Best Of :: Civic Life
Europe in the 1930s was ruled by strongmen: Mussolini crushing dissension in Italy, Hitler promising to make Germany great again by ridding the Fatherland of all non-Aryans. America, though, had turned to a tough but humane leader, who was struggling to dig the country out of the Great Depression through massive public-works programs. Eighty years ago this Halloween night, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a take-no-prisoners speech in what was the third iteration of Madison Square Garden, on 49th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues. Perch on one of the circular concrete benches near the fountain at what is now Worldwide Plaza, close your eyes, and imagine a packed arena festooned with patriotic bunting, where FDR called bullshit on the class that had given him birth: "We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs, and we know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred." The crowd exploded, and three days later FDR was elected to the second of his record four terms.
49th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues, Manhattan
For decades, the fundamental realities of New York politics have been static. Atop the ceaseless seething of the political ecosystem, a handful of giants reigned supreme: the governor, the senate majority leader, and the assembly speaker. In this stagnant arrangement bloomed such a culture of corruption and profiteering that many New Yorkers despaired of their government ever approaching even a modicum of democratic function.
But even as everyone knew that Albany was rotten to the core, the proverbial Three Men in a Room who ruled New York were untouchable, the very top of the food chain. Were, that is, until a new apex predator arrived in the form of Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. In a few short months this year, Bharara successfully prosecuted two of the three on corruption charges. Former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos was sentenced to five years in prison, convicted of bribery, extortion, and conspiracy. Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver caught a twelve-year bid, found guilty of extortion, money laundering, and honest services fraud.
Now Bharara is circling the last remaining giant, Andrew Cuomo, and the governor is scrambling for his own survival. In September, Bharara secured indictments against Joseph Percoco and Todd Howe, two of Cuomo's closest and longest-serving aides. According to the indictment, Percoco and Howe took bribes (which they referred to, using a code so sophisticated it's remarkable prosecutors were able to crack it, as "ziti") in exchange for helping to sluice hundreds of millions of dollars of public money to private companies. Bharara also brought bid-rigging charges against Alain Kaloyeros, the physicist at the State University of New York whom Cuomo put in charge of "Buffalo Billions," his disastrously unsuccessful plan to revitalize the upstate economy. So far the governor himself has escaped any charges, but Bharara has refused to put Cuomo entirely in the clear, and as the prosecutions against his inner circle progress, it's anyone's guess what might unfold. Even if we never see Cuomo in handcuffs, Bharara's work has shaken the foundations of his fortress, leaving the governor far more vulnerable to challenge in 2018 than he would otherwise have been.
Meanwhile, Bharara has covered the rest of the waterfront, fulfilling the prosecutorial core competency of locking up black and brown kids with inflated gang sweeps, even as he secured an indictment for the single greatest obstacle to reform on Rikers, NYC correction officers union president Norman Seabrook. Bharara's investigation into the NYPD uncovered a group of high-ranking police officers deep in the pockets of Brooklyn businessmen. In the process, Bharara came within spitting distance of Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose fundraising operation took tens of thousands of dollars from the same execs.
Twenty years ago, Rudy Giuliani leveraged his tenure as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District into two terms as mayor of New York. Whether Bharara has designs on elected office in the future is unclear — he's notoriously disciplined with his messaging — but if he wanted to run New York, the number of credible opponents outside a jail cell is dropping by the week.
The New York State legislature is basically a pothead high school sophomore: Every year it dicks around for three months and then pulls a panicked, Monster Energy–fueled all-nighter and passes several hundred bills in one day. Among the many, many bills Albany legislators half-assed this year was a (comically watered-down) ethics reform package. In a year when Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, the former leaders of both of New York's legislative chambers, were sent to the hoosegow on corruption charges, we might have expected something more than a vague gesture toward shutting down the never-ending Albany party. But the final legislation is not all bad: It includes some new financial disclosure requirements for consultants, ensures that crooked pols will be stripped of their pensions, and strengthens rules that keep politicians from coordinating spending with outside groups. These are baby steps, but they are, technically, steps. And while the whole thing can be read as a cynical sop to good-government groups, the fact that the legislature felt the need to produce something — anything — might be a sign that further reforms will gain more traction. Then again, this is New York, so we're probably doomed.
Reverend Vicki Flippin is one of the many active United Methodist clergy members to defy the denomination's four-decade-old ban on officiating same-sex marriages. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, she recalls her torment early in her career after she was invited to officiate her first gay wedding, "agonizing with it because it was against the rules."
Flippin eventually decided that the United Methodists' marginalization of the LGBT community was antithetical to what the faith is about: protecting the vulnerable. Since then, she says, "I've thrown myself into the movement to change the rules in the United Methodist Church." Soon after, she connected with several activist groups such as PFLAG, and in particular its Asian and Pacific Islander group — Flippin's late father was Chinese — so she could learn to use her platform to better protect and support marginalized groups. "I've done many, many, many [same sex] weddings after that," she says.
Flippin is part of a changing tide within the Methodist clergy, despite criticism from church leadership. This past May, she was dropped from the series of greeters for the opening worship service at a UMC conference because she planned on including a welcome to LGBTQ worshippers. She chose instead to spend the morning helping serve communion at queer-safe stations in the area.
Racial justice is also central to her ministry. In 2014, Flippin was a pastor at the Church of the Village at the time Eric Garner was put in a chokehold; she organized a panel to discuss police brutality, inviting members of the NYPD to participate in a dialogue with the church community. During an emotional time, Flippin says, her panel aimed to shift the focus from pointing fingers to recognizing a broken system and opening up a conversation about how to move forward. "We tried to be really thoughtful instead of reactive," she says.
Now Associate Pastor of Youth and New Communities at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on the Upper West Side (263 West 86th Street, stpaulandstandrew.org), Flippin facilitates weekly group discussions with youth members, connecting Bible study to their lived experiences. "New York City can be so segregated and we can live in this world where we don't see each other," she says. "And so I'd want to make sure they're thinking beyond just their world, and connect that to spirituality."
Notwithstanding yoga's reputation as the Gwyneth Paltrow of exercise — whitewashed, expensive, elitist — at its core is the forging of a connection between mind and body. Re-establishing this connection is a well-established form of therapy; Liberation Prison Yoga director Anneke Lucas attributes her recovery from her experiences as a sex-trafficked child entirely to yoga. After heading up Prison Yoga Project New York for three years, in 2014 Lucas founded her new endeavor to help currently and formerly incarcerated New Yorkers address their traumas, collaborating with yoga instructors, social workers, and mental health professionals to facilitate mental and physical healing. Liberation sends instructors to jails and prisons, offering an extensive network of classes for women, men, and youth, for expectant mothers and mothers and babies, and for the newly released. Last year, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit began a class for corrections officers on Rikers Island as well, offering healing and connection to everyone in the facility.
Mayor de Blasio has done diligent work in this category in the past, but this year all he could muster was preserving sex-segregated swimming at a couple of public pools. Governor Cuomo's June executive order, though, really showed how far he'd go in sacrificing freedom of speech to appease this constituency. EO 157 commands state institutions to divest public funds from any recipient that supports the movement to subject Israel to boycott, divestment, and sanctions for its occupation of what would otherwise be a Palestinian state. "It's very simple," Cuomo pronounced. "If you boycott against Israel, New York will boycott you." How simple is it? Cuomo didn't settle for just going after those who engage in BDS but also those who "promote" it. The obscure Commissioner of the Office of General Services gets to draw up a blacklist of BDS supporters, and has complete discretion over whether they ever get off it. The NYCLU has said the BDS blacklist "raises serious First Amendment concerns," and even Americans for Peace Now, the domestic offspring of the venerable Israeli peace group and an opponent of BDS, was unimpressed, calling Cuomo's action "the wrong way to combat BDS." But the right way to lock down thousands of votes.