Selective Outrage: A Response to an Activist’s Criticism of Local Politicians’ Global Stands

Selective Outrage: A Response to an Activist’s Criticism of Local Politicians’ Global Stands

Selective Outrage: A Response to an Activist’s Criticism of Local Politicians’ Global Stands
July 16, 2014

In an op-ed published yesterday by City & State, Linda Sarsour, an activist who heads the Arab American Association of New York, took issue with the participation of a number of councilmembers in a pro-Israel press conference in front of City Hall. The press conference was sponsored by a consortium of local Jewish groups, and was not an official Council event, despite what some reports have implied.

Linda Sarsour somewhat disingenuously asks why politicians “who are committed to work on domestic issues that impact their respective districts” are wasting their time on an international issue.  “The state Legislature, the New York City Council and Mayor de Blasio all have no influence whatsoever on the Middle East,” she writes.  “Their words mean absolutely nothing.”

Sarsour is quite correct that these local politicians have no influence beyond their own limited jurisdictions, bu as any casual observer of city politics knows, that lack of influence has never stopped them from grandstanding before. Councilmembers and other officials are constantly speaking up about and weighing in on issues that have nothing to do with the municipal matters they were elected to tackle.

For example, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito issued a press release yesterday concerning the arrest of the journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. Vargas, a Philippine citizen who has been unlawfully residing in the United States since childhood, was detained in Texas when he tried to board a plane with an expired passport. The Speaker “urge[d] federal officials in Texas to use prosecutorial discretion and release Jose.” Will the federal officials be swayed by Mark-Viverito’s press release? Probably not. But issuing these kinds of statements is the
sort of thing local politicians do all the time.

In April, to cite an especially egregious instance, Councilman Ruben Wills, during a stated hearing of the Council, asked for a “moment of outrage” in reaction to racist comments that the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team made to his girlfriend. Wills, who was arrested the following week on corruption charges, asked for and received the Speaker’s permission to have the Council stand in silence to express its “repugnance” over Donald Sterling’s remarks. “We need to do something,” said Wills, “as a body.” Clearly the Council has no influence over the NBA, but who would argue that this moment of outrage, while feckless, was out of the ordinary?

In May a number of councilmembers and other elected officials, led by Women’s Issues Chair Laurie Cumbo, held a rally on the steps of City Hall to protest the abduction of Nigerian girls by the terrorist organization Boko Haram. “We stand in solidarity as a legislative body, calling for the safe return of these young ladies,” said Cumbo. Again, it is hard to imagine the Council’s indignation having much impact on the despicable tactics of Boko Haram, but it is unreasonable to condemn the councilmembers for making a statement.

These are but three recent happenings or statements that were more or less reflections of official Council positions, unlike the pro-Israel press conference, which was merely attended by some officials. These kinds of extramural activities—proclamations or appearances that do not directly pertain to local government—are extremely common and historically part and parcel of the Council’s work.

Indeed, one suspects that Linda Sarsour is actually not so much bothered by the violation of the principle that politicians should stick to their municipal knitting, as she is by the pro-Israel position that the press conference took. Sarsour asks, “Rather than holding a ‘New York Stands for Israel’ press conference, why not convene a ‘New York Stands for Justice and Peace’ rally?” That’s like asking why you don’t invite everyone to your birthday party. Linda Sarsour leads a prominent organization that is at liberty to organize a “Justice and Peace” or “Freedom for Gaza” presser, or whatever she likes, and she can probably find a few supportive councilmembers to join her at City Hall when she holds it.

New York City councilmembers are certainly guilty of grandstanding and making absurd speeches that have no impact on anything. But if you are going to criticize them for doing it, you can’t pick and choose the times that annoy you in particular.



Seth Barron (@NYCCouncilWatch on Twitter) runs City Council Watch, an investigative website focusing on local New York City politics.

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Seth Barron