August 4, 2014

Is Change From Within Possible?

In his typically interesting online column today, Len Levitt takes a look at Mayor de Blasio's round-table discussion last week which included participants Al Sharpton, Bill Bratton, and others. Levitt points out that de Blasio sat Sharpton to his immediate left and Bratton on his right, with various mayoral aides and others sitting further away. Symbolically, Levitt notes, the Mayor was presenting Sharpton as Bratton's equal, and greater in importance than the rest of the staffers. So de Blasio was wholly unprepared when Sharpton turned his guns on the administration.

The story takes me back to an old debate that's been raging on the left for generations. That is, can the left better effect change from outside the power structure, or must they work to obtain power and the implement change from inside. While I read Levitt's piece as being an attack on de Blasio's political naivete with respect to Sharpton, and his need to wise up and wise up fast, it suggested to me that de Blasio is struggling with the idea of actually being in charge.

That is to say, for those on the left, targeting the police for abusive or corrupt behavior is easy stuff. De Blasio adeptly outflanked his opponents during the mayoral campaign, outlining his commitment to reforming NYPD policies, ending long-running litigation over bad prosecutions and the Stop and Frisk policy, and so forth. That's all well and good, and enough of the the electorate liked what they heard to put Bill in office.

But now what? Institutions like the NYPD are deeply entrenched and not easily altered in any meaningful way. Moreover, at its core, the police force is an inherently conservative arm of government whose crime fighting agenda places it on a collision course with poorer neighborhoods where a disproportionate share of street crime occurs. While it may be possible to smooth out some of the rough edges in the relationship, nothing that any mayor does can fundamentally change the nature of a police department or the dynamic of its relationship with the people it polices.

Unlike last year, when he could lob critical grenades, de Blasio now has to defend what is essentially the same force engaged in much of the same conduct. Having moved from the role of loyal opposition to the seat of power, de Blasio is now responsible for administering the same departments, policies, and bureaucratic machine he had attacked.

When the Mayor had his gathering to discuss the killing of Eric Garner, he seated Sharpton in the public position of right hand man, suggesting that he and Al were in this together, that they were on the same side working towards a shared goal. But Sharpton is far too savvy to be so easily co-opted. Knowing that Bill needs him far more than he needs the administration, Sharpton made clear that he spoke for the opposition, that he would agitate against the status quo, the same status quo that Bill de Blasio now represents. This leaves the Mayor in a tough spot. He cannot side with Sharpton in a battle against City Hall. Yet, he cannot afford to antagonize the Reverend.

All in all, de Blasio's predicament illustrates precisely why structural change from the inside is a political pipe dream. This is not to poo-poo those decisions Blasio has been able to ram through. But it is a reminder that it's hard to fight the man when you are the man.

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