Do we have a mayor or a shell game artist? Check Mayor Eric Adams at the microphone during a press conference. He’s two men in one. Sometimes, he’s New York’s proud son, guiding the city with chest out, dressed to kill. Peep him. He can be a shell game hustler, using a bodega coffee cup to hide the class warfare rich New York wages against us. He swirls it around until we lose track of the truth.
New York’s first Black mayor since David Dinkins is on a honeymoon. Brother can do no wrong. He wooed us. He put a ring on it. He told us he’ll protect us. But Adams is a conservative Democrat who won’t call out the real cause of crime. Yes, it’s guns. Yes, the city must track the violence. Mostly, it’s wealth inequality, intergenerational trauma and the in-your-face fact that working-class New Yorkers serve the city but are treated like shit by the rich.
And he won because of all of New York’s swagger, all the strut, all the cool that never reaches our radical activists. The left here, like the left everywhere, loves talking to the woke-ing class but not the working class. If it did, it’d learn what Adams did when he was coming of age in Southeast Queens. The Street has its own rules, its own language. The Street is brutal and beautiful too. If you want its love, you have to draw a heart in wet concrete. You have to love profanity more than purity. And some of us can’t be saved but you got to give our babies a chance.
Adams has game. He has more game than Monopoly. He knew what to say to us and how to say it. Be cool, he said. I got this. Felt good to hear it because we’ve been on edge for two years now. We got hit with COVID. We fell behind on rent. Our kids weren’t in school. Protests rocked the city. Teens smashed store windows and stole. Gang members shot other gang members in open daylight. Asian people were being beaten up in public.
All of these anxieties fueled a fear that was larger than the danger. The media put every dramatic crime under a microscope and shot the image into our brains. Of course, we panicked. We shuddered at the memory of the Bad Old Days of the 70s and 80s — squeegee men hanging out at traffic lights would thump dirty rags on windshields and demand payment. Teen “wolf packs” would go “wilding.” Parks would be open drug markets. BUT NONE OF THAT WAS HAPPENING!
Crime — it became a container for displaced anxiety. Yes, there was a real uptick in murders from 319 in 2019 to 488 in 2021, but New York is still a far safer city than in 1990 when the murder toll was 2,254. We are not dealing with just a spike in crime, but a much greater spike in the perception of crime. Which is useful for the city’s business class, eager to discipline us after the Black Lives Matters protests and bring back heavy-handed policing.
If this new image of crime is bourgeois fear mongering, for some of us, it is terrifyingly real. Black and Latino neighborhoods are hardest hit by crime. Our neighborhoods have the most unsolved murders, especially in the Bronx and South Brooklyn. When Adams blasted fellow mayoral candidate Maya Wiley’s plan to redirect $1 billion from the NYPD, he said, “Black and brown babies are being shot in our streets, hate crimes are terrorizing Asian and Jewish communities and innocent New Yorkers are being stabbed and shot on their way to work,” it rang true. Poor people of color never really escaped the Bad Old Days. The Sex and City New York, the Friends and Seinfeld New York, the Girls New York was a city that out-of-town gentrifiers enjoyed but for a lot of us, life was a constant Law and Order episode.
Quiet as it’s kept, many Black and Latino folks are not feeling BLM. Yes, we marched. Yes, we shouted “I can’t breathe” but we also swallowed the painful fact that we wanted police to protect us from each other. Man… it’s hard to write that. How many times did I talk with neighbors torn between wanting to feel safe and wanting to feel loyal? When the cops put up a police surveillance tower, the auntie who ran a nearby restaurant told me, “Good. We need that.” The brother at the laundry was mugged by another Black man, who told him he only mugs Black people because the police don’t care enough to follow up. “I was mugged by a racist criminal.” He threw up his hands.
When I first moved to Bed-Stuy, gunshots woke me from sleep. I saw my neighbors shot. One rolled back his pant leg and showed me the scab. A Black lesbian was left to die in a pool of blood after a drive-by. Things are better now. But a bullet leaves pain in the soul that never fully heals. Even now, I wince at loud noises.
A Strong Black Man
“We need strong Black men.” I heard that damn near my whole life. A lot of us didn’t have one. The hunger for a father figure is deep and it gave rise to an archetype of the Strong Black Man. Adams banked on it. He showed up in NYPD jackets, boasted about his health and promised to put the bulletproof vest he once wore on each one of our children. One of the surest ways to succeed in politics is to tap into an underlying, highly charged dream.
Imagine Mayor Adams on public TV, singing George Michael’s “I Will Be Your Father Figure”, wearing sunglasses and pointing at us. He is the Black sergeant in Ender’s Game and An Officer and a Gentleman. He’s Morpheus from the Matrix. He’s Bill Cosby without the rape. He’s Joe Louis Clark from Lean on Me. He’s the living embodiment of an archetype we created to survive the absence of real fathers in our lives.
I voted for him. Neighbors voted for him. We voted for Adams, son of the city, a shorty born in Brownsville, Brooklyn and as Fat Joe rapped, came “all the way up.” The force is strong with this one. The identification is real. He speaks like we do. One time he straight up said, “Yo. Yo. Yo,” to reporters — which is Street for “shut the fuck up.”
In the coming year that identification may get stronger as Adams steers the city through terror and rage if Republicans win the 2022 midterms and steal the 2024 presidential elections. How would he handle a second Trump Administration crack down on civil liberties? Will he direct the NYPD to protect us from white supremacist terrorists emboldened to bomb subways or synagogues or mosques? From those who come to town to shoot protesters? Or will he stand aside and let a police department full of Trump sympathizers act on its own dark impulses?
And this is why the left is being left behind. The activists and thinkers who should organize resistance to fascism, mobilize the working class to defend democracy and envision a “new” New York that honors workers can be petty as fuck. A recent low point was when AOC wagged her finger at Adams after he mangled a statement on getting office workers back so food truck vendors who rely on their business could again earn a buck. The optics of a fair-skinned, straight-haired Latina berating New York’s first Black mayor since Dinkins over a quote that working-class people understood perfectly fine was, well, just bad.
What the New York left’s obsession with identity misses is we aren’t just victims. We don’t want pity. We want power. The Street taught us that.
What maybe no one outside of the hood gets is that deep down, we want a Strong Black Man to come home and set things right. But the Street taught us that hustlers will front like your long-lost friend. We should’ve remembered that when we voted.
The Racial Shell Game
We voted for the mayor we loved, New York’s son made good, but we got a shell game artist. When a horrific crisis or a crime shocks the city, instead of pointing to the real longstanding class inequality behind most of it, Adams puts out bodega cups with “race” or “victim-blaming” or “law and order” written in Sharpie over it. And the shell game starts.
When fire licked the windows of a building in the Bronx, killing 17 people inside, eight of whom were children, at the press conference, Adams told us to “close the door.” He didn’t mention the nearly 200 complaints and violations from lead paint to…wait for it…doors that did not self-close, which, under city code, should in order to stop fire and smoke from spreading. Or that the co-founder of Camber Property Group, which co-owns the building, Rick Gropper, donated to Adams’ campaign and was a housing advisor on his transition team. Shell game. That working-class immigrants in all five boroughs live in dangerous, dirty, cramped housing. Shell game.
Two cops, Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora were brutally gunned down in Harlem by Lashawn McNeil after his mother called for help. They were young cops. They were just trying to aid the situation. Afterwards, the mayor did what mayors should. He eulogized. He comforted a shook city. He then made quick moves to give a show of addressing crime like bringing back the plainclothes unit that targets guns and gangs but was also responsible for the killings of Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Eric Garner and many other innocent, unarmed men. He wanted to roll back bail reform so judges can lock up a pre-trial defendant based on their “dangerousness.” Again, a shell game.
If our mayor, who was born in these streets, raised by these streets, truly wants a safe city, we need, as he himself says, “intervention” and “prevention.”
“We have a sea of violence in our city and country,” he said, “and there are many rivers feeding that sea. And we must dam each one.” In his Blueprint to End Gun Violence, he proposes expanding the Summer Youth Employment Program and more support for people suffering from mental illness, yet mostly focuses on surveillance and punishment. Again, a shell game.
The river of blood feeding the “sea of violence” begins way further upstream. It starts with poverty, which in New York is deep seeded and chronic. It starts with stressed moms, too poor to afford healthy food or health care. It starts with children crying from hunger. It starts with missing dads, locked up or dead. It starts with boys learning the Code of the Street which makes respect something worth killing over. It starts with intergenerational trauma passed down through slaps in the kitchen, beatings. It starts with mass incarceration that spews hardened men into the street. Add to it the endless flow of guns. A gun speaks louder than anything your mouth can say. A bullet is a scream traveling faster than the speed of sound.
To stop these rivers from feeding the “sea of violence,” we need, right now, a massive taxation of wealth to create new social programs. New housing. New trauma treatment centers. New jobs. A “new” New York. One that teaches its working-class youth to proof the city for climate change or build new subway lines that crisscross the outer boroughs. Big, bold projects by young people who realize New York is their inheritance. It belongs to them, not the rich.
Will our mayor do this? Will he stop playing games?
If he doesn’t, we will march with our children to City Hall and say, Brother man, time’s up, the Street has come for answers.
Nicholas Powers is a professor of literature at SUNY Old Westbury. He has written for The Indypendent, Truthout and The Village Voice. He is the author of Theater of War (Upset Press) and The Ground Below Zero (University of Arkansas Press).
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