights cause profoundly influenced him. Bill de Blasio’s embrace of leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, Bobby Kennedy, Cesar Chavez, Rabbi Heschel Abraham and others says that he will aspire to be no less courageous than they.
In the challenge to the inequities we face, we New Yorkers should insure our Mayor that he will not stand alone in facing the “Nay Sayers” of progress in our midst…that his invitation that we assist him in fulfilling his mission will not suffer from a detached citizenry. We shall commit ourselves to assisting in, and insisting that, the better part of ourselves live up to the political and moral courage that change demands.
How fortunate we New Yorkers are that at his side stands Chirlane McCray. Her eye is eternally on the hunt for truth and her moral center insures that Bill’s moral flame will never dim for the want of a guardian at the gate.
Today begins a new era… a transformative journey of hope on the road to promise. We have seen America wrestle with her conscience. We have seen her struggle to become her better self. I think the solution to what most people want America to become resides here in New York. We can become America’s DNA.
Bill de Blasio gives New York another opportunity to open the door of possibilities and we must not let him fail.
THANK YOU NEW YORK!
What Jim Dwyer Gets Wrong About Harry Belafonte’s Speech
by Carl Hart
Liberals can’t catch a break. Not one day into his new job as Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio faced criticism about the tone of his inauguration. Some charge that speakers were preoccupied with unfairly vilifying former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s record on social justice.
Indeed, New York Times columnist, Jim Dwyer, was so disturbed by activist and artist Harry Belafonte’s speech that he wrote an article in the Times delineating the apparent flaws in Belafonte’s arguments. Notably, Dwyer took particular exception to Belafonte’s remarks about how New York plays a role in the nation’s embarrassingly high incarceration rates.
Initially, I was unaware of the controversy surrounding the inauguration events and Dwyer’s subsequent column. But, a friend asked my opinion and asked that I weigh in. I have now read Dwyer’s article and have seen the video containing Belafonte’s remarks. I read Dwyer’s column first; on the surface, his comments seem logical and appropriate. This didn’t surprise me. Dwyer was one of my heroes for his excellent previous reporting on New York City’s racist marijuana arrest practices.
Turns out, however, Dwyer’s remarks are beguiling. After listening to Belafonte’s speech, I’m disturbed by Dwyer’s intellectual pettiness or dishonesty. Belafonte was attempting to draw attention to the nation’s abhorrent record on social justice, and as an example he used the racial disparities seen in the prison population. To make the connection with the purpose of his talk (NYC mayoral inauguration), he stated “New York alarmingly, plays a tragic role in the fact that our nation has the largest prison population in the world.”
Dwyer’s quibble is really with only one word—”plays.” If Belafonte would have used the word “played” rather than “plays,” Dwyer’s arguments would be without merit. It is clear that the Rockefeller Drug Laws played a major role in increasing the nation’s prison population and more than 90 percent of those serving time (or have served time) under these laws were minority. Furthermore, these laws provided the model for the now infamous federal legislation that punished crack convictions 100 times harsher than convictions for powder cocaine. What’s more, former mayors Rudy Giuliani and Bloomberg, with their support of programs such as stop and frisk, have exported bad policing techniques/policies around the country, which undoubtedly contributed to the hyper-incarceration culture.
People who write as Dwyer has written are particularly disturbing because they disregard the fact that stop and frisk policies—even when arrests are not made—serves as a means for the police to track people (mainly minorities) by putting their names in the system. If suspects are needed for a crime, the police start with many of these individuals. So, “stop and frisk victims” are treated like criminals, even though they may not have been arrested. Most Americans think this is wrong. Belafonte was simply drawing attention to this and other larger important social inequities. I applaud his efforts.