I met Bill de Blasio once, in March 2016, four years before he was being cursed every night for his spineless defense of police who senselessly beat bystanders and run over protesters in SUVs, before calls for his resignation were ringing out on New York City’s streets.
I was part of a delegation of public education activists invited to City Hall to discuss our concerns over New York State’s high-stakes testing regime — and the mayor’s gag order policy that barred city educators from criticizing the tests. We were ushered into the famous Governor’s Room, where we sat at an elegant table underneath John Trumbull’s portrait of Alexander Hamilton. One of us brought the mayor pastries from his favorite Park Slope bakery as a gesture of goodwill.
But once the meeting started and de Blasio realized that we weren’t starstruck by our surroundings but were in fact deeply concerned about the damages of over-testing, the atmosphere in the room changed dramatically.
“Let me explain to you how change really works,” Bill de Blasio said to us. “You put me into office, and now you have to let me do my job.” It’s been four years so I’m paraphrasing, but only by a word or two — the mayor’s obnoxiousness left quite an indelible impression.
De Blasio went on to spend most of our time lecturing a group of deeply knowledgeable educators and parents — people from whom he could have learned a lot. The feeling I took away from his message was that we were naive activists, and that he was the one who understood how to win the education goals that he took as a given we all shared in common.
This is, of course, the same unmitigated gall that de Blasio is currently displaying tenfold when he claims to support protests against police violence even as he defends outrageous police violence against those very protests.
And it’s the absurd arrogance of liberal mayors across the country who head cities dominated by racist, brutal law enforcement agencies, yet claim to be part of the movement against those very agencies — so much so in fact that they can declare who among us are not genuine protesters but are instead “outside agitators.”
Four years ago, many of these same voices similarly smeared and misrepresented the test-boycott movement as privileged, middle-class, white parents who were afraid, as Barack Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan sneered, that tests would show that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought.”
In fact, we were a diverse group from across the city, and we were especially protesting the city’s denial of information to black and brown parents. Just before our meeting with the mayor, we had organized a press conference on the steps of City Hall in which African-American presidents of parent associations at schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn talked about never being informed of their right to refuse the tests. All we were asking from the man who had run a successful mayoral campaign on a “tale of two cities” theme of inequality was to stop blocking working-class parents of color from having access to the same information about their children’s educational rights. But as we persistently returned to this basic request in the Governor’s Room, de Blasio became increasingly peeved.
As the mayor was looking to wrap up the meeting, Jamaal Bowman quietly insisted on having a chance to speak. Bowman, a Bronx middle school principal who is currently running a serious primary campaign against the cartoonishly cynical Congressman Eliot Engel, spoke with voice-quivering vulnerability about how hard he has worked as an African-American education leader to establish trust among his school community, and how the gag order put him in an impossible position when parents wanted to know his opinion about the state tests.
Everyone in the room grew still — except for the visibly impatient and annoyed mayor, who repeatedly fidgeted and checked the time. When Bowman finished, the mayor barely acknowledged his words and quickly ended the meeting. We shuffled out of the building, dumbstruck at de Blasio’s remarkable failure of political acumen, much less basic empathy.
“I remember feeling rushed, feeling silenced, and feeling unheard,” Bowman told me recently about that meeting. “I remember just accepting it as status-quo business as usual — Bill de Blasio isn’t the only elected official I’ve experienced that from. I’ve been silenced and ignored throughout my career. But moments and experiences like that probably led me to running for Congress.”
“As a teacher and parent,” he went on, “when kids are suffering you want to run through a wall for them. So when we go to elected officials who don’t have the same urgency, it’s debilitating. That’s why people don’t trust the system.”
A “Progressive” Who Does Not Trust Protest Movements
Bill de Blasio has an impressive ability to annoy all sides of every debate to a degree that can leave many shaking their heads in disbelief, as much at his faulty political instincts as his absence of principles. Why would he defend cops who drive over protesters as merely trying to “get out of that situation”? Why sacrifice his moral credibility for a police force that seems to hate him and will never support him?
Our group had similar questions in 2016. The mayor didn’t even support the tests we were organizing against. In fact, they were pushed by his bitter rival Governor Andrew Cuomo, who wanted to use test scores to weaken educator unions, shut down more public schools, and create more charter schools for his hedge fund backers. Cuomo and his charter school allies had repeatedly demonized de Blasio for standing in their way.
Despite this well-funded opposition, our side was winning. The year before, an incredible 240,000 students — one in five across the state — had boycotted the state tests, forcing Cuomo to back off his plan to tie test scores to teacher evaluations and leading Obama (a much shrewder liberal than de Blasio) to suddenly talk about the dangers of “over-testing.”
Why in the world would de Blasio react to us with such hostility? Because of his knee-jerk reaction to any protest movement that was beyond his control — even one that supported his nominal goals. Our boycott movement was a form of mass civil disobedience against a policy directive of state education officials. What if its success encouraged other unruly actions against the mayor’s own policies?
Liberal leaders are stereotyped as weak-willed and passive by their right-wing opponents, but they are in fact often autocrats by instinct. Having long ago devoted themselves to a strategy of delicate dealmaking and crafting a finely honed image of nonthreatening populism, they are deeply hostile to democratic rumblings that threaten to frighten or anger monied interests and send their intricate contraption of compromise crashing to the ground.
No matter how many concessions he makes to real estate moguls and law-and-order politics, de Blasio is relentlessly attacked by the police unions, wealthy Manhattanites, and the New York Post, both for the few progressive policies he enacts and because he’s a Democrat. Faced with this constant abuse from the Right, de Blasio thinks that the least we could do on the Left is to uncritically support whatever he does.
When we don’t, it’s much more amenable to his sense of self to see us not as the righteous protesters he respected in his youth, but as privileged brats who don’t respect the hard work and sacrifice of making “real change.” In our meeting four years ago, he was faced with an African-American educator who simply couldn’t be fit into that condescending framework, and the dissonance seemed to render de Blasio physically incapable of listening.
Bill de Blasio purports to want to change the most unjust policies of twenty-first-century capitalism but is instinctively hostile to the unruly grassroots forces necessary to win those reforms. It’s a defining trait of all liberal politicians, but most of them have at least some degree of charm to make us want to like them. It’s a testament to how desperately New York City been missing a genuine left that this man has won two elections despite having the politics and personality of a loser.
But now the grassroots movements that de Blasio thought he could keep in his orbit have gone far beyond him: test boycotts became a teachers’ strike wave; decrying a “tale of two cities” became demands for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal from actual left-wing politicians like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and now Jamaal Bowman; and protests against “stop-and-frisk” law enforcement has become a nationwide uprising against a racist police state.
And nobody wants to hear Bill de Blasio’s theories about how change really works.