Meet the Liberals, Part One: Melissa Mark Viverito
“When you smell something, you have to report it.”
The only time I was lucky enough to meet Melissa Mark Viverito, I was working with a Puerto Rican theater group that was presenting an outdoor production in a vacant lot in El Barrio. Since Mark Viverito was the city council member for the area, she was there to make a little dedicatory speech (which she made in English) praising the theater company for everything they had done for the community. Before the whole thing got started, I was helping to unload the equipment from the company’s van—microphones, speakers, lines, and a set made up of long pipes and tubes. Melissa was sort of standing around the gate, looking a little bit uncomfortable at the physical work that was going on in front of her, as well as just out of place, like maybe she didn’t know anybody in the neighborhood.
When we were done, I went and stood there as well, just to look up and down the street and get some air. I didn’t know who Melissa Mark Viverito was, until she was introduced later and made her little speech in English. Anyway, we were both standing there, and this guy comes walking up in bad shape. I saw him from the corner, weaving a little bit while he walked. He had dark skin, and some kind of a West Indian accent, and he had obviously just shot heroine. He came up to me and asked me something, but I couldn’t really make out what it was, he was barely able to talk. I told him I didn’t understand, and he just shrugged and walked away. That’s when I turned and looked at his representative on the City Council.
Anyone who understood anything about history, anything about social realities, colonialism, imperialism, racism, slavery, oppression, anything about life, someone with the wisdom and insight of, say, my four year old daughter, would have felt sorry for this guy, and angry about the conditions that had him in that condition. Melissa, on the other hand, was looking after him with utter disgust. And then, mistaking me for one of her gentrifier constituents, she even gave me a look of solidarity, as if to say, what was this appalling piece of human filth doing stumbling along the street into our “changing” neighborhood? Where are the police? Where is sanitation?
Boy, Melissa got my attention that day. Especially when I turned immediately to one of the musicians and started speaking to him in Spanish, and she shuffled away from me, embarrassed, like, “Oh, shit, I put on the wrong act for this guy.” I listened to her speech and her perfectly groomed accent in English (the kind of accent that super elite latin americans tend to pick up at prep schools) and I said, this woman is no friend of the people. And she didn’t disappoint me. If you take it as a starting point that gentrification and displacement are an evil to be combatted, you don’t exactly have to “dig up” the dirt on Melissa Mark Viverito.
Can’t we all Just Get Along?
That’s what liberals want to know, and they seem to think that if we can’t there’s something the matter with whoever is upset. Real wages are dropping and profits are soaring, but liberals want workers to be quiet and go to work and do their jobs and vote democrat, and corporations will agree to be more generous (Why would corporations do that unless workers force them to?).
Millions of migrant workers have been forced out of their own countries by free trade agreements that give every advantage to US corporations, and liberals want migrants to stay where they are and they want corporations to provide more and better paying jobs in the US. (Why would immigrants or corporations act like that?)
Whole communities of working people of color are being pushed out of the neighborhoods whose value was only maintained by their work over decades, and liberals want to fix it with a “housing plan” that’s based on the same market that pushed people out to begin with. (How would the market stop gentrification and displacement?)
And, especially significant to this article, a building explodes while Con Ed’s average annual profit is four billion dollars, and they want people to just pay their electric bills and call when they smell gas, and Con Ed to voluntarily spend the money to upgrade their infrastructure for the good of their customers (why would Con Ed do that?)
Liberals don’t seem to understand basic civics or basic economics—or else they understand perfectly well and they just want us to shut up so they can get rich. They say things like, a little bit of capitalism is good, but a lot isn’t; anybody who says something like that obviously hasn’t thought about what happens when you follow your argument through to its end; or else, what they really want is a lot of capitalism, but they still want working people to vote for them. That makes sense, when you look at the way they all end up rich after they leave office; rich or in jail. They talk like the friends of the people but these guys are all either on the take or on the make, it’s come a long way from when the ultimate liberal, Robespierre, was called “the incorruptible”; Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Elliot Spitzer, Miguel Martinez, Charles Rangel, don’t leave out Leonel Fernandez, these people are a bunch of thieves and worse.
If you look at what she says, Melissa is a little hard to understand. When Occupy Wall Street was going on, she went around with a shirt saying 99%; but she inherited somewhere between one and a half and three million dollars from her father. She talks about affordable housing and “community”, but it turns out she’s a landlord herself, with rental properties in her own district and all over the place in Puerto Rico. She worked as an organizer for SEIU, but she has all kinds of capital invested.
I was also right in my guess about her perfectly pronounced English—she went to le Escuela San Jorge, in San Juan, one of the most prestigious private schools in Puerto Rico, and she grew up in El Condado, which is something like growing up on the Upper East Side, only anyone who has the money can move to the Upper East Side. Exactly which 99% she meant by the shirt, I’m not sure, maybe she meant that 99% of the wealth is controlled by the 1% of the population who are like her?
Now, liberals will tell you that it doesn’t matter where someone comes from, or how much money they have; if someone has the right values, they will help the people. Some leftists say the same thing about people like Lenin and Marx. We think that it’s usually more likely that rich people will look out for their own interests, and we’d better look out for ours. Melissa is a good example of a rich person looking out for her own interests. Somehow she managed to get a reputation as a progressive, just like our current mayor; maybe we should look at the record to see what progressive means to them.
First of all, in a district where just about every single resident rents their apartment, Melissa has taken thousands and thousands of dollars of campaign donations from landlords. That’s not surprising, since she’s a landlord herself. It’s also not surprising that, in the City Council, she has voted for proposals that drive working people out of their communities and let the gentrifiers in. First she voted for the Columbia University expansion, which will move Columbia further uptown, and help push the Dominican community out of Washington Heights. That vote was even uncomfortable for liberals—a lot of council members refused to vote because the vote was rushed onto the agenda weeks before it was scheduled. Even worse, the university got a court to give them the right to use eminent domain to force people to sell their property—in other words, Columbia University used the government’s power to take over a whole section of Harlem for the university’s own private interests.
Next, she voted for the “River to River” zoning proposal of that great friend of the people, Michael Bloomberg. This plan again used eminent domain; you remember eminent domain? We learned about it in high school, it’s supposed to be for when the government decides it needs to kick someone off of their land because a highway has to go through there. It’s supposed to mean that the government has the final decision about what to do with land when it involves public projects that are in the interests of the community. But in this case, and in the case of Columbia, the city has used eminent domain to force people out of their homes and businesses so that other, richer businesses could invest there. The River to River plan basically kicked out hundreds of tenants and 70 small businesses from 125th Street, forcing them to sell to developers who will be building luxury apartments and “affordable” housing that is beyond the means of anyone living in the neighborhood. They will also, of course, rent ground floor space to friendly small businesses like Gap and H and M, so that your dollars, instead of going back into your community, can contribute to fires, building collapses, and unbelievable exploitation in Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, and Thailand.
The fact is, we can’t all get along while one little group of people is getting rich off of everyone else’s work and one little group of countries is living the good life off of the work of the rest of the world. Liberals, if they want to make it look like the society they are running is working, wind up having to beat us down, lock us up, and keep enough of us out of work that we’re always afraid for our jobs. When DiBlasio says anything different, it’s the same as Melissa Mark Viverito wearing that 99% shirt—bullshit.
The reason that I thought about Melissa, and decided to write about her after all these years, was a moving and sensitive portrait of her that I recently read. When the building collapsed a few weeks ago, on 116th Street, the heart of her district and El Barrio, Melissa got directions on how to get up there and rushed uptown to be photographed at the scene, looking concerned. She was so concerned, in fact, about the 78 working people who were killed, hurt, or missing, that she turned to her aid and said, “I’m tired”. It’s a long drive up there, especially if you don’t know where you’re going. Anyone would be a little worn out.
But that isn’t what got me, although it might be reasonable to wonder how important Melissa’s being tired is in light of the tragedy she was witnessing. What stopped me cold was this quote:
“It’s hard, it’s hard. It’s not like you want to blame anybody, but you have to say, ‘Look, if you smell something, you’ve got to report it.’”
What the fuck kind of cold, narcissistic, unfeeling, out of touch person is this? It’s not the fault, Melissa, of the last mayor and his and your developer friends, who changed zoning so that developers could have their way with tenants and neighborhoods? It’s not the fault of Con Ed, or landlords, or city regulations, which manage to allow 30% of the gas in the city to travel through cast iron pipes, which they deem to be unsafe? It’s not the fault of landlords and capitalists of all kinds, who would rather leave those pipes in place than take a penny out of their profits? It’s not the fault of the system, that rewards the landlord who pinches those pennies and buys another building with them?
No. It’s the fault of some irresponsible working person, someone like you and me, who came home and probably smelled gas for the hundredth time in her apartment, or was to tired to bother smelling anything (obviously not as tired as Melissa who had to go through being driven all the way to El Barrio from her usual downton haunts), someone who may now be dead, or hurt, or maybe has lost some member of their family. You know something, Melissa, next time stay downtown with your liberal friends, because if you come up here it will smell so much of dead, rotten rat that we won’t be able to smell the gas to report it.
(Meet the Liberals is a feature that will appear occasionally in this blog, so we can get to know the nicer and more sympathetic of the people who exploit us)