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Extended Interview: Juan González on the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities

Web ExclusiveSeptember 06, 2017
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Extended interview with Juan González about his new book, “Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Part 2 of our conversation with our very own Juan González, co-host on Democracy Now!, but journalist for decades, for almost 30 years was a reporter and columnist with the New York Daily News, and the author of many books, among them, News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race in the American Media, Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapse and Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, before that, a book of his columns, Roll Down Your Window: Stories of a Forgotten America. But today, we’re talking about the book published this week, Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities. The book examines how de Blasio and other progressive city leaders, not only in New York, but around the country—and also he looks internationally—are leading a nationwide and global revolt against corporate-oriented neoliberal policies that have dominated urban centers for decades.

Juan, start by talking about why you chose the title Reclaiming Gotham.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, basically, it’s my theory—my thesis is that these mayors are trying to reclaim their cities for their people, as opposed to for the elites that have governed them and run them, and that since I was focusing in large part on de Blasio, but not just on him, I figured Gotham was something that is short—a short way of saying the big city. And I think that their efforts are aimed at a new way of running cities. And it’s important to understand that the world is increasingly urbanized. And within a few years, 70 percent of the world’s people will live in cities. And so, therefore, the future of cities, how cities are governed, will really determine the future of our planet. And so, I was trying to sort of capture a pithy title, but at least like get people to think, “What’s he talking about? What’s this mean?”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wanted to go back in time, even though you’re looking at the future, to James Baldwin, back to a comment he made—I think it was in 1963, the legendary writer and activist. He was talking about federally backed urban renewal programs.

JAMES BALDWIN: A boy, last week—he was 16—in San Francisco, told me, on television—thank God we got him to talk. Maybe somebody will start to listen. He said, “I got no country. I’ve got no flag.” And he’s only 16 years old. And I couldn’t say, “You do.” I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does. They were tearing down his house, because San Francisco is engaging, as most Northern cities now are engaged, in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out. It means Negro removal. That is what it means. And the federal government is an accomplice to this fact. Now, this—we’re talking about human beings. There’s not such a thing as a monolithic wall or, you know, some abstraction called the Negro problem. These are Negro boys and girls who, at 16 and 17, don’t believe the country means anything that it says, and don’t feel they have any place here, on the basis of the performance of the entire country.

AMY GOODMAN: That was James Baldwin in 1963. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I go into the impact and the effects of urban renewal on the modern American city, which I think most people today who are dealing with local politics really have no sense of the key role that government, the federal government especially, have played in the modern city. And the urban renewal really started in 1949 with the Housing Act that Harry Truman got passed, the Housing Act that had as its goal a decent living quarters for all American families, but which, in essence, became the financier of the razing of all of—many central city areas, so the inner cities, because it financed the governments, local governments, beginning to clear land. “Slum clearance,” it was called at the time. And it was supposed to not only clear slums, but then also rebuild housing.

Well, it cleared slums, but it largely built commercial developments. You know, it was responsible for civic centers in Hartford and St. Paul. It was responsible for all of the development that went around Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It razed most of downtown Atlanta. Urban renewal became the process by which African Americans and Latinos were removed from many inner-city areas. However, because housing, sufficient housing, wasn’t built for them, many were then forced into neighboring communities that previously had been all white, then became integrated, then became black and brown, then became the new ghettos. So all they did was push the ghettos further out into the other rings around the central areas of the cities.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, though we’re going to talk about the rise of Bill de Blasio, in this unlikely rise no one expected at the very beginning—and we can’t just talk about individuals; we have to talk about movements. I wanted to go to Mayor Ras Baraka, another of the people, the mayors, that you look at. This is 2015, the Newark mayor, the son of the legendary poet Amiri Baraka, when he appeared on Democracy Now!

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: We’ve been talking the last couple of months about an urban Marshall Plan, about us in these cities not being really able to benefit even from the New Deal. You know, segregation and racism were at its height during the time of the New Deal, when people left the cities and they subsidized these corridors that put people in the suburbs and got them to work in the cities. And now you’re seeing a trend back to the cities. There’s been real neglect in these communities. …

I think America will never be what they purport it to be until they begin to invest in its urban centers. And in order for them to be able to do that, they have to get rid of their racism, which disallows them from investing in these cities the way they ought to. If we had that money, there would be a lot that we could do in terms of poverty in these communities, in terms of violence and gun violence, which is really bred by poverty and isolation and anger and, you know, post-traumatic stress. All of that stuff can be dealt with if we had that money.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ras Baraka, the son of Amiri Baraka, the current Newark mayor.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: He’s talking about the federal role in the development of our cities, and specifically the racial character of federal policy, because I think, again, this is often forgotten, even though it’s been amply documented.

Throughout the 1930s and the 1940s, as the federal government, through the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration, was helping to ensure the growth of America’s suburbs, the federal government’s own policies for—underwriting policies were racially based. They specifically said that African Americans and Mexicans and other people of color lowered property values, and therefore you should not—the federal government would not insure homes that were financed to African Americans and Latinos.

The result was the growth of the all-white suburbs. And I mention in the book that some 300 private home subdivisions that were erected from 1935 to 1947 in Queens, Nassau and Westchester counties of New York, 83 percent had written deed covenants against the sale of those homes to black people. You had the growth of completely all-white developments. Levittown, the largest housing development ever built in the United States, with—more than 70,000 people lived there in 1953. Not a single person in Levittown was black, because there was a deed covenant that the owners of Levittown had. You could not sell a house to a black person. And the same thing in each—

AMY GOODMAN: And how has any of this changed?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and Chicago and all these cities. So, you had—eventually, court battles and open housing marches and protests eliminated this stuff. But this created this situation where entire generations of Americans, especially African Americans and Latinos, were excluded from home ownership. This was a federal policy. And then, of course, the building of places like Stuyvesant Town—again, no black people were allowed into Stuyvesant Town when it was built. And so, you had this situation where the government—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain, for people outside of New York, the significance and the enormity of Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Stuyvesant Town was a huge development built by the Metropolitan insurance company, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, with the backing of Robert Moses, the great planning czar of New York City, and with city subsidies, but which specifically forbid any African Americans from being able to rent in the Stuyvesant Town development. So, you had this entire history of exclusion of African Americans and Latinos from the best housing in cities, and certainly from the suburbs. And so—and you had, during the ’50s and ’60s, race riots, on a regular basis, by whites attempting to prevent blacks from moving into their neighborhoods, several hundred in Chicago, several hundred in Philadelphia, in Detroit, constant attempts to maintain African Americans and Latinos in inner-city housing.

And then, the problem was that the federal government did not build enough affordable housing. So you had a constant housing crisis that has been here in the United States since the 1950s, a growth of more and more low-income families, but less and less low-income housing. And so you have the situation where, in New York City today, one-third of all renters in New York City are paying 50 percent of their income for their rent. One-third. Fifty percent of New York renters are paying at least a third or more of their income in rent. That’s rent burden. But a third are paying more than half of all the money they make just to put a roof over their heads. So this is the housing crisis that the big cities are facing.

AMY GOODMAN: And as you point out, this is all a switch from the cities being largely people of color to people of color, particularly poorer people, and poorer whites being pushed out to the suburbs, and now wealthier people seeing the cities as their domain and their playground.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right, the new technocratic class, the gentrification that has accelerated. And the point that I make is that after the riots of the '60s and ’70s, the elites of America realized that they had to re-engineer the cities. They had to lure the middle and the upper classes back into the cities. And to do that, they needed to remove the existing residents of the cities and push them into the suburban rings, as is the fact in Paris or London or many of the other European cities, because the European cities were largely destroyed during World War II. They got to rebuild after World War II, and the pushed all their poor out. American cities didn't experience the bombings of World War II, so it took longer for American capitalism to re-engineer its cities to push the poor out, which they’ve been doing more and more in recent decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the rise of Bill de Blasio, which is also the story of the coalescing of movements—I mean the unlikely rise. For people outside of New York, I mean, many may not have even heard of him at this point. But for inside New York, many had not heard of him before he ran for mayor.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Before he ran for mayor, right. The reality was that, in 2013, the people who were expected to be the real contenders for the race to succeed Michael Bloomberg as mayor—and remember, Michael Bloomberg had served three terms. He had overturned term limits. He had spent $250 million of his own money in three elections for mayor. And so, the expected victors were going to be either the City Council speaker at the time, Christine Quinn, or a former comptroller who had run against Bloomberg previously, Billy Thompson. Those were considered the front-runners. And then there was the second-tier candidates, which was the existing comptroller, John Liu, and the—and a former congressman, Anthony Wiener. But those were considered—

AMY GOODMAN: Who would later play a very prominent role in the—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: All of those were considered more likely to win the mayoral race than Bill de Blasio. But de Blasio somehow skyrocketed up quickly, largely because he was the main person who fought Michael Bloomberg’s changing of the charter to maintain—to end two-term limits, largely because he stood up against racial profiling and stop-and-frisk before any of the other candidates did in any measurable way, and largely because he saw, after Occupy Wall Street, that the issue of income inequality was a burning issue in America, and he latched onto the issue of income inequality, called it the moral crisis of our time, and, pretty much as a harbinger of what would later become the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, basically rallied people behind a crusade against income inequality, and therefore garnered support from all of the budding grassroots movements. The Fight for 15, he spoke at the first rally held of striking—of striking fast-food workers around the Fight for 15. And he rallied the parents fighting to maintain their public schools from being closed by Bloomberg. And he rallied the immigrant rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement, really, to propel him into office.

AMY GOODMAN: He went to Occupy Wall Street. The mayor eviscerated Occupy Wall Street, at least the physical encampment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right. And he, as public advocate, you know, actually spoke at a rally there, right. So, in all these ways, he identified himself with the grassroots movements that were rising in New York and across the country at the time. And I think that’s what made it possible for him to win his come-from-behind victory.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about his early years? Talk about his family and their politics.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, de Blasio’s family is an interesting—his father, Warren Wilhelm, and his uncle, Donald Wilhelm, were both intellectuals. Both went to Yale, and as de Blasio’s son, Dante, also has gone to Yale. And both were initially New Deal liberals. The uncle, Donald Wilhelm, actually became a—apparently, a CIA operative, researcher and operative, for many years, eventually went to Iran, where he became a confidant of the shah of Iran and ghostwrote the shah of Iran’s autobiography. And Warren Wilhelm was a World War II hero, lost a leg in World War II in the Pacific and came back and tried to work for the government. But he was—

AMY GOODMAN: Which Wilhelm?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: His father was, Warren Wilhelm. But both his father and his mother became victimized by the McCarthyite period. Both were suspected of being sympathetic to communism. Both were, essentially, not allowed to have government jobs. And as a result, Warren Wilhelm became a very bitter man, because of that experience, and eventually became an alcoholic and left his family, his children, and eventually committed suicide. And this has been part of this—I think, part of the—what affected de Blasio, in terms of his understanding, that both of his parents had been victimized by the McCarthy witch hunt.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you’re referring to the Wilhelms, but Bill de Blasio’s name is de Blasio.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right, right. And part of the transformation of Bill de Blasio is his name change, that he—starting in high school, because of the estrangement of his father, from his mother, who was much more radical—his mother really was a socialist—that he then decides to change his name to his mother’s maiden name. And he not only gets rid of Warren, because his parents had always called him Bill anyway, but he also gets rid of Wilhelm, and he changes his name to Bill de Blasio.

AMY GOODMAN: But was that also political, thinking he might not get elected as a Wilhelm?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I don’t think so. I think that that really happened earlier on. And it is clear, because I remember John Wilhelm, who is a cousin of Bill de Blasio, the former president of UNITE HERE, the hotel and garment workers’ union. John Wilhelm says he met Bill de Blasio only in 1999, because their families had been estranged, had not had much contact for years. And back then, Bill de Blasio introduces himself and says, “Hi, I’m your cousin. I’m Bill de Blasio.” And John Wilhelm says, “Oh, well, fine. I do remember that there was a section of my family that I didn’t have much contract with, but how did you get to be de Blasio?” And Bill de Blasio explains that when he was in high school, he was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and he began to question what the names mean and last names mean, and that he had decided, back then, that he wanted to change his name from Wilhelm to de Blasio. And so, there’s—I think there—

AMY GOODMAN: An Italian name.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: His mother’s. His mother’s name. His mother was Italian.

AMY GOODMAN: Interesting, because he now is talking about bringing down the statue of Christopher Columbus, the whole movement in this time of what do statues represent.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes. And interestingly, his mother wrote a book about the Italian resistance fighters against German—against Germans during World War II. His mother was very steeped in the communist and socialist movements of her homeland of Italy and, I guess, imbued some of that in de Blasio, because the first place he went to visit when he became mayor was he went to Italy with his wife and children.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about from Nicaragua and the Sandinistas to being—what was it? The New York campaign manager of Hillary Clinton in her Senate campaign?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right. De Blasio started out as a—right out of—when he finished NYU and Columbia Graduate School, he went into the movements in support of the people of Nicaragua and El Salvador and was very much a leftist in the 1980s, late 1980s, but then gets recruited by the campaign that is starting for David Dinkins to be elected mayor of New York. So he begins his involvement in political—in electoral politics in the Dinkins campaign and eventually becomes a low-level aide to Mayor David Dinkins. That’s where he really starts making the shift from radical politics to electoral politics, and subsequently becomes much more involved in the efforts to build independent political parties. He was actually involved in one of the early campaigns of the New Party, which was the predecessor to the Working Families Party. And so, he begins to get involved in electoral campaigns that way and does so well that the Democratic Party folks eventually ask him to run Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign in 2000. And that’s where he begins to enter the world of establishment Democratic Party politics.

AMY GOODMAN: It was very interesting when Hillary Clinton was first running for president that Bill de Blasio was not willing to wholeheartedly endorse her right away.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right. He delayed his endorsement for many months, insisting that he wanted to see what Hillary Clinton’s platform was on income inequality. And I think he took enormous heat from that, from the press, from the Democratic Party establishment, and because, really, his political perspective was much more in line with Bernie Sanders. But as the mayor of New York City, for him not to support the candidacy of Hillary Clinton for president was going to doom him within the Democratic Party establishment. So he made a choice, that I might not have made, others might not have made, to say, “I will hold out my endorsement, but I will eventually endorse Hillary Clinton.” And he did so.

But I think that that’s part of the problem with de Blasio. He’s always been very much attuned and supportive of the grassroots and the progressive movement, yet he’s always had a foot within the Democratic Party establishment. And some people could say that about Bernie Sanders today, that he’s not decided to go off in an independent candidacy, but remains part of the Democratic Party leadership, despite how he was treated during the campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we end, I wanted to go national, as you do in your book. You talk about progressive mayors. And I wanted to turn to the new mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the son of the city’s former mayor, the late Chokwe Lumumba, who was once dubbed “America’s most revolutionary mayor.” This is Chokwe Jr. speaking recently at the People’s Summit in Chicago.

MAYOR-ELECT CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: We now demand that our leadership looks at how we include the people’s voice in the process, and that we have a—we have two choices. We have a choice of economics by the people and for the people or economics by a few people for themselves. And so, we’re demanding, right now, right now, that we begin to rescue ourselves. Right now, as my comrade said, we have nothing to lose but our chains. Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who is the new mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. He was speaking in Chicago right before his inauguration. His father died office, Chokwe Lumumba.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And he initially did not win the seat to—the race to replace his father, but then, subsequently, won the new election, which was an important win because his father was really instituting major changes in the South, in Jackson, Mississippi—we’re not talking about the North now—and so that he was able to win election was an important moment in assuring that it was a movement, not just a personality, that was involved.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as we wrap up, the forces that are coalescing around a number of progressive issues versus those that want cities to look very different, talk about those competing forces and what the issues are on both sides.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I think the key issue that this new movement is looking at is, one, building sustainable cities. They’re all—all of the progressives are very much into sustainable development in the cities, the issue of police accountability, the issue of affordable housing, although I’m not—the record of several of these people, including Peduto in Pittsburgh, and the Seattle situation and the New York situation are not good. There’s still a long way to go. But they all are committed to building more affordable housing, and also raising the income levels of the lowest sectors of the society. And I think the—all of the reforms, whether it’s a $15-an-hour wage or whether it’s paid sick time, whether it’s family leave—all of these things are improving the situation of the lowest rung of city dwellers, and therefore raising the city as a whole. I think those are all aspects of their main thrust, and, of course, immigrant rights and sanctuary cities, which I believe are now going to become the cutting edge of the battles between Washington and urban America. It is going to be over sanctuary cities and the DREAMers and immigrant rights. And we’re pretty soon going to see not only legal battles, we may see like troops in the streets on some of these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, your thoughts on this? I mean, you have Trump, who actually is a New York real estate developer, who, on this issue, very much representing the views of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. They were long together on the campaign trail, fiercely anti-immigrant. He says, “I love—I heart the DREAMers,” but rescinds DACA. Talk about how he might accelerate this progressive coalescing all over the country right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I think what you’re getting is you’re getting to the point where the president of the nation can’t go into major city without enormous protests occurring.

AMY GOODMAN: Even though he comes from one.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, even though he comes from one, right. But how many times has he been in New York City since he became elected president? And because he knows that he’s so hated at this point in these cities, that he’s not welcome there. You just heard the mayor of Boston say he’s not welcome in Boston. And so that that is a pretty bad situation, when the president of a country can’t go to any of the major cities without huge protests breaking out against him. So I think that is a sort of a sign of where we’re heading under the new Trump administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Juan, for spending this time on the other side of the table as a guest here, talking about your new book, Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities, the book examining how Mayor de Blasio and other progressive city leaders around the country are leading a nationwide revolt against corporate-oriented neoliberal policies that have dominated urban America for decades.

To see Part 1 of our discussion with Juan, go to democracynow.org, and also to see his tour through the country, as he launches his book, here in New York on [September] 7th, Thursday night, at The New School, on to Culver City. He’ll be in Austin, Texas; and Tempe, Arizona; Seattle, Washington; Washington, D.C.; and many other cities around the country. Go to democracynow.org.

I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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