- Interview by
- Meagan Day
Multibillionaire media magnate and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is pouring unprecedented amounts of money into a late-bloomer presidential campaign. As his unprecedented self-funded ad buys start to show results, he’s coming under serious scrutiny for his record, particularly his stop-and-frisk policy that targeted a generation of young black and Latino men in New York City for arrest and incarceration.
On Monday, journalist and progressive activist Benjamin Dixon posted audio of a speech Bloomberg gave at the Aspen Institute in 2015. In it, Bloomberg explains his rationale for stop-and-frisk. Since “95 percent” of “murders and murderers and murder victims” are black and Latino men between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, he said incorrectly, it was necessary to:
Spend a lot of money, put a lot of cops in the street, put those cops where the crime is, which is in the minority neighborhoods. So this is — one of the unintended consequences is, people say, “Oh my God, you are arresting kids for marijuana that are 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. And the first thing you can do for people is to stop them getting killed.
Bloomberg added, “The way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw ’em against the wall and frisk ’em.” The jarring audio went viral on social media, and soon made headlines in the Washington Post and the New York Times.
But not everyone welcomed the revelation. CNN’s Cristina Alesci alleged that the recording couldn’t be trusted on account of Dixon’s own political views. “The podcaster and the writer that released this sound is clearly a Bernie supporter,” she said. She also raised questions about the provenance of the audio, which had been publicly available on YouTube for years. Alesci is a former finance reporter for Bloomberg News.
When a reporter asked Bloomberg about the remarks, he said, “I don’t think those words reflect what, how I led the most diverse city in the nation. And I apologized for the practice and the pain that it caused.” He added, “It was five years ago. And, you know, it’s just not the way that I think and it … doesn’t reflect what I do every day. I led the most populous, largest city in the United States and got reelected three times, the public seemed to like what I do.”
Many seem poised to accept Bloomberg’s apology, but not Benjamin Dixon. Jacobin staff writer Meagan Day spoke with Dixon about the meaning of Bloomberg’s comments on stop-and-frisk, the perils of his money-soaked campaign, and why so many in the media and politics are hesitant to criticize him.
What does the audio you circulated tell us about Michael Bloomberg’s perspective?
The audio is really revealing. First it gives us the chance to see inside his head what he thinks about minorities, particularly young black and brown men. He uses this erroneous statistic, which is that 95 percent of murder perpetrators and victims fit this description. It’s Bloomberg’s deeply held belief that this demographic is dangerous. And it appears to be a meticulously thought-out worldview. In his apologies for stop-and-frisk and for these comments, we don’t see nearly the same level of care, thoughtfulness, and meticulousness with which he approached the explanation of why young black and brown men need to be targeted by police.
But the audio also shows us a second thing, which is a sense of his governing philosophy. Bloomberg believes it’s necessary to use brute force to address social problems. If you juxtapose this audio with his justification for his other signature policy, the soda tax, you notice the same level of paternalism. In order to address the bad eating habits of the impoverished, Bloomberg proposed to tax them for those habits. It demonstrates a particular view of government. We can either use the government to promote general welfare by addressing the underlying systemic issues that cause poverty and violence, or we can use the government to punish populations for their own good. For Bloomberg, it’s the latter.
Why did some in the media get so defensive about the audio you circulated?
Well, of course it turned out that the CNN correspondent who questioned whether the audio could be trusted used to work for Bloomberg News. It’s a classic tactic. In order find a way to defend Michael Bloomberg from his own words, which is her agenda, she’s putting an agenda on me. But attacking the source doesn’t work, because those are his words. The clip has been out there for years. It took me just thirty minutes of research to find it. The fact that I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter is completely immaterial.
The similar reaction from other members of the mainstream media speaks to their role in this whole game, which is to protect their resources and their access. They’re doing whatever they can to protect Bloomberg because Bloomberg has the money, and he’s spending it. The media could end his campaign right now by asking some of the questions the Left is asking on Twitter, but they’re not, because Bloomberg cash and access goes a long way.
I’ve been canvassing almost weekly since October. Last weekend I canvassed a working-class, mostly black neighborhood in East Oakland, and suddenly I was hearing a lot about Bloomberg. This had never happened before — from what I could tell it occurred basically overnight. Bloomberg’s black support is surging, and I’ve seen some chatter about the possibility that Bloomberg is engaged in racially targeted advertising. Do you think that’s happening?
This is just speculation, but anecdotally, many people I’m connected to in the black community are saying the same thing: I just saw another Bloomberg ad. I saw it on Facebook. I saw it while I was playing Words with Friends. I have been inundated by people from our community saying they feel saturated by Bloomberg ads, and that experience is so ubiquitous that it’s gotten to the point where people are asking questions, though we don’t know the answers. I have heard at least one confirmation from a source that he’s doing big ad buys on black radio. And it seems to be working, in part because people don’t necessarily associate Bloomberg with stop-and-frisk. They associate that with Giuliani, even though Bloomberg was just as responsible for it.
There are also some prominent black politicians and media figures singing Bloomberg’s praises. Do they genuinely like him, despite his record of overseeing a racist policing strategy?
I have no idea. But you look at someone like Jason Johnson, who has a PhD, and it’s amazing the lengths he’s going to indirectly defend Michael Bloomberg. What does it take for someone to be as educated and respected as him and to say such embarrassing and irrational things? Believing these things of his own accord, without any influence one way or the other, means we really need to have a conversation about his reasoning skills.
I don’t have the answers for what’s happening behind the scenes. But I do think it’s terrifying that Bloomberg poured $5 million into Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight organization, and then Bloomberg appeared at an event with her. Stacey Abrams’s initiative is a great cause, and it needs the money. But what happens now is that it’s going to be very difficult for Stacey Abrams, one of the most powerful and influential black women in the country, to offer any criticism of a man who is potentially poised to be the next president of the United States and who has a track record of racism.
And he doesn’t have to give money directly to accomplish this. You’re seeing all these Bloomberg endorsements from mayors come in, and it turns out they all went through a mayoral training program at Harvard that Bloomberg funds. By flying them out and providing these training sessions, which I’m sure is a great experience, he’s able to influence these individuals by sheer virtue of his money.
And people actually do need money. So here comes a man who is worth billions, able to just open up his pocketbook and spend amounts that mean nothing to him but make a major difference for politicians, foundation directors, and other people with influence. Not all those people will endorse him, but if they have to be quiet in their criticisms, of course they will. That one man would have so much money that thousands of influential people across the country are either defending him or failing to criticize him as he runs for president is an indictment of our system.