Thoughts on oligarchy

Is it disingenuous to not think of the United States as an oligarchy when the brother of a former president (their dad was also a former president) has a decent chance of being our next president, as does the wife of a former president? This is all in the last three decades over four administrations.

From Wikipedia: “Oligarchy, meaning ‘few,’ and ‘to rule or to command,’ is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people could be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, education, corporate, or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who typically pass their influence from one generation to the next…”

I draw no grand conclusions from this, but it’s worth considering.

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Speaking of #fail

I’m going to unpack this tweet I made earlier today, mostly because it doesn’t make sense without context (140 characters, sorry) and because the column in question is frustrating insofar as it relates to Occupy Wall Street (lol remember that?).

A bit harsh, but read on.

A bit harsh, but read on.

I agree with the central thesis of the Daily Beast’s column, Why Industry Hashtags #Fail: because they’re easy targets that are easily co-opted by critics and can easily go viral. The notion of a social media campaign – corporate or otherwise – going completely toe-up is catnip in the twittersphere.

As a case study the author used #MyNYPD, a social media debacle in which the NYPD tried to solicit photographs of friendly interactions between officers and the public. It failed miserably. Social-savvy activists, including the main Occupy Wall Street Twitter account, began to collate photos of abuse (perceived or actual) by the NYPD, mainly in the context of the protests.

I was tracking with the column until I read this:


Why Industry Hashtags #Fail, by Samantha Levine. The Daily Beast – May 5, 2014.

The author is right, none of the established news organizations that deigned to cover the protests delved into accusations of wholesale misconduct or systemic brutality. However, that’s not – as she suggests – evidence that such widespread, systemic conduct did not occur.

And is it really a base instinct to question the police department’s handling of Occupy, something that neither Bill de Blasio nor Bill Bratton has really addressed in the context of future protests? No news outlet here in New York, that I’ve seen, has even attempted to take the police department to task for illegally detaining people or the widely documented instances of abuse of power and force. No news outlet that I’ve seen took a comprehensive look at how the NYPD reacted to Occupy and came back to the police department with questions.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying there was widespread, systemic brutality in the NYPD’s handling of Occupy protestors, though if presented with such a case I’d have no problem believing it based on what I personally saw. I’m not saying the NYPD isn’t well-liked, as I believe they are by everyday New Yorkers.

What I am saying is that even though the point of the column – why industry hashtags don’t work – is ultimately made, claiming that there wasn’t systemic abuse in the NYPD’s handling of Occupy because there weren’t any news reports about such a thing is lazy and careless in any context. The question was never really asked. My larger point is that the question should have been, and should still be, asked of the NYPD.

Forget for a minute the ideology behind Occupy Wall Street. There’s a right way and a wrong way of handling protests, especially those that are big enough to warrant a full-scale response from the world’s largest police force. I’m not convinced the NYPD handled it anywhere close to the right way. And there hasn’t yet been a reckoning from those who have since come to power.

What’s going to happen next time, like if New York City wins its bid to host to the 2016 Democratic National Convention?

I’ll close with this excerpt (linked above as well) from The Atlantic that looked at the 14 most egregious allegations of abuse by the NYPD during the Occupy protests and was based on an eight-month study conducted by law clinics at NYU, Fordham, Harvard and Stanford.

14 Specific Allegations of NYPD Brutality During Occupy Wall Street. The Atlantic - July 25, 2012

14 Specific Allegations of NYPD Brutality During Occupy Wall Street, by Conor Friedersdorf. The Atlantic – July 25, 2012

Occupy had its run in the mainstream news cycle, and has long ago ceased being much of a story. But the media largely failed in holding police departments across the country accountable for how they handled Occupy protesters. There are bound to be more large-scale protests in New York, and we would do well to start asking the questions that should have been asked and answered years ago, perhaps starting a national dialogue among law enforcement in the process.


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Remembering the Yippies

Counter-cultural haven on Bleecker Street still alive despite legal struggle. This story was published Dec. 4 in Our Town Downtown

They were there to celebrate the 64th birthday of activist Aron Kay, the Yippie Pieman, so named for his penchant for hurling baked goods at those he’s strongly disagreed with throughout his decades-long activist career, including William F. Buckley Jr. and Phyllis Schlafly.

Yippies – shorthand for members of the Youth International Party – took turns at the mic regaling the crowd with stories of how they met Pieman and the various exploits embarked upon by the organization. Leftist, anti-nuclear, anti-war, pro-marijuana, the Yippies – founded in New York City – have been politically active since the 1960s.

The Yippie Pieman Aron Kay

The Yippie Pieman, Aron Kay

In 1973, Dana Beal, a Yippie pro-marijuana activist, opened the museum at 9 Bleecker Street to preserve all things Yippie and maintained it as a residence. Beal wasn’t at the party because in 2012 he was convicted of transporting 150 pounds of pot in Nebraska and is currently serving a prison sentence. The museum is facing a legal battle with a lender who is attempting to foreclose on the property, and a court date is set for January.

But the legal troubles facing the Yippie Museum seemed miles away at Pieman’s party. Paul DiRienzo, who has long been involved in the Yippie community and met Pieman in the mid-70s, fondly recalled their capers from the 70s and 80s. The Yippie Museum isn’t as involved with social activism as it was back then, but there are still poetry readings and an open mic night every Wednesday. Occupy Wall Street protesters used the museum as a meeting space in 2011.

“Aron Kay, more than anyone I’ve ever met in my life, has taught me how to be an activist,” said DiRienzo, who hosts a progressive talk show called “Let Them Talk” Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Manhattan Neighborhood Channels. He said there wasn’t a single appearance in New York City by Ronald Reagan that the Yippies didn’t protest.

Pieman himself, who’s confined to a wheel chair, recalled a particularly memorable anti-Reagan demonstration the Yippies held called the “Ballet for Bullets.” They were protesting the Iran-Contra Affair and Reagan was the embodiment of the scandal. The president was attending his son’s ballet performance at Lincoln Center, and the Yippies held a counter-ballet outside in the street.

“Picture myself, a pregnant woman named Ruth, and Dean Tuckerman – who had cerebral palsy – dancing around in tutus, dancing the Ballet for Bullets. We stole the show from them,” said Pieman. “Whenever Ronnie boy would show up, we would have to be the pain in the ass.”

Cake was served and speeches were made. Resistance songs were sung and guitars were strummed. Pieman’s daughter, Rachel Kay, a vegan and animal rights activist, said it was good to see her father, who has health issues, so energetic.

In an interview later, DiRienzo said of the Yippie Museum, “It was like an intellectual salon. That’s what would be the loss if they lost this place, it was a place where people from all over the world came at one time or another. Every amazing type of person, radical activists from any corner of the world you can imagine, passed through the [Yippie Museum] at one time or another.”

From the guerilla-style Rock Against Racism in Central Park to organizing pro-marijuana marches, and of course hounding Reagan whenever he deigned to visit the Big Apple, the Yippies have been a consistent counter-cultural presence in the city.

DiRienzo recalled a device made by the Yippies’ sound guy called the “sound cannon,” which was two giant horns sitting atop a six-foot pole that was connected to an industrial strength cart. The rig could be dismantled into the cart and sealed up, making it impossible for the police – short of using a blow torch – to get into it.

“We could then go and make some hard-core sound,” said DiRienzo. “The city was ours in those days.”

As for the future, DiRienzo isn’t sure what will happen, but he knows that the people who made the Yippie Museum what it is are still around and may have a few tricks up their collective sleeve.

“A lot of people say we should just rent another space,” said DiRienzo. “But there’s an emotional connection to this place that we put our blood, sweat and tears into. It can’t be quantified.”

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City Hall’s Secrecy Scramble

Community groups complain of lack of disclosure for big development projects. This article was published Nov. 27 in Our Town Downtown.

Two major projects developed in the final months of the Bloomberg administration have prompted residents and neighborhood leaders to complain about a lack of transparency and collaboration as City Hall scrambles to complete its work by the end of the mayor’s term.

The two downtown projects — the development of the South Street Seaport and the relocation of city agencies — have become touchstones in a debate about secrecy and development. “This administration has been the least transparent that I have ever seen,” said John Fratta, chairman of Community Board 1’s Seaport/Civic Center Committee, “especially in these last few months of their administration.”

Most recently, the NYC Economic Development Corp. and the Howard Hughes Corporation were compelled in a letter sent by local elected officials to reveal their development plans for the South Street Seaport. This was after pressure from Community Board 1, community groups and residents failed to yield any information.

The letter to the EDC, signed by five elected officials in Manhattan, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, said there has been “limited information and lack of meaningful outreach to the community regarding potential development” of the Seaport and urged more transparency and collaboration.

In a different instance where official information has been scarce, details on the city’s Civic Center plan – which proposes to relocate city agencies out of ailing, inefficient buildings into newer and more cost-effective buildings in Lower Manhattan – has been given out piecemeal by city officials and only at the community board’s urging. As previously reported, residents have scrambled to mount opposition efforts to the relocation plans since word of them has spread.

City officials said they informed residents of the moves months ago by way of two public notices in the City Record. CB1 executive committee member Ro Sheffe said the moves were deliberately concealed from residents and two notices “in an obscure government newsletter” is “an outrageous betrayal of civic responsibility.”

Community Board 1 meetings have seen a dramatic increase in attendance since information on both the Seaport development plan and the Civic Center plan has become available. A meeting on Nov. 6 to discuss one of the Civic Center plan moves – which was held in a large NYS Assembly hearing room – was so packed that some attendees were held in the lobby because the room was at capacity.

The majority of those attending the meetings are residents who are opposed to what the city is planning, both with the Seaport development proposal and the Civic Center plan, which is one possible reason why city officials and developers have offered scant details.

In the case of the Seaport, residents and community board members claim that Howard Hughes and the EDC knew what they were planning to build for months but declined to share their plans with residents, despite numerous requests for information. After the letter sent by the elected officials urging transparency, Howard Hughes did release some details – include plans to construct a 50-story residential/hotel tower – to a packed Community Board 1 meeting on Nov. 19.

Robert LaValva, who operates the New Amsterdam Market, an open-air bazaar selling produce and other food-related items in front of the New Market Building, said Howard Hughes was likely being secretive about their plans for the Seaport because they saw what happened with a similar 42-story tower proposal that General Growth Properties made in 2008 when they had a lease on the Seaport. That proposal was met with strong local resistance and was shot down by the city’s landmarks commission. General Growth later filed for bankruptcy.

“I think knowing that that was in the background, that this had been attempted once before and had been met with a lot of opposition, it’s pretty logical to assume that when Howard Hughes got into it for a second go around, they took a much less transparent route,” said LaValva, who for years has championed preservation efforts at the Seaport, rendering him a de facto rallying point and source of information in the community.

“The Howard Hughes Corporation isn’t a small corporation, they didn’t come into this project blind,” Fratta said. “They knew what they were going to do when they purchased the property, they knew there was going to be a tower.”

An EDC spokesperson said the plans presented to Community Board 1 are new and had not been received by the EDC. “It’s clear that [the Howard Hughes Corporation] has now begun to fully engage with the community and will continue to do so as the project evolves,” said the spokesperson.

Before construction on their proposal can begin, Howard Hughes must first get approval from the landmarks commission, then go through a public review process with the city’s planning department, known as the Uniform Land Use Review Process, or ULURP.

Chris Curry, senior executive vice president for the Howard Hughes Corporation, said at the Nov. 19 meeting that the company hopes to clear those hurdles by the spring of 2015. He also said that Howard Hughes would be open to more community collaboration after the new year, and that the final proposal would include a plan to save the financially struggling Seaport Museum.

CB1 will be holding a town hall-style meeting in January with Howard Hughes where residents will have two minutes each to voice their concerns over the proposal.

“The tower is going to stick out like a sore thumb, it’s going to change the whole character of the Seaport, and it’s going to be a major fight between the community and Howard Hughes,” said CB1’s John Fratta.

When asked about the EDC’s role in the Seaport proposal, CB1’s Fratta said he believes the EDC wanted to get the Seaport proposal as far along in the process as possible before the Bloomberg administration leaves office. “The EDC is equally guilty of keeping the community in the dark. They’ve been totally negligent when it comes to really looking at the needs of the community.”

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New York’s Dirty-Air Corridor

Upper East Side air quality among the worst in the city, mostly because of old boilers. This story was first published Nov. 20, 2013, in Our Town and the West Side Spirit.

In September, Mayor Michael Bloomberg touted the fact that the city’s air quality was the cleanest it’s been in more 50 years, and that air quality improvements have prevented nearly 800 deaths and 2,000 emergency room visits, compared to 2008.

All of which is great – unless you live on the Upper East Side or Upper West Side, which rank among the city’s worst in terms of air quality.

“One of the reasons why pollution levels are high in these areas is due to the high proportion of large buildings burning heavy oil for heat in the neighborhood – typically large co-ops and condos,” said Madeline Kostic of the NYC Clean Heat Initiative.

According to Kostic, a byproduct of burning these heavy oils is that they emit fine particulate matter into the air, which can become embedded in people’s lungs and lead to or exacerbate cardiovascular health problems.


East Side State Assemblyman Dan Quart has made the city’s conversion to cleaner burning fuel alternatives one of his main issues since taking office in 2011. His office estimates that there are more than 3,000 buildings in Manhattan burning the dirtiest type of fuel. The residential nature of the Upper East Side and Upper West Side makes these areas among the worst in the city for particulate matter.

Two years ago, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection issued regulations that requiring buildings to convert to cleaner-burning heating fuel. According to the regulations, all new burner or boiler installations in the city must use one of the cleaner fuels: natural gas, ultra-low sulfur Number 2 oil, biodiesel or steam. All buildings must also convert to cleaner burning fuel when a boiler is retired or by 2030, whichever comes first. Last summer, the city stopped granting new operating certificates for boilers using the dirtiest burning heating fuel.

“The city’s policy has been effective to an extent,” said Quart. “Where it’s been lacking is there hasn’t been the financial resources to incentivize the necessary percentage of conversions that will make a real dent in the air quality.”

Quart said that while the overall air quality has improved in the city, “If you narrow it down to the portion of the Upper East Side that I represent, then the boiler conversions are happening at a slower rate than they are throughout the city of New York.”

An Upper East Side building burning No. 6 heating oil, courtesy of Isabelle Silverman, Environmental Defense Fund.

An Upper East Side building burning No. 6 heating oil. Courtesy of Isabelle Silverman, Environmental Defense Fund.

Quart has an active bill in the legislature that would provide a tax credit to building owners statewide for the installation of more efficient boilers. He’s also trying to make the essence of his bill a priority in the 2014 budget. His bill also has a sponsor in the State Senate.

Quart said that while Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s environmental initiatives deserve credit for converting 3,000 or so buildings to more efficient boilers, more must be done. The main obstacle is cost. Quart estimated a boiler conversion to the cleaner burning Number 2 fuel costs about $275,000 while a conversion to natural gas costs around $325,000.

“Many buildings…simply can’t afford the major conversions,” said Quart. “If they do anything to move off of Number 6 it’s to the half-measure of [burning] Number 4…the PM 2.5 emissions are still pretty bad with the Number 4 fuel.”

The city’s mandate that buildings convert from burning Number 6 to Number 4 fuel – which will go into full effect in January 2015 – is not enough to reduce particulate emissions, according to Quart. However, he’d like his bill and the necessary funds to be live by then, so that building owners will consider converting to the cleaner burning alternatives when they’re required to convert to Number 4.

Quart hopes his tax credit legislation will provide the push necessary for more buildings to convert to cleaner burning oil. The real conversion that’s needed, said Quart, is for buildings to switch not from Number 6 to Number 4 fuel, but from Number 6 to the cleaner burning alternative Number 2 fuel or natural gas.

“If we have wholesale conversions on that end, I think we’ll a real improvement in air quality on the Upper East Side,” said Quart.

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