New York governor Andrew Cuomo reacted to last week’s calculated political violence on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with a typically scattershot blast of election-year bombast—ignoring the instigators of the incident while calling out the other side and then blaming it all on President Trump. Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson were equally skewed in their criticism. All three seemed to agree, though, that what happened was a Really Bad Thing.
As indeed it was: premeditated street brawling, long a harbinger of serious social disorder, had come to New York, and while it was quickly contained by the NYPD, it marked an escalation of the increasingly hard-left street theater that has plagued the city—often with the acquiescence of its elected leaders—in recent years.
Let’s be clear: the fighting last Friday night, October 12, around the Metropolitan Republican Club on East 83rd Street was not exactly Germany in the 1930s. Nor, in its scale and intensity, did it approach the periodic outbursts of violence that have plagued New York for more than three centuries. But it was ominous nevertheless, because—unlike street violence generated by the routine frictions or tragedies of urban life, such as the 1991 Crown Heights riots—it was meant solely to gain political advantage through intimidation. That’s rare in New York City.
The Metropolitan Club had booked Gavin McInnes, the leader of the right-wing—some would say white supremacist—group Proud Boys to speak. It clearly was the club’s right to do this, but it also was catnip to the bat-toting hard-left thugs known loosely as Antifa, who’ve been dogging political events in the city and elsewhere for some time. And Antifa rose to the bait. While it’s not entirely clear who did what to whom, police and media reports largely agree that the Met Club building was vandalized in the hours leading up to the McInnes speech and that a note left at the scene threatened further violence. Sure enough, Proud Boys members leaving the club were ambushed and robbed. The attack set off retaliatory violence, and a donnybrook ensued, followed by a number of arrests. Police say several more are pending. Street fights are hard to sort out on the spot, and it remains to be seen how blame for this one is apportioned as the arrests work their way through the courts.
Sad to say, New York’s political class reacted in all-too-familiar knee-jerk as fashion. Again, one need not approve of the Proud Boys or its agenda to agree that the Met Club had the right to invite McInnes to speak, and that he had the right to accept. He may indeed be a “provocateur,” as he has been described, but the First Amendment is meant to accommodate provocation. In that sense, both McInnes and the Met Club were the victims here, and this should have been acknowledged.
De Blasio and Johnson issued pure-vanilla denunciations of violence, implying it was the Proud Boys’ fault but without mentioning who started it, or why. Cuomo was blunter. “Once you unleash hate and division and you demonize differences, you lose control of it,” he said of the Met Club, McInnes, and McInnes’s organization. “You can’t target it. It’s lighting a match in a field of dry grass. The wind takes it and it just takes off.” Cuomo also said: “The bottom line is that I hold the president responsible.”
That’s an extraordinary extrapolation, but one entirely within character for Cuomo. He is, after all, the fellow who once asked who were “these extreme conservatives, who are right-to-life, pro-assault weapon, anti-gay? They have no place in the state of New York!”
Cuomo needs to take a break from election-year demonizing to reflect on his responsibilities here. If he’s truly worried about the dangers of “lighting a match in a field of dry grass,” he should mind his own reckless rhetoric, which is unworthy of a governor.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images