JUNE 19, 2020 AMERICAN SOCIETY
Cities Under Siege
by Christine Rosen
This week, Libby Schaaf, the mayor of Oakland, Calif., announced that she had ordered a hate-crimes investigation after “racially-charged symbols” were found in a local park. A social media post claimed that someone had hung nooses from a tree.
The nooses turned out to be ropes that a black man, Victor Sengbe, told local news reporters he had rigged to use as exercise equipment. He seemed surprised by the attention they received. “Out of the dozen and hundreds and thousands of people that walked by, no one has thought that it looked anywhere close to a noose. Folks have used it for exercise. It was really a fun addition to the park that we tried to create,” Sengbe said.
But this reasonable explanation did not satisfy Mayor Schaaf. Schaaf doubled down on her narrative that the ropes must be racist, and in a press conference declared that city officials should “start with the assumption that these are hate crimes.” She went on, “Intentions don’t matter when it comes to terrorizing the public. It is incumbent on all of us to know the actual history of racial violence, of terrorism, what a noose represents, and that we as a city must remove these terrorizing symbols from the public view.” The city’s director of parks, Nicholas Williams, added, “The symbolism of the rope hanging in the tree is malicious regardless of intent. It’s evil, and it symbolizes hatred.”
If this incident strikes you as surreal, you haven’t been following the country’s mayoral politics. Mayor Schaaf isn’t the only local official to abandon common sense to curry favor with mobs demanding the abolition of the police, shamelessly destroying private property, inciting violence, and, in some cases, occupying public land to establish their own insurrectionist fiefdoms.
Consider Mayor Jenny Durkan of Seattle, a former U.S. Attorney, who told NPR in 2017 that the seizure of property in Oregon by armed members of the Bundy family was a conspiracy, not a political protest, because the participants were armed. “They did not come with flowers. They came with AR-15s. They did not respect the property. They dug trenches and trashed it,” she said.
Today, as armed BLM and Antifa protestors have taken over several city blocks of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood after forcing police from their precinct building and vandalizing and looting the area, declaring it the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (or CHAZ), Durkan reaffirmed her support for the activists, some of whom are armed with guns, and got into a twitter spat with President Trump when he criticized the occupation.
Durkan’s reality is far removed from the one many of her citizens have experienced. “It looks like a war zone,” one local radio reporter stated, after seeing the damage done after a night of rioting and looting across the city during the BLM protests there. Durkan responded with a curfew and the statement, “Please be kind to somebody and compassionate, and do your part to make our city whole again.”
When asked about reports of criminal behavior in CHAZ, Seattle’s police chief told local news that “rapes, robberies, and all sorts of violent acts have been occurring in the area and we’re not able to get to [them], so it is not right for us to not be able to deploy our officers here.” Durkan responded with a tweet contradicting her own police chief’s assessment. She claimed CHAZ was not a “lawless wasteland of anarchist insurrection—it is a peaceful expression of our community’s collective grief and their desire to build a better world.” Durkan later appeared on CNN and compared the occupied zone to a “block party atmosphere” while assuring viewers that “we take public safety very seriously.” This hasn’t satisfied activists, who are still demanding radical defunding of the Seattle police department and the release of anyone arrested during the often-violent protests.
Ted Wheeler, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, might at first glance appear to be a rare exception to other progressive mayors. He declared his opposition to CHAZ and said, “I do not want an autonomous zone set up in Portland.” But it’s worth noting that Wheeler phrased this as a wish (he doesn’t “want” a zone in his city) rather than as a clear statement that such a zone would not be tolerated in Portland. As well, his expression of doubts about autonomous zones is suspiciously timed. They came only after activists attempted to establish just such an autonomous zone in front of the mayor’s downtown condominium. He had police remove the barricades and called autonomous zones “a distraction” from the movement for “justice for black people.”
It’s clear Mr. Wheeler is having trouble governing amid such distractions. For weeks the mayor has done little to stem the rioting, looting, vandalism, and violence that gripped the city as part of the protests about the killing of George Floyd. And as independent journalist Andy Ngo documented, the mayor has said nothing about protestors who yesterday defaced a statue of George Washington with the words “genocidal colonist” and “f—k the police” — a statue they eventually toppled and attempted to burn. Earlier, protestors toppled a statue of Thomas Jefferson. No defense of the Founding Fathers was forthcoming from Mayor Wheeler.
Like Wheeler, the mayor of Richmond, Va., Levar Stoney, (who gained the imprimatur of the country’s star Democratic mayor, Pete Buttigieg) had his surrogates in the community denounce intimidation and vandalism. . . but only after a group of protestors made their way into his apartment building and, according to a Richmond police spokesperson, “chanted about the mayor and tagged the building with graffiti.” Richmond is one of many cities currently attempting to defund its police, and Stoney forced out the current police chief after recent protests turned violent; luckily for Mayor Stoney, a world without police won’t be a problem for him. The protestors who infiltrated his apartment building were safely “removed by private security.”
In the wake of recent widespread and sometimes violent protests, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti reversed his plans to increase the police department’s budget and instead promised funding cuts that BLM activists were demanding. “We need to keep moving toward a new model of peace officer. Of a guardian-based system. And invest long before any criminal activity ever comes,” he said, but only after protestors rallied outside his home in the Hancock Park neighborhood for several nights.
A week earlier, Garcetti had taken a knee outside LAPD headquarters and reassured protestors, “I hear you. I hear what you are saying about police,” but this genuflection was not deemed suitable given that he had also called out the National Guard to help quell the rioting and looting in the city.
Similarly, citizens of Minneapolis watched their boyish mayor Jacob Frey publicly shamed by Black Lives Matter activists after he dared to state, “I do not support the full abolition of the police.” In the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s killing, Frey had fired the four officers involved and proclaimed his intentions to push for further reforms, but after the city descended into chaos and looting (and Minneapolis police were forced to retreat from their own third precinct, whose building was burned by protestors), Frey’s tenuous grip on the situation was made painfully clear.
And then there’s New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, whose incompetence in the face of widespread looting and violence in the city during nights of protest was deemed a “disgrace” by the state’s governor. In the aftermath, de Blasio has spent his time eliminating the police department’s plain clothes-detective unit and welding shut playgrounds in Jewish neighborhoods, even as he can’t seem to keep behind bars a man who has been arrested more than 100 times and who idly assaulted a 92-year-old woman on the street.
Likewise, after widespread looting in Washington, D.C., which prompted President Trump to summon the National Guard, Mayor Muriel Bowser responded by using city funds to paint a large Black Lives Matter sign on a major thoroughfare near the White House, a stunt that prompted swooning by the press but, ironically, a denunciation from the D.C. chapter of BLM, which deemed the act a “performative distraction” done to “appease white liberals” and criticized the mayor for not agreeing to their demands to cut the police budget. “Black lives matter means defund the police,” they stated—a statement someone quickly added to the BLM street mural, with no protest from Bowser.
These are merely the most recent examples of mayoral mau-mauing to the mob and general incompetence in the face of civil unrest. What do they have in common? They are all elected Democrats, and many are outspokenly progressive. In fact, 64 of the 100 largest cities in the U.S. are run by Democrats. Democratic mayors dominate the cities named the most dangerous (as measured by the violent crime rate per number of residents). Even solidly red states that consistently vote Republican in national contests, such as Alabama, often elect local leaders who are Democrats (such as Randall Woodfin, mayor of Birmingham, a city that is ranked the third most dangerous in the U.S. by Neighborhood Scout)
As the recent unrest has shown, many of these local leaders have eagerly embraced progressive bromides during peaceful times to satisfy liberal voters. But when things turn violent, or unsettled, their progressive theories are put into practice, and, more often than not, found wanting. The result is a spate of local leaders who have caved to the mania of the moment, excusing violence and lawlessness while claiming to do so in the name of peaceful protest and reform. They refuse to be honest about the complicated circumstances involved in police reform, or the persistence of criminal behavior, or the difficult but necessary work of crafting meaningful political compromises among competing local interests. They appease the mob rather than perform their duty.
It remains to be seen if there will be any political repercussions for their cowardice in the years to come. Given the clear breakdown of leadership in many cities across the country, perhaps it’s time more Americans revisited that old cliche — all politics is local— and vote accordingly.
Christine Rosen is senior writer at Commentary.