In the early hours of this morning, the New York City Policy Department cleared Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan of hundreds of protesters, some of whom had been camping there since the “Occupy Wall Street” movement began two months ago. They were followed by an army of New York City Sanitation Department workers who moved in to remove tents, tarps and other accoutrements of the occupation, and to thoroughly disinfect the public plaza.
The decision to do this at this juncture came as a surprise, not least because Mayor Michael Bloomberg has vacillated for the past two months over how to address the problems created by the encampment; though he had largely seemed on the side of allowing the situation to continue until it might naturally peter out (with winter coming and all).
It’s pretty certain that things would have gone differently under the previous mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani. As he said in an interview last month:
Well, I had a rule and I enforced it as best I could and pretty effectively. The rule was: You’re not allowed to sleep on the streets. […] Streets are not for sleeping. Sleeping on the streets is a dysfunctional act. It harms the person, it harms society, it leads to unsanitary conditions that affect public health. The first one who decided to sleep there should have been removed and then the second one, and the third one, and the fourth one and the fifth one.
They can protest during the daytime if they want to, but if you want to stay over in New York City overnight, you got to rent a room, and if you’re homeless we got plenty of shelters for you.
Rudy was hardly bluffing. Anyone who lived in New York and paid attention during his mayoralty would know that he was firm in dealing with these kinds of issues, and that he shrugged off the criticisms he would get in the pages of the New York Times and from those who depicted him with a mustache as “Adolf Giuliani.” As far as the homeless sleeping on the streets, Giuliani didn’t utterly eliminate the problem, but massively turned it around and pushed back against the mindset of the “homeless advocates” who would spend their time litigating for the right of the homeless to camp out in various locations in the city. (It’s a sad statement when one’s “advocates” devote their energies to helping you sleep on the street; perhaps a signal that it’s time to make new friends.)
So, what would have happened had Mayor Bloomberg followed Mayor Giuliani’s model and prevented the encampment from taking root in the first place? Well, he would doubtless have gotten torn apart in the New York Times editorial pages as Rudy always did, and no doubt there would have been a few “Adolf Bloomberg” banners made up, and there would have been much gnashing and weeping and litigating—as there will be now anyway.
However, I think a more telling question is not what would have happened, but what would not have happened, had Mayor Bloomberg offered zero tolerance towards the anarchical tent-city that has blighted the neighborhood around Broadway and Wall Street for the past two months. What would not have happened includes rapes; groping and other sexual assaults; conventional assaults; robberies: these all being crimes which have been committed against the protesters themselves (and by the protesters themselves, as the case may be). Mayor Bloomberg would not have gotten credit from the New York Times for preventing such crimes from occurring in the first place by eliminating the conditions that made them all too easy to commit, no more than Mayor Giuliani got credit for the thousands of lives saved by his policing strategies which slashed the murder rate by more than 60% from 1993 to 2001. However, knowing you’re not going to be given credit by editorial writers is not a good justification for inaction. The victims of these crimes—foolish though they undoubtedly were to be there in the first place—will carry the consequences around with them for a long time to come.
The entire episode has been a lesson in the dark side of human nature. Hopefully at least some have learned good lessons at a price that wasn’t too high. For his part, Mayor Bloomberg has little excuse for not having learned those lessons a long time ago.