The fart-smeller of Union Square is a short white man of about 30 years of age, perennially in a baseball cap and almost always standing in Union Square, holding a sign referring to his desire to smell your farts. His sign works, too: people will let him lean over near their ass, he will lie down on the ground and they will squat over his face, he will smile, the flatulent's friends will take pictures on their iPhones and laugh, he probably gets off on it, they get a "New York story", everyone is happy, I guess.
In 2013, for the first time in decades, the police were a major issue in the mayoral campaign, but crime wasn't. Every democratic candidate had to come out against stop and frisk--failure to do so was a major factor in Christine Quinn's inability to ride Bloomberg's coattails, although those coattails were already pretty oily and moth-eaten by 2012--and de Blasio has promised not only to end stop and frisk, but much more significantly, the quota system.
That de Blasio has floated Bill Bratton--inventor of Broken Windows Theory, the man who more or less built the NYPD as it is today as police commissioner to that friend of minorities and civil-liberties alike, America's Mayor Rudy Giuliani--as Ray Kelly's replacement hardly bodes well. But if de Blasio does, in fact, end stop and frisk and/or the quota system, it would mean a major improvement of life for subjects under the reign of the world's 7th largest standing army. Wouldn't this vindicate a pro-voting, pro-reformism attitude? What's a hardline anti-election anti-state anti-cap to do?
First things first: wait and see. The odds that de Blasio, a public advocate and not all that much of a hard-nosed politician, could win a dog-fight with the NYPD top brass and a largely reactionary city council seem as low to me as the odds that he actually has the intention to do so. And anyone who voted for any Democrat in the last, I dunno, 30 years? should be pretty cynical about left-leaning election promises of any kind at this point.
But the political-cycle focus of modern electioneering also hides the way that political issues come to the fore. Stop and frisk was a major issue in the mayoral campaign, but there is little mainstream discussion of how it got to be there: tireless activism in the streets and, to a lesser extent, in the courts, by predominantly POC youth. And it (sadly) took the spectacle of white protesters being beaten by NYPD during Occupy to broaden anti-cop feelings in the city beyond perpetually police-oppressed communities of color.
Some commentators have pointed this out: that the leftward swing among mayoral candidates, in discourse at least, is due to Occupy. Such accounts often leave out the equally significant role of the POC-led Trayvon Martin, Kimani Gray and anti-stop and frisk marches, riots and campaigns--or how the spectacle of potentially revolutionary uprising around the globe has some capitalists quaking in their boots. But the point remains, without the action in the streets, NYC could've elected a hundred Democratic mayors without ending stop and frisk.
And here is where the liberal narrative around protest ends. Protest is valuable precisely because it changes the nature of the promises made and actions taken by the political class--it is the role of protesters, putting everything on the line in the streets, to give the liberals' vote meaning.
Obviously fuck liberals, but we should also reject the accelerationists and the miserabilists who argue that things need to get worse before they get better. The history of revolutionary movements does not map onto the history of economic crises, period, though conditions of possibility often appear in the gaps produced by economic and political crises. And if we really do subscribe to that most vulgar demand, that no one go hungry, there is no way we should be rooting for crisis.
There is a revolutionary advantage to social democracy, and it is precisely this: it makes it easier to prepare for revolution. Often ignored in the narratives around protest, both from liberals and the revolutionary left, is the calculus of fear, risk and self-care that every person makes when they mask-up. It is easier to go out into the streets if you know that, for example, should the police break your arm with a baton, your treatment will be free. That if your employer fires you for political actions, or if you choose to quit your job to dedicate your time to political organizing, you wont be thrown out of your house or starve.
So that if de Blasio makes major reforms to the NYPD operating procedure, and I'm not holding my breath, it will be a material improvement for communities of color which is a direct result of their organizing and their actions, and which will open up potentialities for further struggle. Living in NYC, you come to learn that you can get a ticket for having your feet up on a subway bench, for not dismounting your bike before you go up on a sidewalk to park it: you take a risk having a picnic with a few beers in Prospect Park, and the awareness of that is a form of internalizing fear and control, of strengthening the cop inside your head.
Much more seriously, young people of color don't feel safe walking down the street when NYPD drive-by, they and their parents know that any encounter with a cop could be fatal: to go out into the streets to confront the police under such conditions takes more bravery, strength or rage than it does most white activists, and we should not pretend otherwise out of machismo or righteousness. Anything which lessened that fear and that risk would be a happy one.
But such changes can also be disastrous. The history of failed revolutions is also a history of liberal treachery and social-democratic selling out. Minor or even major concessions can satisfy or confuse a movement enough that it can be put down. It could prove true that replacing Ray Kelly and ending stop and frisk would be a materially small change in NYPD day to day practices, who would figure out a different way to terrorize communities of color, but have a massive Obama effect on NYC's view of NYPD, setting back anti-police activism by a decade.
Action in the streets can produce the sort of
politicians who make it easier for us to take further action in the
streets: de Blasio could well be better than Bloomberg. But there is no
police-reform economic-inequality attacking de Blasio campaign without
our actions in the street, and if he does reform the police department,
we must not declare victory but ruthlessly take advantage of every opening he gives us, not
confuse him with an ally but recognize that the streets are beginning to
have an (incredibly limited) effect on our enemies, that bourgeois politics is beginning to have to respond to our (potential) power.
Reform is better than no reform. General population is better than a CMU. Living paycheck to paycheck is better than being homeless. Living a life of boredom and alienation is better than living a life of violence and starvation.
The most important thing that is better about things getting better is that it can make it easier to build the real movement that smashes the logic of better forever.