The Mike Bloomberg Black New Yorkers Know - Rolling Stone
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The Mike Bloomberg Black New Yorkers Know

He’s feeding African American voters an image of a pugnacious businessman willing to do anything to take out Trump. New tapes remind us he was just as dogged about stopping and frisking black folks

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 22: Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, a democratic presidential candidate, prepares to speak during the U.S Conference of Mayors 88th Winter Meeting at the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, January 22, 2020. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, January 22, 2020.

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

Mike Bloomberg is finally being vetted as a presidential candidate. It took years-old audio tweeted by a journalist, not attack ads released by his feckless Democratic competitors, to make it happen. But it’s long overdue.

Podcast host Benjamin Dixon released previously obscure audio on Monday from a Bloomberg speaking engagement at The Aspen Institute in 2015. During a question-and-answer session, the former New York City mayor and current über-billionaire spouted the kind of bigoted language that one might expect to hear from the man he is now running to replace in the Oval Office.

“Ninety-five percent of your murders and murderers and murder victims, every one of them, you can just take the description and xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male, minorities, 15-25. That’s true in New York. It’s true in virtually every city,” Bloomberg said, falsely. (Just more than 90 percent of those arrested for murder and non-negligent manslaughter in 2015, per the NYPD’s 2015 Crime and Enforcement Report, were black and Hispanic — but there is no accounting for age and gender. Plus, the odds that he knew the statistics for every city are slim to none.)

That was just a taste of the wrong in Bloomberg’s Aspen rant. His solution to this problem that he misunderstood was to “put a lot of cops in the street, put those cops where the crime is, which means in minority neighborhoods. So this is one of the unintended consequences is people saying, ‘Oh my God, you are arresting kids for marijuana, they’re all minorities.’ Yes, that’s true. Why? Because we put all the cops in the minority neighborhoods. Yes that’s true. Why do we do it? Because that’s where all the crime is.”

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This is one of the reasons why black folks like myself who lived in New York while Bloomberg was mayor already knew to be terrified at the possibility of him becoming president. He is trying to spend his way into a new image. We should not only remember that he has done that before in New York City — the former Democrat turned independent who suddenly was Republican when the time was right — but we cannot let him slip by and do it again. Trump is the ultimate threat, but he isn’t Bloomberg’s opponent yet.

Stop-and-frisk,” first popularized in the 1990s, relies solely upon the discretion of the police officer: If he or she has reasonable belief that a person has been involved in a crime, then the cop can detain that person.  If there is a suspicion of a weapon, a non-invasive search can be conducted. 

It sounds very by-the-book when you read it, and I’ve never had it happen to me as of yet. But I watched it nearly every night coming home on the A or the C, getting off at Utica Avenue. Another young black man getting physically accosted, sometimes handcuffed. I’d often stay and watch to ensure that he was being treated safely. I had no hope for his dignity, typically. Heads were hung low and shoulders sunk into their torsos, even as nearly all of them walked away without any kinds of charges. It is an utterly humiliating and unnecessary experience. Why would I want a president who, at any level of his or her experience in public office, thought this was the best way to handle crime? For 12 years, he thought this discredited strategy. was the way to go. 

Yes, that’s an appropriate descriptor. Even if it doesn’t matter to you that the practice of “stop-and-frisk” was racist, the practice was ineffective. The New York Civil Liberties Union found that only 14 of every 10,000 stops produced a gun and only 1,200 of those 10,000 were offenses that resulted in fines. However, we live in a “tough on crime” political world, where men like Bloomberg have to appear like they’re doing something to solve the problem — even if they haven’t the first clue what they’re doing. As mayor, he pushed for an increase in stops. In 2009, when 575,000 stops were made, black and Latino people were nine times as likely to be interrogated and searched as white people, with the stop rate particularly intense in areas heavily black and Latino areas like Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood. 

“Stop-and-frisk” didn’t work. It terrorized black and Latino New Yorkers for the sake of white feelings of security and some headlines, not tangible results.

But singing the praises of this rubbish gets people like Bloomberg invited to fancy places like the Aspen Institute to speak. Then, he manages to effectively bury that speech without consequences. But thanks to Bloomberg’s $300 million and more spent in ad buys on black radio and other purchased media, he had managed to convince audiences less familiar with his history that his singular focus on defeating President Trump was what mattered most. And despite all this, it still might.

Bloomberg did finally apologize for his destructive role in “stop-and-frisk” last November, shortly after he bought his way into the Democratic primary like one might a poker game in Casino Royale. His campaign released a statement Tuesday morning responding to the video’s release which addressed Trump’s since-deleted tweet labeling the former mayor a “racist” than it did the video Dixon posted. 

“President Trump’s deleted tweet is the latest example of his endless efforts to divide Americans,” Bloomberg said through his campaign. (Note where this goes next. Italics mine.) “I inherited the police practice of stop-and-frisk, and as part of our effort to stop gun violence it was overused. By the time I left office, I cut it back by 95%, but I should’ve done it faster and sooner. I regret that and I have apologized — and I have taken responsibility for taking too long to understand the impact it had on Black and Latino communities.” I spotlighted those points because the former mayor is trying to deflect blame for the damage done even as he fails to directly address his remarks. 

Also, Bloomberg’s statement would have us believe the sudden drop in stops — from an all-time high of more than 685,000 in 2011 to fewer than 192,000 two years later, in the final year that he was mayor — was due to his sudden change of heart. The city changed its policy right around the time that the Center for Constitutional Rights was suing successfully in federal court. It was eventually declared unconstitutional in August of 2013. Though the city got the judge removed from the case, the ruling was upheld that November. 

Bloomberg’s statement went on to say that “this issue and my comments about it do not reflect my commitment to criminal justice reform and racial equity” and that he wants to “end mass incarceration.” After citing positive figures of de-carceration from his administration, Bloomberg then seems to take credit for the eventual creation of former President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative (a request for comment to MBK has not yet been returned). He concluded with the kind of macho rhetoric that has become Bloomberg’s staple in retorts to Trump: “Make no mistake Mr. President: I am not afraid of you and I will not let you bully me or anyone else in America. Between now and November, I will do everything I can to defeat you whether I am on the ballot or not.” 

It is pathetic that Trump has driven our politics so far into the trough that we mistake such kindergarten playground rhetoric for strength. I would never make the gross error of mistaking Bloomberg for Trump, but toxic masculinity is a shapeshifter. The two men may spar publicly now, but they share quite a bit of commonality. That isn’t encouraging.

It is an odd notion that we need a white man to defeat a white man, and an even stranger argument that we need to have the same kind of brusque masculinity on the opposite dais. Moreover, we need someone who hasn’t previously called Trump a “New York icon,” hasn’t tried to deflect the birther issue off of Trump at the height of the controversy, and has agreed with him until very recently on “stop-and-frisk.”

Aside from his brief apology tour, Bloomberg has steadily avoided any and all real vetting — and voters for that matter. He hasn’t had any public town halls broadcast on television and he isn’t participating in debates. It hasn’t mattered much: he is steadily rising in the overall polling and a Quinnipiac survey released Monday placed him second at 22 percent with African Americans nationwide. That’s only five points behind Joe Biden, who previously held what seemed like an insurmountable lead with the party’s most loyal electorate. 

Bloomberg is not responsible for ensuring that Americans learn more about his record. That’s on us in the press, along with his competitors and even DNC chair Tom Perez — who chairs a party that is, almost by default, representing the most marginalized populations in the United States. One would think that he would like to ensure they nominate someone who doesn’t just know how to target black and Hispanic voters with ads on the radio, but who will actually address their policy interests and goals. It is difficult, if not impossible, to trust someone who put into practice the kinds of policies that Bloomberg did as mayor and then backed them up with the kind of bilious rhetoric that we have heard to date. 

Bloomberg clearly thinks he’ll get by with the conventional race politics. The campaign later followed up with a separate email detailing Bloomberg’s urgent meeting Tuesday with black faith leaders not seemingly regarding the “stop-and-frisk” remarks, but about Trump calling him a racist. “None of us believe that Mike Bloomberg is a racist,” the statement reads, as if that’s the damned point of it all. How about the policy he pushed for 12 years? 

Black voters, in particular, have a long and sadly necessary tradition of pragmatism. We don’t often get to choose who we want at the polls; we choose the least worst option. There are enough candidates still available, and enough solid policy choices to choose from, to make that a moot point without having to settle for a billionaire obscuring his history of debasing our humanity for more than a decade in the largest city in the nation. Thanks to good journalism, the truth of that legacy is seeping out.

We all have good sense and would vote for Bloomberg if Trump is the other option. We’re not suicidal. But the Democratic primary just began and there are better choices, ones who don’t think our memories have a price.

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