Don’t Tread on Us: New York Should Secede From the Union
June 23, 1975
As I write this, the streets outside my hotel are very quiet. Two boys are rolling rubber tires down the cobblestoned street, bouncing them off the walls. A few blocks away, thousands of citizens are gathering in a swirl of red banners, to march through the city. They are going to the park, where there will be speeches and talk and discussion. There is gaiety here, and excitement. The posters of a dozen political parties adorn almost every wall in the city. People rush for the new editions of an endless series of newspapers. The bookstores are crowded. There is a sense that the future lies ahead, and it will be bright and hopeful after a long dark time. I am, of course, in Lisbon.
But in the same newspapers there are stories about the collapse of New York. They tell the readers that the richest city in history is about to collapse, that New York cannot afford the teachers, police, firemen, or sanitation men it needs.
“How is this possible?” my interpreter asks me. “You are so wealthy. You have so much money.”
It is hard to explain; the closest I can come is to tell him that New York is essentially a colony of the United States, that its people consume American goods to the tune of billions of dollars a year, to pay the mother country some $14 billion in taxes and receive in return about $2 billion, and that even that small return is given begrudgingly. New York, like all colonies, has a balance of payments deficit. The man raises his brows in surprise. “In that case,” he says gravely, “why do you not revolt?”
And, of course, he is right. Clearly this is the historical moment for the New Yorkers to revolt. We have spoken for years now about the need for statehood for New York, pointing out that it was absurd for, say, South Dakota to have two senators for a population of less than a million, while New York, essentially has none for a population of almost eight million (James Buckley being basically a national senator, representing fetuses and conservatives, while Jack Javits plays at statesmanship, supporting Republicans and Israel with more passion than he is capable of generating on behalf of New York). New York’s money is taken by the Americans and plowed into defense contracts in Southern California, military aid programs for the likes of Franco and South Korea’s General Park. It is used to maintain 250,000 armed men in Western Europe, at least six separate intelligence agencies, incredible bureaucracies in Washington and elsewhere. On the day that President Ford gave Abe Beame the cold shoulder in Washington, the Americans were meeting in the Dominican Republic to guarantee $1.6 billion in loans to the Inter-American Bank, loans, by the way, that will be used to help build up the purses of Latin American millionaires at the expense of the people of Latin America. There is absolutely no way that a New Yorker now can have a say about the way his federal tax dollar is spent.
And there are reasons for this. Most of America hates New York. The citizens of America hate New Yorkers. They cannot stand our diversity, our great clanging mixed-up bowl of Jews and blacks and Puerto Ricans and Irishmen and Italians. and Chinese and Poles and Cubans. They despise our energy, the great driving engine of the town that sends us into sweating, muling, ferocious contact with each other every day of our lives. In most of America, people leave their homes, get into the home on wheels they call cars, and drive to the larger homes called the office or the plant, where they work. In Los Angeles, you have to drive miles to see a black skin, unless the black skin belongs to the maid. The hicks and the boobs arrive in New York for their tours in the summertime, and they can’t believe it: “Too much rushing around for my blood.” Of course. Too much talent too. Too much energy. Too much intelligence.
So they have decided to kill us off. President Ford isn’t going to help a Democratic mayor of this town. He is not going to bail out a Democratic governor who might some day run for president. Instead, it’s easier to play the game of the Iron Noose. You make life intolerable in New York, and the middle class will move out. It will go to New Jersey and Long Island and Westchester, and will become Republican and fearful. There is nothing easier for a president to control than a fearful middle class. And once you have drawn the Iron Noose of middle-class whites around New York, it will choke to death.
New York cannot hope for help from the American Congress. Even the liberals there fear or hate New York. John Tunney, a supposedly liberal senator from California, went on the record a few weeks ago, saying that it was foolish for the federal government to help New York, because it was so “incredibly mismanaged.” The day before this statement, he came out for the deregulation of the price of natural gas, a move that will make the oil and gas companies even richer.
Tunney isn’t alone; not a single Senate voice has been raised in clear support of New York (Scoop Jackson and a few others have wrung their hands a little, but they still assume that the crisis is our fault). George McGovern, whose New York experience was epitomized by his ordering milk with chopped chicken liver in a garment center restaurant in 1972, has said nothing. Barry Goldwater still represents the thinking of the right, changing not an inch from his 1964 statement that New York should be sawed off the United States and floated out to sea.
Sitting here, in a city where unbelievable energy and self-pride have been released after 48 years of dictatorship, it seems more clear than ever that it is time for New York to call the American bluff. It is time to say to them: “Listen, fellas, enough is enough. Either you recognize that we are part of America, or you don’t. If you don’t — if you don’t give us a just share of our own money, and start putting the interests of New York ahead of all those nasty little games you play in foreign countries — then let us go our own way. Let us be free.”
I mean free. I mean secession, separating New York from the United States and making it a separate country. I mean declaring the Republic of New York.
Free of the continuous bleeding imposed by the Americans, this could be one hell of a country. Under the New York flag, we could create a governmental structure that would resemble that of Switzerland, with 20 or so cantons, governed by freely elected representatives. The president of New York would sit in the present City Hall, and we could probably convert the Coliseum to a National Assembly building, with representatives of each canton sitting for four-year-terms. We would have all the accoutrements of statehood: New York passports, a New York flag, and even our own National Anthem. I think a song that starts off “East Side, West Side” makes a lot more sense than one that starts off, “Oh, say — can you see?”
Internationally we would be a free port, like Hong Kong; with no import or export taxes, giving us enormous trading advantages with other countries. The United Nations would, of course, remain here, and the delegates would probably feel a lot more comfortable walking around the town knowing that we were a free country. We would also make clear to the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, and yes, Portugal, that we don’t care what form of government they have, that we have nothing to do with the lamebrains in the Pentagon who see Communist Peril everywhere. If a country wants to be Communist, that’s fine. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. Just don’t spit on our sidewalks, comrade. And we won’t spit on yours.
The Republic of New York would have plenty of work to do, and one of the major planks in our Constitution would have to be the requirement to work. We could become the first nation on earth to make the four-day week possible, but for the first five or 10 years, we would have a fifth day of work that would be devoted to the Republic. On that fifth day — and it would be staggered according to needs and professions — everybody from bankers and commercial artists to doormen and used-car salesmen would be required to pitch in and rebuild the city. We would have armies of citizens moving through the present ghettos exterminating rats and roaches, repairing plumbing and heating systems, scraping away the mildewed layers of old paint and linoleum and repainting the apartments, sanding down the doors, making every apartment in this city habitable. When that is done, all of those apartment houses would be purchased by the state from the old landlords (who don’t make any money from them anyway) and then turned into cooperatives, owned, kept up, and policed by the people who own them.
The same massive force of New Yorkers would be charged with planting gardens on the rooftops of all apartment buildings in the new country, creating a gorgeous vista to rival anything ever dreamed in Babylon. The backyards would be opened up, with access entryways punched through from the avenues. Those backyard areas, which are now densely clotted with garbage, would then be converted into an endless series of community parks, with miniature disposal plants for garbage (separate chutes for paper and glass), free automatic laundries for the people in the buildings, and recreation centers for old people.
This peaceful New York citizen army would also be charged with constructing day-care centers and miniature nursing homes, one on each block if population density requires it. The skills of artists and architects would be employed to make these centers aesthetic delights, and not decentralized jails. In the early years, while staff is being trained, these centers would also obtain their personnel from the Fifth Day workers.
The medical profession would be brought into the government of the Republic in a major way, charged with one simple mission: to provide the best possible medical care known to man. They would train huge cadres of paraprofessionals, modeled on the Chinese “barefoot doctor” program, which would send people out into the neighborhoods to find out who is sick before they are too sick to be helped. The General Practitioner would again receive the accolades of his fellow citizens. The specialist would have time and money for research. Health would take precedence over wealth.
Here in Lisbon, the banks and insurance companies have been nationalized, and it is extraordinary to observe the spirit of camaraderie among the workers in those companies, now that they are doing the work for themselves and their fellow citizens, instead of some owner sitting in a barricaded office upstairs. The Republic of New York would probably have to nationalize most of the domestic banking system. To obtain the loyalty of the middle class, it would forgive the interest on all outstanding mortgage loans, thus freeing millions of dollars for consumption or other purposes. And it would provide interest-free housing loans for all citizens, to encourage the establishing of permanent roots.
The Republic of New York would have some crucial problems at the beginning. It would probably be necessary to pass a mandatory treatment law for all drug addicts. Addicts would not be treated as criminals, but they would be told that they are carriers of disease, and treated the way a civilized nation treats bearers of cholera or typhoid. Some of the estimated 250,000 heroin addicts will not respond to any form of treatment; they would be legally provided with heroin, in maintenance doses, required to work, in carefully chosen environments that might stimulate them to change. But they will never again be as free as they have been during the plague years. Anyone caught selling heroin would be automatically sent to prison for life. Since police estimate that as much as 70 per cent of the city’s present crime is committed by drug addicts, the result would be a safer city, with far less expense for police work; eventually, the police force could be reduced to about a third of its present size. In every respect — cost, humanity, firmness — New York would treat the drug problem more efficiently if it were a separate Republic.
Because land is limited, and because millions of Americans would want to live in the Republic, there would have to be very careful restrictions placed on population. Everyone with an established residence in New York at the time of independence would have to make a choice: they could become automatic citizens of New York, or they could remain citizens of the United States. If they chose to remain with the United States, they would have to apply for a residence permit, to be renewed every year, and would pay approximately 50 per cent more in taxes.
Once New York is free, it would be out of the “We’re-Number-One” lunacy for good. If Tokyo, Los Angeles, London, and Shanghai want the title of Most Crowded City, they can have it. New York would have one basic goal: to become a humane state. Everything else would be decoration.
My own feeling is that such a New York Republic would function best under a system of democratic socialism, with industries controlled by the people whose labor makes them possible. There is no reason why the garment industry, for example, could not be revitalized, and made into the most successful in the Western World. If the designers, seamstresses, and managers all owned those plants (as compared to the state itself owning them), they would again become competitive, because technology could be employed in a humane way to produce more goods in less time than the present antiquated system requires. New York could begin immediately to build smokeless industry, based in industrial parks scattered through all the cantons of the city.
The decision on the economic structure would have to be made democratically, after extensive debate in a Constitutional Convention followed by a referendum. A Socialist economy — provided that it is not centralized in a government bureaucracy — would be the most rational, the most productive, and the most just that the new nation could create. And when the facts about such a state were made clear to the citizens, I have no doubt that they would choose it over the present corrupt and unmanageable mess.
Some things would not change. The Mets and Jets would operate as usual, in about the same way that the Montreal baseball and hockey teams operate. Madison Square Garden would still be the capital of sports, and some attractions — such, as heavyweight championship fights — would be more easily available because our taxes would not be as high as those of the federal government.
And some things would be added: prostitution would be legalized, until such time that it no longer is desired by citizens; that would be rather soon, I would imagine, since a truly just society would make it possible for prostitute and customer alike to satisfy needs like hunger and loneliness without a cash transaction getting in the way. The Republic of New York would also open legalized gambling casinos, in the Las Vegas style, capable of paying the best entertainers in the world, providing an outlet for visitors and New Yorkers alike to engage in activities that are totally foolish, and eliminating still another mainstay of that capitalist institution, The Mob.
Is all of this some dumb dream, inspired by the revolutionary fervor of a small country across an ocean? Maybe it is. But maybe it isn’t either. In the past few months, the world at large has changed. Vietnam and Cambodia stand as examples to many small countries of the world, teaching the lesson that if you fight, if you stay the course, you will beat anybody. In Africa, Angola and Mozambique are about to be free, for the simple reason that the mother country, from which I am writing this, decided to be free too; a free nation cannot enslave other nations.
I believe that the time for New York to assert its independence is now. All of us are moving into a world that is increasingly revolutionary and will almost certainly be mainly socialist by the end of the century. New York, which has many of the characteristics of a Third World or underdeveloped country, has history itself going for her now. The federal government in Washington, ruled by an unelected President and an unelected Vice-President, grows more dangerous by the hour, encouraged by the national response to the Mayaguez incident to prove its collective manhood in still more violent ways. The war ends in Asia; a policy of detente is established with the Russians; and the Defense budget increases. There is growing talk of war against the Arabs, to steal the oil the country will not pay for on the open market. Well, hey — New York should have nothing to do with people like that. If the Americans want to go around the world picking fights with people, let the Americans themselves pay for the cost of those fights. But they should not be allowed to sap the strength and morale of New York while they’re doing it.
Can it actually be done? I’m certain that if a national referendum were held tomorrow, with the terms of the decision framed correctly (e.g., “Should New York Be Thrown Out of the United States?”), the Americans would let us go. If we had to go the long route, through an Albany legislature that also feeds on our emaciated body, and then through a series of votes in the other state legislatures, the Americans would change their minds. They would gradually realize that far from being one huge welfare client of the United States, we are in fact a very lucrative colony. They would vote to hold on to us, the way England is holding Northern Ireland, until there was nothing left to surrender. There would be a lot of jingo rhetoric, many quotes from Lincoln, but they would keep us.
Perhaps we will not have to go that way. Mayor Beame has been marvelous during the weeks of the crisis — up to a point. He has placed the blame where it belongs: on Washington, on the Republican state legislators, on the banks. In that way, he has prepared the people of New York for the next step. That next step should be in the form of an ultimatum. If the federal government does not end its arrogant policies toward the city, and give New York access to some of the funds it has itself produced in taxes, then the mayor should immediately start withholding all federal taxes collected by the city from its 320,000 employees. That sum, amounting to many millions every week, would be immediately applied to pay off debts caused by federal policies.
If the federal government failed to respond to the ultimatum, then New York would simply declare the Republic. This would create a constitutional crisis of catastrophic proportions in Washington, and New York would risk armed assault at the hands of the Americans. (In the great tradition of the Son Tay POW camp raid and the assault on Koh Tang Island, the Pentagon would probably invade Perth Amboy, trying to find Brooklyn.) But it is unlikely that Ford actually would order the B-52s. Goldwater and the rest of those characters would probably say, “Let the bastards go.” Kissinger would hold backgrounders explaining to Marvin Kalb that this represents a grave threat to NATO. James Reston would thunder about the “irresponsibility” of the action. Art Buchwald would ask for citizenship. Variety would run a headline saying: “New York Goes Indie; Ankles States.” California would play tennis. And most of the world would cheer.
They would cheer, because we would be setting another example to the world of the power and will of human beings when threatened with extinction. Most foreigners love New York and hate America; most Americans love America and hate New York. In one simple move, we would find ourselves aligned with the rest of the world, free at last from the asinine policies that have made America the most feared and hated country on the earth.
The timing of revolutionary actions is always critical. For New York, the timing has never been better. The Americans have made their feelings brutally clear about New York. We should accept them at face value. It’s time for us to make the change. It’s time for us to embrace sedition. It’s time for us to declare the Republic of New York.
Up the Republic!
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 28, 2020