By Arthur Z. Schwartz
It now seems like a long, long time ago, but it was only last June, after the horrific murder of George Floyd, that our city and over two-thirds of our country, was united around the cause of racial justice.
It began on May 31st, the day after the videos of the horrific events in Minneapolis were shown on the internet. Here in New York City, where we had been locked in our homes for over two months, afraid to even venture out to the store, tens of thousands marched about the events that had occurred and chanted “Black Lives Matter.” So many of us engaged in soul-searching. Schools and workplaces engaged in almost unprecedented reflection about racism and our roles in perpetuating it. After my 14 year-old daughter finished an online high school student meeting she came to dinner and asked me, “Do you know about white skin privilege?” When I replied that I was the attorney for Black Lives Matter she replied, “What does that prove?”
Those anguished weeks of protests, like Donald Trump, now seem like a long time ago. And, in fact, Donald Trump and the Republican Party rode the “white backlash” to a much closer election than anyone imagined.
Several times during the last few months the New York Times has written about the ebb and flow of white support for the fight for racial equality in the U.S. Apparently, based on data gathered since the 1960s, white support for the rights of Black Americans has always ebbed after gains have been made. White support of civil rights in the 1960s reached its peak in the early ‘60s after a decade of bus boycotts, freedom rides, and the huge “I Have a Dream” march led by Dr. King in 1964. Then Congress and President Johnson passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, barring discrimination in employment, housing, and education. 1965 saw the Voting Rights Act. Black Americans were poised to move forward. But once those rights were put on the books there was a backlash, a backlash that led to Richard Nixon’s “silent majority—law and order” win in 1968, and a decline in public support for equality.
Skip forward to 2008: Barack Obama was elected president. He was a brilliant, eloquent man. Almost 50 percent of white voters voted for him. The U.S. seemed on the verge of a new dawn. I remember sitting in Trinity Church on lower Broadway, with a packed house, watching the inauguration on the screen. But by the summer of 2009 we saw the birth of the Tea Party, organized solely around white working-class Americans’ distress over having a Black president. By 2012, when Obama won again, 55 percent of white people voted for Mitt Romney. That race-based movement, built on fear of Black, and now Hispanic, Americans, continued to grow. In 2016 it coalesced around the most despicable person ever elected to any office, much less president. And he rode that movement for four years, even after the death of Floyd (an event which he acknowledged as a tragedy for 10 minutes), and then used it to coalesce white working-class Americans.
In the February 21st New York Times Sunday Review there was an article titled, “The Real Story of the Draft Riots.” I remembered something from high school about those riots, but the story left me wincing. In 1863 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, banning slavery. The Civil War then intensified. The U.S. enacted its first military draft, which, of course, focused mainly on white working-class people. Folks didn’t want to put their lives on the line involuntarily, and in July 1863 NYC erupted in five days of rioting. The wrath of the rioters was turned on Black New Yorkers. I did some historical research, and read story after story that made my few hairs curl. Even here in Greenwich Village there were shameful incidents.
At 6:00 p.m. on the hot evening of July 13, 1863, William Jones, an African-American cartman, left his Clarkson Street home to buy a loaf of bread. He probably didn’t know that a vicious mob had begun a five-day rampage. No CNN, no radio. And Jones was right in their path. The rioters were mostly working-class Irish immigrants. They were angry about a federal draft law that conscripted poor men while allowing their wealthier counterparts to buy their way out of the army. And they feared that newly freed Blacks who had come to New York would take their jobs. That morning, after destroying a draft office at Third Avenue and 47th Street, crowds of rioters dispersed around Manhattan. They burned the homes of draft supporters, destroyed train tracks, beat wealthy residents, torched and looted the Brooks Brothers store, and attacked police and soldiers. But their rage was directed especially toward Black New Yorkers; they set fire to the Colored Orphan Asylum on Eighth Avenue and 44th Street, killed a black coachman on West 27th Street, and chased three black men who happened to be walking down Varick Street. Those three got away. That’s when the mob targeted Jones. A book titled The Draft Riots in New York, July, 1863: July, 1863. The Metropolitan Police, Their Service During the Riot Week (available at archive.org/details/draftriotsinnew01barngoog/page/n5/mode/2up ) cites: “A crowd of rioters on Clarkson Street…met an inoffensive colored man returning from a bakery with a loaf of bread under his arm. They instantly set upon and beat him, and after nearly killing him, hung him to a lamp-post. His body was left suspended for several hours. A fire was made underneath him, and he was literally roasted as he hung, the mob reveling in their demonic act.” Yes, right on Clarkson Street.
The book reports incident after incident of thousands of Black New Yorkers, living as freemen in Lower Manhattan, being hung, burned, clubbed, drowned, and brutalized, with their homes and businesses ransacked. No one knows how many were killed but the estimates run close to 1,000. Most of the Black population of Lower Manhattan left, never to return.
Why tell this story? I decided to run for city council because of the events around George Floyd’s death, and my belief that in the COVID and post-COVID era few in current government leadership positions really have a plan to address the racial and ethnic disparities in New York. We still carry around the scars of slavery, and Black people still suffer the consequences of racism, even subtle racism, that exist everywhere.
My daughter was right. I have been endorsed by Black Lives Matter. I have been endorsed by the Black Leadership Action Coalition. But what matters is what I do. Because the events of May and June 2020 are fading, and there is, even among us liberal-minded white-folks, a subtle resistance to changes that address inequality in the school system, in hiring, and in our police force—that will address the fact that Black New Yorkers see the NYPD as an occupying force—does not mean that I can push the question of racial injustice out of the forefront of my campaign.
In the last census, Community Board 2 was 94 percent white and four percent Asian. That is shameful. It is an issue WE need to address. We live in a wonderful community—except that Black and Hispanic folks just don’t seem to be welcome. This issue must be addressed. And it will be at the center of my service when I win. I have proposed a $10 billion capital plan to build truly affordable housing (affordable by nurses, hospital workers, subway workers, and store workers). I have proposed a massive shift of billions of dollars from the NYPD to the school system. I support the proposal to create a Public Housing Preservation Trust to fund the rebuilding of NYCHA housing by the government, not private developers. And I support making cops accountable to an elected Public Review Board. These are bold, but needed, ideas which my soul will compel me to pursue.
Arthur Z. Schwartz is the Democratic District Leader for Greenwich Village and a candidate for city council in Council District 3, which runs from Canal Street to Columbus Circle. See www.arthurfornyc.com.