The following is the introduction to THE LAST DAYS OF NEW YORK: a reporter's true tale, by Seth Barron (Humanix Books, June 1, 2021). Available to purchase here.
New York City was reeling in the summer of 2020. Riots had broken out after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May. Violent mobs targeted police officers, and more than 450 cops were injured by anarchists and Black Lives Matter protestors. Hundreds of New York Police Department (NYPD) vehicles were torched, and there were multiple attempts to firebomb occupied police cars. Hundreds of stores were looted of millions of dollars of goods. Unpermitted marches blocking traffic went on almost continuously.
In late June, hundreds of anti-police demonstrators occupied City Hall Park, between City Hall and the Brooklyn Bridge, and pledged not to leave until the city “defunded” the NYPD in the forthcoming budget. The protestors indicated clearly that they wanted the existing police force disbanded and replaced by community-based conflict-resolution workers. Following the passage of the budget, which shifted $1 billion in funding from the NYPD and cut recruitment, the “occupiers” refused to leave. Their camp turned the plaza next to City Hall into a shantytown, with violence, rampant harassment of local residents, and defacement of public and private property.
The month of July saw a shocking rise in violent crime across New York City. The number of shootings, compared to the same period the previous year, increased by 177 percent; the number of murders rose by 59 percent. Burglary, grand larceny, and auto theft were also up significantly. Neighborhoods around the city experienced a spike in street harassment and random assaults; thieves brazenly walked around luxury stores and walked out with whatever they wanted. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of residents were moving out or making plans to, thousands of businesses were closing their doors permanently, and the city was facing a $10 billion budget hole as tax revenue dried up.
In response to this unfolding inexorable disaster, Mayor Bill de Blasio made a bold move. On the morning of July 9, the mayor, joined by his wife, Al Sharpton, and a few dozen supporters, painted “Black Lives Matter” in giant letters on Fifth Avenue, in front of Trump Tower and television cameras. “This is such an important moment for our city,” announced de Blasio. “This is something we need to do for New York City, here and all over.” The mayor exulted, “We are liberating Fifth Avenue! We are uplifting Fifth Avenue!” Plans were set to paint similar street murals in every borough to celebrate the lost history that “black people built Fifth Avenue, built New York City, built America. They gave people the right to have . . . luxury.”
Later that same day, after helping paint the letter “L,” de Blasio went on CNN to discuss with Wolf Blitzer the cancellation of all public events for the foreseeable future, because of the pandemic.
So, no, we don’t need big events any time soon. We’ve had a lot of success making New York City healthier. We’ve got to really stick to that plan…like street fairs. It means, you know, big outdoor concerts, and it means things like parades, you know, things that here in this city can mean not just thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. It’s just not time for that now.
Blitzer then asked de Blasio the very question that many New Yorkers—who had spent the previous four months locked in their apartments, avoiding friends and family, missing graduations and proms, unable to attend the deaths or funerals of their loved ones—were asking: “What about protests? If people want to march down Fifth Avenue, are they going to be allowed to do so?”
The mayor did not miss a beat, segueing directly into the widely expressed contention that some mass gatherings—driven by the demand for racial justice—matter more than others and are therefore exempt from pandemic-related restrictions:
Look, Wolf, this is always an area of real sensitivity. If you’re just talking about health, we would always say, hey, folks, you know, stay home if you can. But we understand that this moment in history people are talking about the need for historic changes. I mean, today, in New York City, you know, recognizing the power and the meaning of the message “Black Lives Matter,” which we did in front of Trump Tower today—this is a historic moment of change. We have to respect that, but also say to people the kinds of gatherings we’re used to, the parades, the fairs, we just can’t have that while we’re focusing on health right now.
New Yorkers grew accustomed to hearing that despite lockdown and quarantine orders, it was okay to hold marches and rallies, blocking traffic while angrily screaming, because it was demanded by the arc of history. De Blasio repeated this sentiment whenever he was asked about the evident double standard. “We are seeing a national historic moment of pain and anguish, and a deep cry for help and a deep cry for change. It is not your everyday situation,” he told a reporter in June, a week after reports emerged that his own daughter Chiara had been arrested at a violent protest on lower Broadway, where police were attacked.
“I love my daughter deeply,” he told the world after her mugshot—deranged and wild-eyed, mohawked, with her earlobes gauged-out—was published.
I honor her. She is such a good human being. She only wants to do good in the world. She wants to see a better and more peaceful world. She believes a lot of change is needed. I’m proud of her that she cares so much and she was willing to go out there and do something about it.
In her case, “doing something about it” meant joining a mob throwing bottles at cops.
It was hard not to feel that New York City underwent a kind of phase-shift in that period: a fundamental transformation in kind that altered the city at the molecular level, more or less permanently. The city was, factually, collapsing. Plainly, the economic pain was going to be deep. The subways had been in major trouble before the pandemic; now, the very continuation of regular service was in serious question. New York City’s tourism sector, which hosted 65 million visitors in 2019, cratered; hundreds of thousands of jobs related to hospitality, entertainment, and shopping disappeared.
Morally, New York took on a revolutionary aspect in which agents of chaos and preachers of despair were touted as noble heroes, peace officers—the majority of whom are nonwhite—were derided as racist killers, and average residents were commanded to chant the slogans of the new Red Guard or face reprisal as fascists, because “silence equals violence,” whereas violence, it seems, equals protected speech. Echoing their colleagues around the country, local politicians and reporters lavishly praised violent mobs as the heirs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the acolytes of Gandhi, while they analyzed videos of police engagements with Zapruder-like intensity, hunting for violations of the civil rights of raving anarchists puncturing tires and clubbing cops on the back of the head in the middle of a scrum.
Anyone who could, left. Anyone who couldn’t, cowered. To quell nighttime looting, the mayor declared an 8 p.m. curfew; in response, the public advocate—who holds a citywide position that assumes control in the event the mayor is indisposed—the speaker of the city council, and a clutch of other prominent officials knelt in Times Square at 8:01 p.m. to defy the principle of public order. This crew blustered that de Blasio’s belated curfew was ill-advised, probably illegal, and certainly inflammatory. State senator and former city comptroller John Liu said the curfew, which did dampen violence and destruction, “was like throwing gasoline on a fire.”
Councilman Mark Levine, chairman of the council’s Health Committee, condemned the police, tweeting, “NYPD, your use of tear gas is increasing COVID-19 risk, because it (1) makes the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection, (2) exacerbates existing inflammation, (3) makes people cough. So stop.” The NYPD did not use tear gas prior to this tweet, nor after it; Levine did not retract or correct his statement.
New Yorkers were thus forced to endure an absurd, self-serving spectacle, in which Mayor de Blasio accepted the role of the bad guy, supposedly imposing ferocious police state tactics upon placid practitioners of civil disobedience, while the lesser officials, all of whom were seeking reelection or higher office, pretended that they were fighting against fascism. This was not the first iteration of this circus-style dynamic, which both sides regularly exploited for their own purposes. Meanwhile, the city roiled.
When in the future people ask how New York City fell to pieces, they can be told—in the words of Hemingway—”gradually, then suddenly.” New Yorkers awoke from a slumber of ease and prosperity to discover that their glorious city was not only unprepared for crisis, but that the underpinnings of its fortune had been gutted.
Faced with a global pandemic of world-historical proportions, New York’s leadership dithered, offering contradictory, unscientific, and meaningless advice. The city and state became the world’s epicenter of infection and death. The protests, riots, and looting that followed the death of George Floyd, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement—cheered on and celebrated by the media and political class—accelerated the crash of confidence that New York City needed to rebound quickly from the economic disaster.
Bill de Blasio’s failure to manage the outbreak of COVID-19 is well established. But what is less well understood is how poorly he managed the city up to the point of the pandemic, and how his mismanagement left New York City vulnerable to the social, economic, and cultural shocks that have leveled its confidence and brought into question its capacity to absorb the creative energies of the world, and reflect them back in the form of opportunity and wealth, as it has done for hundreds of years. At a moment when socialist currents are stirring throughout America, Bill de Blasio’s term in office in New York City is a demonstration of what those impulses actually produce: debt, decay, and bloat.
Seth Barron is a New York City-based writer and editor who has written extensively about local politics and culture in City Journal, New York Post, New York Daily News, and The Wall Street Journal, and frequently appears on both national and local media, including Newsmax and FOX. Barron serves as managing editor of The American Mind, a publication of the Claremont Institute. THE LAST DAYS OF NEW YORK is Barron’s first book.
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