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Reclaiming Gotham: Juan González on Cities Leading the Revolt Against Trumpism & Neoliberal Policies

StorySeptember 06, 2017
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The city of New York announced Tuesday it is deploying funding for legal services for DACA recipients across the city, following the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the DACA program. In a message posted on Twitter, the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “You are not alone. … If you face legal problems, we’ll be right there with you.” The fight to save DACA marks just the latest example of cities pushing back against the Trump administration’s agenda. From climate change to sanctuary cities to police accountability to affordable housing, cities are increasingly pushing a far more progressive agenda than their counterparts in Washington. This is a central theme in a new book by Democracy Now! co-host Juan González titled “Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities.” For more, we speak with Juan González, longtime staff writer for the New York Daily News, now a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.

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

AMY GOODMAN: The city of New York announced Tuesday it’s deploying funding for legal services for DACA recipients across New York. In a message posted on Twitter, the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio said, quote, “You are not alone. … If you face legal problems, we’ll be right there with you.” At a news conference, Mayor de Blasio urged President Trump not to mess with fellow New Yorkers.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: We are here to stand by each and every one of them. Thirty thousand New Yorkers, this morning, were put in the crosshairs. They are our neighbors. They are our friends. They are our colleagues. They are our family members. We stand with all 30,000 DREAMers here in New York City and all 800,000 around this country. …

We are going to stand up to this. And New Yorkers do not take kindly to anything that affronts our fellow New Yorkers. We don’t take kindly to people being separated out because of who they are. So I have a message for President Trump: Don’t mess with your fellow New Yorkers.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile in Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh also slammed President Trump for rescinding DACA.

MAYOR MARTY WALSH: I can say this honestly to the White House: We don’t want you here in Boston. We don’t want any part of you in Boston. We’re doing perfectly fine without you. I think it’s a sad statement that the president of the United States of America and the attorney general of the United States of America are sending messages out to so many good young people. Many of those young people, the DREAMers that we’re talking about, right now are fighting for this country, fighting with their uniform on, under this flag, and proud of that.

AMY GOODMAN: The fight to save DACA marks just the latest example of cities pushing back against the Trump administration’s agenda. From climate change to sanctuary cities to police accountability to affordable housing, cities are increasingly pushing a far more progressive agenda than their counterparts in Washington.

This is a central theme of a new book by my colleague Juan González, co-host of Democracy Now! It’s titled 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 are leading a nationwide revolt against corporate-oriented, neoliberal policies that have dominated urban America for decades. In addition to co-hosting Democracy Now!, Juan González is author of a number of books, including Harvest of Empire, News for All the People and Fallout. He was a staff writer at the New York Daily News from 1987 ’til just last year, now a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.

Juan, it’s great to have you here talking about your new book, Reclaiming Gotham. I mean, we see the mass protests just yesterday and today around DACA, and this is really the major thesis of your book. Who is speaking out now? Who are the progressive forces in America?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, yes, Amy. I began to notice, actually about four years ago, in 2013, that there was something happening in the cities across the country that was actually a movement, a political movement that was not getting much attention. And that is the rise, post-the Great Recession, post-the Occupy Wall Street movement, that many young and progressive people were running for political office and actually winning seats in city councils and some even in mayoral races across the country, and that they were, in essence, the political—the political effect of a mass movement now that has been building across the country for decades, and that Bill de Blasio—and, you know, people say to me, “Well, has Juan González gone crazy? Is he now wanting to praise Democratic politicians?” I think that you have to look beyond individuals, and you have to look beyond positions, and you have to try to understand the systemic things that are happening.

One of the things I realized was that the de Blasio victory in 2013, because New York City is such an important part of the United States—we’re talking about a city with a $70 billion budget back then, with 300,000 employees. It is a huge administrative unit of government in America. And the fact that a left-leaning progressive, de Blasio, complete upstart, who no one expected to win, had captured the most important city in the United States and the center of world capitalism, had captured its administrative apparatus, that that was only a reflection of what was going on across the country. And very few journalists and scholars have begun to look at this as a movement. So I started doing more research into other cities to try to understand how this happened, how real was it in terms of substantive change for the future. So that’s what my book is about.

AMY GOODMAN: Your book begins with the scene on Inauguration Day in 2014 here in New York City. I want to go back now to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio speaking at his inauguration in 2014.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: We will expand the paid sick leave law, because no one should be forced to lose a day’s pay, or even a week’s pay, simply because illness strikes. And by this time next year, fully 300,000 additional New Yorkers will be protected by that law. We won’t wait. We’ll do it now. We will require the big developers to build more affordable housing. We will fight to stem the tide of hospital closures. And we’ll expand community health centers into neighborhoods in need, so that New Yorkers see our city not as the exclusive domain of the 1 percent, but a place where everyday people can afford to live, work and raise a family. We won’t wait. We’ll do it now.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill de Blasio on his Inauguration Day in 2014. Of course, he’s running again, primary next week. You set the scene with his family, well, not coming in a limousine to City Hall.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right. Well, they actually came by subway from Brooklyn, and they emerged from the City Hall station, just as everyone was gathered around at the inauguration ceremony. And I think it was a clear message being sent, that this was a—first of all, that it was an outer borough mayor, someone who came from—not from Manhattan, which is typically where Manhattan mayors—where New York City mayors come from, but, more importantly, that it was from—it was a part of a movement. And I think that the reality is that Bill de Blasio, interestingly, has been both a political operative of the Democratic Party now for many years, but has always had close ties to the labor movement, to the grassroots organizations that were fighting around protecting public schools and against charter schools. And it was this movement, really, that helped to propel him into office.

The question is—and I think it’s a fair question—is that it’s a lot easier to criticize government and a lot harder to govern, especially in a progressive direction in a capitalist society. So, the question is—many critics have raised of de Blasio and of the other mayors that I deal with, because I deal with more than a half-dozen around other—in Minneapolis, Walsh in Boston, Bill Peduto in Pittsburgh, Murray in Seattle, Gayle McLaughlin’s tenure in Richmond, California, Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi. All of these mayors, in one way or another, were trying to implement a vision opposed to the neoliberal policies that have governed American cities now for about 50 years, and opposed to the growth machine policies that have really run our cities for a hundred years. And they were opposed to those in one way or another and have sought to change the way America’s cities are governed.

AMY GOODMAN: And before we get to the urban growth machine, that image of de Blasio’s family and how important that was in his election and what has meant—who his family is?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, yes. Bill de Blasio has got—has maintained very widespread support in the African-American and Latino community, not so much support in the white community of New York City. In fact, he has minority support in the white community. Yet the African-American and Latino community have remained very loyal to his mayoralty so far. I think it’s, one, because of the economic impact of his policies, but also because they see in de Blasio, married to an African-American woman, with biracial children, a living symbol of the diversity of New York City and of a sense of caring about what happens to the poor and to the African Americans and Latinos of the city. So I think that the—in fact, his son is really credited, really, with being responsible for his sudden surge, with the famous commercial that his son did in August—

AMY GOODMAN: I think we have that commercial.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, it was in August, I think, of 2013.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to it.

DANTE DE BLASIO: I want to tell you a little bit about Bill de Blasio. He’s the only Democrat with the guts to really break from the Bloomberg years, the only one who will raise taxes on the rich to fund early childhood and after-school programs. He’s got the boldest plan to build affordable housing. And he’s the only one who will end a stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color. Bill de Blasio will be a mayor for every New Yorker, no matter where they live or what they look like. And I’d say that even if he weren’t my dad.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s this young African-American man with an afro. You just see him talking about Bill de Blasio, the candidate; at the end, his white father walking with him down the street.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and I think that’s what captivated many New Yorkers, because, until that moment, I would say the majority of New Yorkers did not even know that de Blasio had biracial children and was an interracial marriage. And I think that that sort of awakened a lot of people to say, “Hey, I should take another look at this guy.” And I think that then, of course, the policies were critical, the policies that directly affected the lives of African Americans and Latinos and working-class New Yorkers.

AMY GOODMAN: And let’s go to one of those policies that directly related to his son, this pivotal moment in 2014, when Eric Garner is killed, put in a fatal police chokehold in Staten Island. The officers had confronted Garner for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. Protests erupted over lack of police accountability. Shortly afterward, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he and his wife Chirlane, who is African-American, fear for the safety of their teenage son, Dante.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers he may face. Good young man, law-abiding young man, who never would think to do anything wrong, and yet, because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face, we’ve had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him. And that painful sense of contradiction that our young people see first, that our police are here to protect us and we honor that, and the same time, there’s a history we have to overcome because for so many of our young people there’s a fear, and for so many of our families there’s a fear.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mayor de Blasio talking about his own son and talking about the police, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes. And he took a lot of heat from all sides of the political spectrum during that period of time, because, as you recall, he had already moved to further dismantle the stop-and-frisk policies of the Bloomberg administration, that were still being battled over in the courts. He settled the Central Park 5 case, jogger case, with multimillion-dollar settlements for those who had been wrongly convicted and jailed for the Central Park jogger case. He had—he was accepting much more oversight of the police department, outside oversight, that City Council had passed, which the police department was opposed to.

So the result was, he had a near insurrection among the rank-and-file police and the police unions for several months, especially after two police officers were shot and killed by a crazed—a crazed gunman a few months later. So, suddenly, de Blasio was confronted with—and I think this is one of the problems that many of the progressive mayors have had across the country, is that the police department is the army of a local government. And if the army rebels against the leader, it is very difficult for that leader to govern.

So, I think one of the things that happened with de Blasio early on is that he chose a controversial figure, Bill Bratton, to be his police commissioner, even though many advocates against police brutality were critical of Bratton, because he feared that the same thing would happen to him that had happened to David Dinkins, the last Democratic mayor, which is that the police department would rebel and allow crime to soar, and make his time in office ungovernable. So he decided to pick Bratton, who had loyalty among the rank-and-file police, because—believing that that would at least prevent the police from rebelling and allow him to implement his social agenda. To some degree, it worked; to some degree, it didn’t. And so, he has rightfully taken criticism for that decision, for backing the broken windows policy of Bill Bratton, although now that Bratton has left as police commissioner, so has, effectively, the broken windows policy that was pursued previously.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Juan González, yes, co-host on Democracy Now!, but also the author of a new book, Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities. When we come back, we’re going to talk about his thesis around race, class and the urban growth machine, and de Blasio’s $21 billion revolution. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Pa’lante” by Hurray for the Riff Raff. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re talking to Democracy Now!'s Juan González. He just wrote a new book, just published this week, Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America's Tale of Two Cities. Juan, talk about the central thesis here, on race, class and what you mean by the urban growth machine.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the urban growth machine is not a term that I coined. It’s been around now for decades. Scholars Molotch and Logan, in their famous book, Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place, talked about the urban growth machine. And it is basically a theory of how cities are managed, and that basically that capital seeks to get the maximum possible profit from land, because in a city, the land is the most important commodity in terms of how you can get profit, and so that there’s—that the urban growth machine seeks always to see the land of cities, the streets, the parks, the housing, for the highest possible exchange value. And so, we have seen in American cities now, for more than a hundred years, the elites of these cities—the bankers, the real estate developers, the politicians funded by them—always seeking maximum possible profit from the land, through commercial development, through luxury housing, any possible way to increase profit from the land.

But the residents of a city see the land of that city in a different way. They see it in its use and how it can better their lives. And so there’s a constant conflict between those who have power and wealth in urban America and those who are the working class and live in these cities, over how the land of the cities will be used. And the urban growth machine has always seen that cities grow through economic development and through the highest possible use. Working people see that cities grow when they service the people of the cities.

So, I think that the urban growth machine has dominated urban policy, first in its conservative phase, in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, when it was really—overt racism dominated land use policy in the United States. Then it went into a more liberal phase with the urban renewal programs of the ’50s and ’60s, and then into a neoliberalism, neoliberalism of the last 30 years, which privatizes government—seeks to privatize government, which seeks to drive down wages, which seeks to push the poor out from the cities into the suburbs, really, along the European model. And so, the urban growth machine has had these different stages.

What happened in beginning—after the Great Recession and after Occupy is that a whole new host of leaders came to office who seek a different way of governing cities. And that’s, I think, the point that I try to make in the book. It’s not just de Blasio, it’s not just one city or two cities, but it is a movement that has begun to develop in America, and that the cities are the only hope right now for progressive governance in America, because the states are, for the most part, captured by conservative elements, and Washington—forget about Washington for the next few years in terms of being able to get any kind of progressive legislation.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you read from your book, Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah. Well, I wanted to—the section where I try to show how this movement has spread, I say:

“The turning point for the new progressive revolt in urban America came in 2013. That May, Chokwe Lumumba, a veteran civil rights lawyer and former member of the radical Republic of New Africa, startled the political elite of the South when he won an election to the mayor’s seat of Jackson, Mississippi—thus signaling that an unbowed black revolutionary was taking charge right in the heart of Dixie. Then in November, the same day that Bill de Blasio prevailed in New York, Bill Peduto, a maverick member of the Pittsburgh city council and persistent critic of the city’s Democratic establishment, won election as mayor; in Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges, an experienced nonprofit executive and two-term member of the Minneapolis city council who had opposed public subsidies for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium, emerged from a crowded field of thirty-four candidates to capture that city’s mayoralty; and in Boston, trade union leader Martin Walsh cobbled together an alliance of organized labor, white liberals, and key African American and Latino leaders to become the first labor official to be elected mayor in Boston’s history. Out west, Ed Murray, a state legislator, won election as Seattle’s mayor, in part by promising a $15-an-hour minimum wage, the same issue championed by a radical software engineer named Kshama Sawant, who became the first socialist elected to the Seattle city council since 1916.

“More local victories by new grassroots movements ensued over the next two years. Ras [J.] Baraka, the son of the famed black poet and revolutionary Amiri Baraka, pulled off a surprise win in Newark’s mayoral race in [May] 2014, while new progressives won city council races in Tempe, Arizona; Austin, Texas; and a half dozen other cities [later in the year]. Then in 2015, voters elevated another group of left-oriented newcomers elevated to office in Denver, Seattle, Philadelphia, and other cities, while a durable anti-machine challenger nearly pulled off an upset in the race for mayor of Chicago. Cook County commissioner Jesús 'Chuy' García forced [incumbent] Rahm Emanuel, a centrist Democrat who had been expected to coast to victory, into a run-off election before finally succumbing to him.

“As their victories mounted, the new mayors and councilors started to fashion their own alliance of big-city politicians committed to attacking income inequality, and they [even] reached out to like-minded counterparts in other countries.” I mention Sadiq Khan in London; Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris; Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona; Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan. This is an international movement of cities, of which the American cities have now become a key and important part.

And so, this is how I try to lay it out. This is not one politician here, another politician there. This is the reflection of the grassroots movement that has been building in America for years now and is now beginning to capture local power. The question is, though, when you capture local power, there are always problems with governing. There are—and as I say in the book, many of the mayors found their key initiatives blocked by conservative forces. “In others, the alliance that secured the initial victory began to fracture over the sudden eruption of volatile incidents, such as police killings of African Americans. At other times, unresolved policy issues among them frayed the alliance: how to address, [for instance,] the spread of charter schools, … or how to create more affordable housing while also promoting economic development,” or even the issue of the sharing economy. Some of the progressives were behind Uber and others in the sharing economy, while others opposed it. So there are things that have begun to fray the alliance and divide the alliance, but you cannot mistake that there is an alliance. There is an urban alliance in America.

AMY GOODMAN: This weekend, the New York Daily News published a significant piece of the book and headlined it “De Blasio’s $21 Billion Revolution.” Talk about the shift of money, where it comes from, where it’s going. And let’s remember that de Blasio followed three terms of the billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And before that, two terms of a law-and-order mayor, Mayor Giuliani—20 years of basically neoliberal rule in New York. Yeah, you know, I try not to get into personalities or the narratives that are created, even by my own colleagues in the press. So you have the narratives of the inept de Blasio, of the de Blasio who’s always late, who seems arrogant and aloof. I always try to follow the money.

And what has happened, what happened in the first three years of the de Blasio administration in New York City, was an enormous infusion of money into the working class and the middle class of New York. And I actually tabulated it at at least $21 billion. And because of all of the initiatives that he put into motion and the City Council—because the thing to understand about New York City is that de Blasio had the full support of a very left-leaning City Council and other key officials, so it was the most left-leaning government in the history of New York City, in my opinion. What did they do? Universal child care. Universal child care, people don’t forget, that’s 70,000 children now a year are—I mean, universal pre-K, I’m sorry. Seventy thousand children a year now are getting pre-K education. The average parent pays about $12,500 to care for their 4-year-old child. So, de Blasio not only extended a full year of education for children, he also saved 70,000 parents a year now the cost of having to pay for child care for their 4-year-olds. That alone represented about $1.4 billion in savings to New Yorkers.

AMY GOODMAN: And he instituted that in the first year. That is larger than most school systems in the United States.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right. No one expected he’d be able to do it within the first year. He did it within seven months, eight months of being in office.

Then there’s also the labor contracts that were negotiated. Before de Blasio came into office, 300,000 New York City union workers, employees, had not had contracts for years. They had not been able to get raises for years—some, like the teachers, for five years. And within a few months, he started negotiating contracts with all of the various unions of the city, which in the first three years delivered $15 billion in raises and back pay and benefits to the workers of New York City.

Then there were the rent freezes for the—rent regulations in New York City averaged increases for private landlords, in all of the years before de Blasio, 3.2 percent per year; 3.2 percent, the landlords were expecting every year, on average, increase on their rents. In the first three years of the de Blasio administration, there was a 1 percent, a zero percent and a zero percent increase—a third of a percent over three years versus 3 percent per year. That alone is about $2 billion that the landlords of New York City did not get, that they were expecting to get and they had historically gotten under previous administrations. You can—and I can go on and on. The—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we actually just have a minute, although we’re going to do a post-show to continue this discussion. The subtitle of Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities, how successful was he, and other mayors, in beginning to do this, end that tale of two cities?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, they’ve begun, but they’ve had failures. De Blasio has not solved the affordable housing problem. There’s still too much luxury housing being built and too much development being—commercial development being permitted. They have not completely solved the issue of police-community relations. But they’ve definitely made great strides, most of them, in some of these areas.

And they are reason to hope. I think that too often, when we look at the Trump administration and Washington and we look at what’s going on in the state capitals, we become discouraged, and we have a sense of hopelessness. But I—it’s my theory or my viewpoint that the cities are a basis for hope. They are not perfect. You have to push these folks. But there is a potential for increasing space for progressive change and progressive policies in our cities today.

AMY GOODMAN: And as you talk about President Trump, you know, when de Blasio started, Trump was not in office. This unique challenge that these cities have right now and the potential you see for them at this point? I mean, we’re speaking on the day of his rescinding DACA, and thousands of people took to the streets around the country. And their mayors, that are fiercely opposed to Trump, then have to deploy their police, or they do deploy their police—I won’t say they have to—to deal with protesters.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I believe the big cities of America and the federal government are on a collision course, over sanctuary cities, over sustainable development, over police accountability. They’re on a collision course in the same way Southern local governments back in the 1950s and '60s were on a collision course with the federal government over civil rights, only back then it was the federal government that was maintaining the more progressive position. Now it's the local governments that are maintaining the most progressive positions. And I believe that it’s going to get even more—the battle is going to get even stronger between the cities and the federal government.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Juan, we’re going to do Part 2 after the show, and you can check it out at Juan González’s new book, Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities.

Juan, you are beginning at 21-city tour, and it may be more, starting right here at The New School on Thursday night. I hope to see people at 7:00 in New York City. You’re moving on to Culver City, to Sylmar, Calilfornia; Washington, D.C.; Tempe, Arizona; Austin, Texas; Newark; Kansas City; College Park; San Francisco. You can check out the tour at

And a very special shout-out to our engineer Flip, Mike DiFilippo, just marked 15 years at Democracy Now!

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

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