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Michael Bloomberg’s Polite Authoritarianism

He never hid his callous indifference to civil liberties; too many people just didn't care.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Over the course of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, the New York Police Department arrested nearly 2,000 people at protests. The mass arrests were indiscriminate. Bystanders and journalists were among those hauled to a filthy bus depot terminal that served as a makeshift holding pen.

Hundreds of people were charged with minor crimes so that they could be kept in jail for the duration of the convention. A judge held the city in contempt of court for failing to abide by a state policy that gives people in jail the right to see a judge or be released within 24 hours. And the city lied about how long it took to process the fingerprints of its detainees. In the end, no serious charges were brought against anyone, because the entire point was to keep people off the streets while Bush and his friends enjoyed their parties, and to dissuade others from attempting any further disruption.

Even then, it was clear that the arrests were illegal. They were, as the civil rights attorney Norman Siegel put it at the time, “preventative detention.” The cops knew it, the city’s lawyers knew it even as they denied it, and the mayor knew it. I remember all this because I was there. I probably avoided arrest out of happenstance more than anything else. But most of the people who would go on to elect Michael Bloomberg to another two terms as mayor of New York City have probably forgotten the entire episode, because, like the mayor, they never really cared.

It took 10 years for the city to settle what the New York Civil Liberties Union described as “the largest protest settlement in history.” Bloomberg had been out of office for a few weeks when the settlement was announced. In his final term, he had used similar tactics against Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy and the 2004 RNC were special events, which, to Bloomberg and his defenders, justified the bulldozing of civil liberties. But his entire mayoralty was defined less by these mass displays of authoritarian force than by the everyday abuses his police committed against millions of New Yorkers of color as part of his police department’s stop-and-frisk policy. The NYCLU reports that the NYPD made more than five million “stops” during Bloomberg’s 12 years in office. The overwhelming majority of those targeted were black or Latino.

When a federal judge finally ruled the NYPD’s tactics unconstitutional, Bloomberg essentially threw a tantrum, accusing her of being anti-cop and insinuating that she would have blood on her hands once the murder rate crawled back up. (The bad old days will return if we ever take our foot off the necks of black New Yorkers is a common refrain in New York politics, and it’s one Bloomberg was happy to endorse while campaigning for his third term alongside his predecessor, one Rudy Giuliani.)

Bloomberg’s belief was not simply that poor neighborhoods needed more policing—a common enough opinion among politicians of all stripes—but that they needed a specific method of policing that is inherently invasive and indifferent to the rights of its targets. They needed to be targeted based on their race and humiliated.

Earlier this week, when audio resurfaced of Bloomberg defending racial profiling by police and lamenting that police “disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little,” his comments were treated as newly uncovered bombshells. But he said these things all the time—on the radio, on television, to newspaper reporters—for years.

Bloomberg said and did all these things because he is an authoritarian. He has explicitly argued that “our interpretation of the Constitution” will have to change to give citizens less privacy and the police more power to search and spy on them. In fact, he does not seem to believe that certain people have innate civil rights that the state must respect. If the NYPD wanted to spy on Muslims, even if they lived outside New York City, solely because of their religion or ethnicity, Michael Bloomberg thought it was a great idea. And as Jack Shafer recently pointed out, his dedication to ensuring submission began before he was an elected official—when he was the boss at a company notorious for its tyrannical treatment of employees.

Bloomberg’s three victorious mayoral election campaigns are depressing evidence that a substantial number of Americans are amenable to authoritarian politics and uninterested in protecting civil liberties. So long as the person overseeing the police state claimed to be surveilling people for their own good, it was easy to turn a blind eye, especially if the surveillance was concentrated in certain neighborhoods.

Today, Bloomberg remains popular among a certain class of journalist or media figure. The fact that they can dismiss the violation of the civil rights of literally millions of black New Yorkers in a single aside is depressing proof that they, too, are ultimately indifferent to the question of police power when applied to certain communities. Bloomberg’s authoritarianism, like his long history of sexist behavior, was a known fact long before he launched his presidential bid. While his defenders and voters spent the 2000s ignoring evidence of the latter, they often accepted the former; many even approved of it.

Bloomberg won in New York City with an electoral coalition of, more or less, all the different kinds of white people—wealthy, liberal, educated, uneducated, conservative—which is unlikely to be enough to propel him to victory in a general election in which, for the first time in his career, he would be running against a Republican. So Bloomberg has spent a lot of money (even though it’s only a small fraction of his enormous fortune) introducing himself to voters in places where they aren’t already familiar with his full record, and he has apologized for stop and frisk.

These apologies are dishonest and disingenuous. Michael Bloomberg is precisely the sort of person who should be kept out of power, in large part because so many Americans are comfortable with his genteel authoritarianism. Donald Trump understood the true purpose and meaning of stop and frisk, which he extolled to cops in 2018. It’s alarming to see Democrats considering nominating someone who expressed the same ideas in a calmer tone. Bloomberg’s presidential candidacy, now annoyingly relevant, will test whether liberals truly believe in civil rights for all Americans.