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Thugs in Blue

THE BEAT GOES ON … AND ON
Once Again, Police Pummel a Plan for Reform

Last Wednesday, an enormous mob surged out of control, menaced citizens, pushed through police lines onto city hall steps, and blocked traffic on Broadway and the Brooklyn Bridge. But uniformed cops stood by, smiling—for the maraud­ers were fellow cops, thousands of them. Yelling profanities and racist slurs, they rocked and dented cars; some kicked a New York Times reporter in the stomach, others chanted “asshole, asshole” at a be­wildered photographer and at stalled driv­ers who talked with journalists. One such driver, Virginia Santana, was near tears at the blockade; she was trying to get her kid to the hospital for chemotherapy. Vicky Cohen, standing beside her car, was en­raged. “All they care about is them­selves,” she said. Two cops, looking like frat pranksters, shimmied up the bridge exit sign to suspend a banner declaring: “Support US in Blue not the ACLU.”

Over on Murray Street, Rudy Giuliani addressed another police crowd. “The New York Police Department is the very finest in the United States,” he declared, then went after David Dinkins for being anti-police. He criticized the idea of creat­ing an all-civilian complaint review board. “In the words of my good friend, Guy Molinari, BULLSHIT.” The crowd roared.

Next was introduced Molinari’s daugh­ter Susan, a congresswoman from Staten Island, a big police booster, and a single woman. “Homo,” yelled one cop.

Over at city hall, chief David Scott had tried to urge the cops to clear out, since they had no permit to be there. He was met by a sea of flying middle fingers. “Retire! Retire!” chanted the crowd, many of whom were openly drinking alcohol.

This week, New York City launched yet another effort to bridge the precipitous gap between police and public with a proposal for a new, fully independent Civilian Com­plaint Review Board. Police replied with a Bronx cheer, turning out for one of their largest protests in years. Doubtless tons of time, money, and ink will be devoted to the slugfest, and it’ll be tough to beat the pow­erful Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which has already launched a radio blitz targeting the mayor.

The argument for an all-civilian CCRB is politically sexy; it sounds like a good anti­dote to reams of stories of police abuse. But a closer look suggests the proposal on the table is well-meaning but inadequate—for instance, it still leaves the police commis­sioner with the power to decide what, if any, discipline out-of-control cops should get.

Indeed, some reformers doubt that this is even the right battle to wage. Brutality ex­perts warn that the most efficient and fair ex-post-facto investigations of errant cops won’t remedy a more deep-seated problem. To do that requires a fundamental recali­brating of the police department: how it chooses officers, trains them, and what it tells them about their responsibility to the public.

Best solution or not, the CCRB proposal got new life after policeman Michael O’Keefe killed Jose Garcia in Washington Heights last July. Although a grand jury cleared O’Keefe and concluded he acted in self-defense, Garcia’s death galvanized the Latino community, which often finds itself on the business end of a nightstick. But it’s not just minorities who feel the police oper­ate with impunity—as Jeffrey Wassen and Jeffrey Bergida found out.

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CHELSEA: THE JEWS

It was 1:50 a.m. on December 20, 1989, when Jeffrey Wassen’s car hit a taxi near 23rd Street and 8th Avenue; he and his passenger, Jeffrey Bergida, suffered head injuries. Police officers Steven Cruz and Timothy Vandenberg arrived on the scene and asked Wassen if he’d been drinking. Wassen replied that he wanted the advice of Bergida, his friend and lawyer.

That’s when the officers got nasty, ac­cording to a sworn deposition from Dean Burney, the emergency medical technician on the scene. Besides arresting Bergida for interference, they disparaged “Jew law­yers” (Bergida wore a chai) and repeatedly declared, “Maybe Hitler was right after all.” They also taunted: “I don’t think much of Jewish men, but I like Jewish women, they take it up the ass real good,” and “This is what happens when Jews have too much money and they don’t know what to do with it.” They called the two men “fag” and “Jew fag.” Later, when Bergida’s head had been bandaged, officers joked that with the red hospital markings, Ber­gida looked like a character from the TV series Alien Nation.

That episode was kids’ stuff compared with the pain of a fellow in Washington Square Park who was bitten in the testicles by a police dog. Or when cops doused an accused fare beater, Fernando Huerta, with ammonia—then held a lit match close to his head.

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JUST ANOTHER STATISTIC

No one would dispute that policing is a stressful, dangerous profession or that good cops deserve esteem. But with the power, the gun, and the nightstick goes a heavy responsibility which is too often shunted, and when it comes to malevolent, dis­turbed, or violent cops. New York City has a case of terminal denial. Virtually no poli­tician or powerful figure will publicly acknowledge what many privately maintain: that police brutality and abuse in New York City are much more than a blip on an otherwise placid screen.

“The police are given incredible leeway to do whatever they want when faced with a street encounter,” says Legal Aid attorney Scott Ciment. “There is absolutely no gov­ernment oversight to rein in police abuse.” For Ciment and his colleagues, brutality is common as potholes.

Nobody actually knows how many people are threatened, insulted, intimidated, or groundlessly whacked by cops every day. That’s because the system designed to track brutality is hobbled by fear, disillusion­ment, and the self-interest of the data col­lectors. Oddly, in a field in which statistics are churned out like buttermilk, the NYPD won’t release figures for the number of offi­cers disciplined for brutality, the number dismissed, or even which precinct has the most repeat offenders.

All we have to go on are the figures recorded by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which is staffed entirely by Police Department employees: From January to June of this year, 1854 complaints were filed, surpassing the number filed during that time last year, 1557. Since 1987, the numbers have generally declined, which the New York Civil Liberties Union says does not necessarily mean there’s less police abuse; just that fewer people are filing complaints.

James Fyfe, a noted criminologist and former NYC cop, says no matter how thoroughly most citizens’ complaints are in­vestigated, the majority are fated to be found unsubstantiated. The reason: They come down to swearing contests between cops and citizens. Of all complaints received in New York, only 3 percent are substantiated, far lower than other cities.

As Koch did before him, Dinkins down­plays the possibility of a systemic problem; Lee Brown, by many standards a progres­sive cop, did too. However, with more offi­cers than any other city, New York is unique: Even if 90 percent of the local cops did not engage in misconduct, that would still leave a staggering 3000 abusive cops. That group alone would constitute one of the largest police forces in America. And specialists say 10 percent is a conservative guess.

Polls may be a more accurate measure of the scope of the problem: In 1991, Gallup found that 43 percent of New Yorkers think the police department uses too much force, a big jump from the 29 percent who said so in 1989. Even the tepid CCRB, in a 1990 report, worried: “If the willingness to resort to unwarranted violence demonstrat­ed at Tompkins Square … is a reflection of the altitudes of the members of the police service, there is reason for concern about what is occurring when police supervisors, journalists, and other citizens are not present.”

Public attitudes sometimes exacerbate the problem. “A lot of people in this city believe cops should be able to kick a little ass,” says Dan Johnston, an attorney and ex-CCRB member. “I believe it’s very harmful to the city and to public safety for the police to treat people in a way [that] they lose respect for the law. But many believe the way to police is by fear.”

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QUEENS: THE POLE 

“Why they attacked these kids I don’t know,” says Joseph Karpinski, whose son spent his 18th birthday being beaten by city police. Karpinski makes an interesting ag­grieved party, since he’s a retired NYC cop.

On the night of February 22, 1989, Abi­gail Mullins happened to glance out her window as she waited for her daughter to come home. Just then, she saw a small group of teens standing in front of her house. One reached to light a cigarette for another, and missed. Both friends fell. Their companions were reaching to pull them out of this Keystone Kops predica­ment when a sedan squealed around the corner, nearly hitting the youths. Then, says Mullins, the car’s two occupants attacked the youths. Immediately, a different car ar­rived from the opposite direction, and its occupants, too, ran over and began beating the group. Mullins didn’t realize the at­tackers were police—in fact she thought she was witnessing a mugging—and called 911.

One of the four, a young woman, screamed, and an officer grabbed her, an­other grabbed her boyfriend, a third grabbed Chris Karpinski, and a fourth knocked down Steve Devaney. The young woman says she and her boyfriend spotted a shield around one man’s neck, and, real­izing they were police, stopped struggling. The officers warned them away—”get outta here”—and concentrated on Karpinski and Devaney. Another witness says that after the plainclothes officers had pummeled Karpinski, they threw him on a car, and he rolled over unconscious. While his body lay on the ground, the witness says, a uni­formed cop arrived and started kicking him. They also smacked the youths with their flashlights and radios. Chris lost one tooth; two to three others were cracked, and his face was seriously lacerated above his eye. He now suffers from severe jaw problems. (His father took snapshots; the offi­cial photos, according to the family, disappeared.)

The incident set off a domino chain of litigation; ultimately, criminal charges against Karpinski were thrown out and civ­il suits on both sides dropped. As for the CCRB, it decided there was no evidence to warrant disciplining the officers. Yet, since a judge decided Karpinski hadn’t prompted the attack by assaulting cops, as police al­leged, who was responsible for his injuries seen in the photographs?

In suing the cops, the Karpinskis were hardly alone. A report by Comptroller Eliz­abeth Holtzman shows that in 1991, 659 people filed civil actions against the cops for misconduct, a 25 percent increase from four years earlier. During that time, the city paid out $44 million to victims of police brutality.

Faced now with mounting demand that something be done, the city council last Thursday began discussing a bill to grant independence to the NYPD-controlled Ci­vilian Complaint Review Board, in hopes it will more aggressively investigate police abuses. An angry Mayor Dinkins, still reel­ing from the cop “Mutiny” the day before, reasserted his strong support for Intro 549, sponsored by Ronnie Eldridge, Virginia Fields, and Victor Robles, along with 15 cosponsors, and endorsed by 17 communi­ty boards.

Although revamping the CCRB to give it real power would be a step toward restoring some public confidence, it won’t even begin to address the underlying issues. Councilmember Sal Albanese of Brooklyn who, perhaps more than any other council mem­ber, knows police issues, calls it “a red herring. It doesn’t address the real issues.” The department, he feels, must require that cops be city residents, do better training, and upgrade detection systems to get rid of bad cops early on.

“The screening mechanism is not good enough, there are some white cops who never came into contact with the minority commu­nity before enlisting,” Albanese says.

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THE BOYS DOWN AT THE PBA

Nobody is more attentive to the police bru­tality debate—and no one takes it more personally—than the PBA, which stands ready to battle any reform.

“I want to welcome you to Fort Scape­goat,” PBA president Phil Caruso told a crowd of cops demonstrating in Brooklyn against “unfair treatment of police offi­cers.” Caruso is the Mary Matalin of police reps—always on the offensive for his mem­bers. Caruso groused: “There’s a pattern emerging in this city where the police offi­cers are getting scapegoated and the crimi­nals are getting royal treatment.”

Not so, says Dan Johnston, the ex-­CCRBer. Reviewing complaints was like listening to a broken record: Time and again, police had overreacted when a citi­zen challenged their authority. Johnston re­calls: “They would allow things to escalate instead of trying to keep the peace.”

That habitual overreaction may be in part because officers are so disconnected from the city and people they guard. After the Tompkins Square melee in 1988 in which police pummeled scores, Police Commissioner Ben Ward complained that many of the demonstrators at Tompkins Square were from outside the city—but so were the police. In fact, 40 percent of NYC cops live outside the city, and many others live in “cop neighborhoods” in Staten Is­land and other outer boroughs, often with­drawing into all-cop social lives that only emphasize the “us-versus-them” mentality.

PBA spokesman Joseph Mancini dis­agrees: “Most cops still live in the city. Even those who live outside the city were born here. Once they started earning decent incomes and raising families, they decided they wanted to be in a suburban setting. It doesn’t make them less committed to the city.”

But it’s indisputable that city cops suffer culture shock when they go from their ho­mogenous communities into unfamiliar ter­ritory. Fyfe, the former NYPD officer, grew up in “lily white” Bay Ridge, then found himself plopped into downtown Brooklyn, with its heavy concentration of blacks and Latinos. Fyfe might as well have been in Kathmandu. He learned how to deal with these cultures, but too late: “For a Hispanic man, looking an authority figure in the eye is a sign of disrespect,” he says. “For an Anglo, it’s the opposite. So I’d get angry at a Puerto Rican guy who didn’t look me in the eye, and start yelling at him.” And, too often, from small misunderstandings come larger consequences.

For cops, racial and ethnic strife begin at home—right inside the precinct house. The heads of the black and Latino officers’ asso­ciations say that intolerance permeates the department. “If you expect police to be equitable with people on the street, you won’t get it until they treat their own ranks properly,” says Detective Walter Alicea, head of the Hispanic Officers Association of the NYPD.

Detective Robert Rivers Jr., president of the Guardians Association, the black offi­cers’ group, has had his own brushes with the issue, outside of work. Once when off duty, he tried to speak with a uniformed officer. “I called out and he immediately reached for his gun. What did he see? A bald-headed black man.”

Margaret Fung of the Asian American Legal Defense Fund says her group has seen a large increase in abusive cops. Language is a key difficulty—many Asian immigrants can’t understand police orders and few offi­cers speak their languages. And though Asians make up 7 percent of the city’s population, they make up less than 1 percent of the police force.

Cyril Nishimoto of Japanese American Social Services was pleased when the Mid­town South precinct invited him to come in and offer some “Sensitivity Training.” But Nishimoto says he came away feeling angry because officers ignored his presentation, actually turning their backs on him as he spoke.

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MIDTOWN: THE ITALIAN

According to the CCRB, the most common complaints—40 percent of those regis­tered—concern excessive force, with “dis­courtesy” second at 30 percent. The re­maining complaints are classified as “abuse of authority” (20 percent of grievances), and “ethnic slurs” (5 percent to 8 percent).

Depending on how you look at it, Greg­ory Garguilo drove into at least two and maybe three of these categories as he head­ed home from his job as a parking atten­dant on March 28 of this year.

It was 1 a.m and Garguilo, 28, was sitting at a light on Tenth Avenue, his car pointed north, he recalls. Another sedan, crawling along 59th Street, turned south on Tenth. Then, suddenly, it screeched a U and roared up behind the bewildered Garguilo. Mysterious men came running at his car, one with a gun drawn, yelling “get the fuck out of the car.” Garguilo recalls. The terri­fied Garguilo immediately complied. The men, who still had not identified them­selves, demanded, “Where the fuck did you steal the car?” “Asshole” and “fuck” he says, were part of every sentence. “They were very angry. I kept saying I was the owner. The one holding the gun said if I opened my mouth again he was going to bash it in.”

Garguilo says the plainclothes cops false­ly accused him of running a red light, and he mentioned so in the complaint he filed at the police station. Yet when a revised version of his report was mailed back to him, his claim had been deleted. Garguilo, a clean-cut, serious young man who drives into Manhattan every day from his home in Tappan (where many cops live), can only guess why the police even stopped him. “The cops had a hunch,” he says with a shrug, “and their adrenaline gets going.”

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SPARRING PARTNERS

When citizens complain about cops, PBA lawyers know how to counter. Legal Aid attorney Scott Ciment says when a citizen is charged with assaulting a police officer, its a good bet in many cases that police are covering up their own abuses. “Often as­sault will be the only charge,” Ciment says. “Why were they arrested in the first place? Not that many people go around assaulting cops.” Indeed, many people who have brought civil brutality suits say that when they filed a complaint, the police filed a cross suit, alleging assault. Attorneys famil­iar with such cases say the strategy is com­mon to defuse the original suit, hoping both parties will agree to drop charges.

Sometimes, cops move to protect them­selves well before anyone’s day in court. Another Legal Aid attorney, David Roun­tree, was at the Transit District 3 precinct last year, inside the subway station at 145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, waiting for a lineup. An officer brought in a hand­cuffed suspect with a badly bloodied face. Rountree alleges that the desk sergeant, who appeared to know the suspect, re­marked to him that he “must have fallen down the stairs.” The officers present chuckled. After they’d locked him up, the arresting officer came out, and, according to Rountree, the sergeant said, “What do you think you’re doing? I don’t think we can send that guy downtown looking like that.” Then, the EMS arrived and stitched him up.

On a separate occasion, Rountree repre­sented a man who’d been arrested with one or two vials of crack and a small amount of marijuana—misdemeanors—in Times Square. At his arraignment, the man—who had no prior arrests, lived with his parents and worked in a music instrument store—sported a classic shiner. When the judge inquired where it came from, Rountree ex­plained that his client had been thrown to the ground by a rookie officer and kicked in the face with a boot. The D.A. then inter­jected, in an on-the-record comment, that he had been prepared to charge the defen­dant with a noncriminal violation, but based on these allegations of police brutal­ity, he would not make that offer.

Ciment says the D.A. will interview someone who makes allegations of police brutality, but can turn those statements against the defendant at his trial. Further­more, he says that even if defendants are acquitted, confirming that they were indeed victims of brutality, the D.A. will frequent­ly drop all interest in the brutality charge.

Most people won’t sue. If they do any­thing, they will seek redress from the CCRB. But brutality cases slip through like fine grains in a large-bore sieve. Even in the coarsest, most publicized cases, the com­plainants are rarely satisfied. For the enor­mous number of people who feel they’ve been unjustly insulted, humiliated, slurred, intimidated, terrorized, beaten, etc., the bottom line is low indeed: almost no cop is ever meted “serious justice” when citizens charge them with abuse. (The police depart­ment’s Internal Affairs Division simply doesn’t deal with most abuse situations.) “Even when officers are found guilty of using excessive force,” Newsday found in 1991, “the penalty many receive is a one­-week suspension—the same punishment given to an officer who accepts two free doughnuts from a restaurant, wears a turtle­neck while in uniform, or is discourteous to a supervisor.”

Even in well-publicized, outrageous cases like Judith Regan’s, getting justice is not easy. In 1990, Regan, a pregnant Simon & Schuster editor, told officers to stop taunt­ing her cab driver. She was yanked from the vehicle, thrown against the side, hand­cuffed and taken to a police station. There, she was held—still manacled tightly—for five hours and barraged with threats and lewd and anti-Semitic remarks. Cops asked Regan, an Irish-Italian Catholic, what her name was. “Judith,” she replied. No, said a cop, “Jew bitch.” The rough treatment threatened Regan’s pregnancy; she suffered internal bleeding.

“The CCRB, which is one of the biggest jokes in the world, cleared them of any wrongdoing,” she recalls. The D.A.’s office wasn’t much better. “They have to get along with the police. It’s all political. They issued a press release saying basically that they did not have enough evidence to pros­ecute me so they were dropping the charges, implying that I must have done something wrong. The D.A. didn’t want to help me, they wanted me to go away.”

“I was a very bad example: a mother, in a nice outfit, in a nice job. They couldn’t call me a menace, or a drug addict.” Regan says she was harassed afterwards for a long time; a retired officer even called her husband, thinking he was an ex-husband, digging for dirt.

Regan sued, and the city recently paid her a six-figure amount in settlement. How­ever, not a single officer was publicly disciplined.

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CCRB: CIVILIAN COMPLAINT REJECTION BOARD?

Judith Regan’s “joke,” the Civilian Com­plaint Review Board, is made up of six civilians appointed by the mayor, and six NYPD civilian staffers. A majority of its investigators are uniformed cops. William Kuntz, a CCRB appointed member from 1987 until he resigned five months ago, found the coziness troubling. For example, he didn’t much like the board relying on legal opinions from NYPD attorneys, or its deference to the department.

The Tompkins Square report shows the rift between civilian and police members of the CCRB. “You should have seen the Tompkins Square report before I got my hands on it,” says Kuntz, now a Wall Street lawyer. “If I and some other civilian mem­bers of the board hadn’t been as forceful in putting out that what happened in Tomp­kins Square Park was disgraceful, it would have been very different.”

The most devastating evidence of CCRB’s failure came in a 1990 report on the Tompkins Square “Incident,” issued by the New York Civil Liberties Union. NYCLU reviewed the cases of several bystanders who were shown on videotape be­ing bludgeoned by police: fewer than one dozen were charged. but not one was convicted.

Of 143 allegations of abuse and brutality in the park. CCRB substantiated 29, but was unable to identify the cops involved. One reason: the NYPD refuses to take pro­file shots of its officers. After the Tompkins Square report came out, the CCRB recom­mended that the department snap full fron­tal, left and right profile shots of all officers. The NYPD, however, rejected the advice, arguing that the shots would essen­tially treat cops like criminals. (Another proposal, that I.D. numbers be painted on riot helmets, was accepted.)

Worse, though the board recommends, the police commissioner chooses the pun­ishment. Of 143 allegations, only one offi­cer received internal discipline by the de­partment of more than 30 days suspension. To boot, on that rare occasion when the CCRB dared whimper, the cops simply ignored it: Commissioner Ward let her off with a one-year suspension, instead of fir­ing her, as the board recommended. The board’s sleuths themselves leave something to be desired when it comes to investigating their buddies’ behavior. One Legal Aid at­torney recalls an interview between CCRB investigators and her client: “They sounded more like they were grilling a suspect than taking a report.”

Johnston, a former CCRB commissioner and ex-Des Moines district attorney now in private practice in Manhattan, agrees there’s a problem: “There’s nothing about being a street police officer that qualifies anyone to be an investigator.”

Under mounting pressure, the review board has begun to make wheezy, but slightly discernible adjustments. Only two months ago did it publish a brochure in Spanish. And members are for the first time starting to emerge from their cocoon to attend community board meetings.

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LIFE IN THE BLUE BUBBLE

Nothing moves a cop into high gear like a Code 1013 call, Officer Needs Assistance. But mutual support extends to what many call the Blue Wall of Silence, the unwilling­ness to rat on a fellow officer. Some equate it to the Mafia’s omerta, a blood oath.

Based on his trial experiences, attorney Meyerson breaks the bulk of officers into three groups: Those who don’t see what they see, others who tell a half-truth, and still others who outright lie about what they see. “Any police officer’s word is no more intrinsically credible than anybody else’s word,” says Meyerson. “Police officers will lie as readily as anybody else.”

“Coupled with the 10 percent of cops [who may be regularly abusive], you have an excruciatingly difficult problem that can’t be resolved by the most progressive police commissioner,” says Meyerson.

Cops are encouraged to see themselves as different from everyone else. “Because of the aura assigned to police officers by American society, officers have trouble un­derstanding police work is a job, not a way to spend an entire life,” says Guy Seymour, chief psychologist for the city of Atlanta, which is noted for its progressive policing. Seymour, an expert on police behavior, says cops often have trouble separating the rest of their existence from their work.

”People say, ‘I’m a police officer 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,'” notes Sey­mour. “But that’s not true, it’s just that society sees them that way. If we could get police to look at their work more dispas­sionately, the way a good carpenter looks at his handiwork, I think we’d have a lot few­er problems.”

Anger and aggression, which build when cops feel they’re not accorded all the re­spect they deserve, spill over from their work to their personal lives, spawning a pattern of divorce and domestic violence.

“It comes from being accustomed to having people do what you say, and living your life so that you always want to be in control,” Seymour says.

Interestingly, much of the aggression takes place after a suspect has been sub­dued, suggesting that cops are not trained to deal with the adrenaline rush that comes from the chase. Andrew Vachss, who had broad experience with police as chief of a maximum security institution for violent youth and as a probation officer, cites the Rodney King case, in which King was im­mobilized before cops beat him. Vachss says that whenever cops have a confronta­tion involving physical injury to either par­ty, cops are always treated for ‘trauma.’ “That’s an attempt to decompress them.”

Seymour believes police need to learn how to be negotiators and mediators—the opposite of the police academy, where the emphasis is on getting and maintaining control at all costs.

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PBA: POLICE BREASTBEATERS ALLIANCE?

Besides better training, Seymour says police need closer supervision—by bosses who are not their buddies. Supervisors and line cops are both members of the PBA, which vocif­erously opposes independent controls. PBA successfully waged a fear campaign in 1966 that transformed the newly created CCRB from an all-civilian to an all-cop board. David Garth, the consultant who co-chaired the pro-civilian side, recalls the onslaught.

“We had everybody from the entire es­tablishment, but it didn’t make much dif­ference,” he says. “We got killed.”

Attorney Meyerson, who handles police abuse cases, blames outfits like the PBA, and its head, Phil Caruso, for an ostrich act that debilitates New York. “The greatest disservice Caruso does is to his member­ship, because Phil Caruso should be talking about the investment of great deals of mon­ey into psych services in this department, into new recruitment structures, into early intervention and warning systems.”

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ROLE MODELS, NOT ROBOCOP

Solutions and reforms worth trying are in no short supply. To broaden the fairly nar­row, white, working-class base of the NYPD, Adam Walinsky, who served on the state’s Commission of Investigation, pro­poses funding college educations for those willing to commit to four years service as a cop. The goal: a more representative slice of the population, including people who don’t intend to stay on the force forever, and therefore view the job differently.

Alicea of the Hispanic officers associa­tion calls for more aggressive recruitment among Hispanics from within city limits and notes that the so-called recruitment unit has just one Latino doing outreach.

Since the late ’60s, when NYPD was a leader in developing risk management and stress reduction, the city has lagged badly. It might look to Atlanta’s computerized ‘early warning’ system, which ties in dispa­rate sources of information within the po­lice department—internal affairs records, personnel information and field perfor­mance reviews—to warn of officers headed for trouble.

As for diligently tracking complaints, Johnston believes the city ought to be de­veloping a comprehensive career path for civilian investigators that would cover all city agencies, not the limited number the current Department of Investigation over­sees. And he advocates using undercover monitors to help identify abusive officers.

That’s just a slice of the advice pie. But nothing changes unless it comes from on high. “Ultimately,” says Johnston, “the question is: Do you have the right chief, the right commissioner, the right mayor? If people feel the police are out of control, they must let the mayor know that’s going to be an issue in the election.” ❖

Research: Renuka Parthasarathi 

Categories
THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Will We Ever Learn the Truth About Iraqgate?

Whitewash

Thanks to this fall’s contentious election, the BNL court hearing for Atlanta banker Christopher Drogoul, and Congressman Henry Gonzalez’s lonely vigil in the well of the House of Representatives, the public got a peek at the sub-rosa realm of U.S. intelligence and the Bush administration’s clumsy cover-up of the multinational scheme to finance Iraq’s war machine.

But now the election is over and the media is poised to let George Bush grace­fully exit as the man who brought us more information on food labeling and fed starv­ing Somali children. The pace of reported lraqgate disclosures has slacked off, while the cover-up has only widened.

The biggest setback in the investigation came last week when Judge Frederick Lac­ey, who had been appointed by Attorney General Barr to investigate the scandal and was expected to call for a special prosecu­tor, instead issued a report calling the alle­gations “arrogant nonsense” and castigated the press for having raised them.

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Though the Clinton administration could help get the momentum back again, Lacey’s whitewash buys more time for the Bush crowd to cover its tracks. In fact, just two days after the election, counsel to the presi­dent C. Boyden Gray sent a memo instruct­ing executive branch staff that visitor and phone logs could be destroyed before the transition of power. Also covered, in the broad category of what he called “non-rec­ords” were notes on meetings. It is precise­ly these kinds of records that proved so invaluable during Watergate.

Justice, meanwhile, is trying to slam an­other door closed. When the news first broke that an Atlanta branch of the Italian state-owned bank Banca Nazionale del La­voro had used fraudulent loans to finance Saddam Hussein’s military buildup, Atlan­ta branch manager Christopher Drougul be­came the fall guy. That move seemed to backfire at first, as Drogoul’s attorney un­covered all sorts of information embarrass­ing to both Washington and Rome. But now Drogoul’s trial has been postponed and Justice has filed a new motion to use national security as a cover to prevent further embarrassing revelations.

Further, an even more blatant attempt to thwart public disclosure of the tangled Iraq­gate network is underway in Britain. Three executives of Matrix Churchill, a machine tool and die maker with ties to BNL that served as the chief procurer for Iraq’s buildup, were to go on trial for violating British export law. But that case, which promised to expose links between Ameri­can and British corporations arming Iraq, collapsed when it was revealed that the British government, like the Bush adminis­tration, knew about the sales all along — and even took moves to encourage them.

“There is great significance in the col­lapse of the case against Matrix Churchill because it was the key Iraqi company charged with nuclear and conventional weapons procurement,” says Marianne Ga­sior, a whistleblowing attorney, who went to Congress when she learned that her for­mer employer, Kennametal, was involved with the company. “By closing this door, by keeping evidence from Congress, the Brit­ish Parliament, and both nations’ legal sys­tems, other cases related to the U.S.­-U.K.-Iraqi link are shut down as well.” All these developments — Lacey’s report, the truncated case in Atlanta, and the col­lapse of the British customs case — mean the chances of unraveling Iraqgate have greatly diminished. What’s lost is not just the opportunity to right past wrongs. With­out a complete multilateral investigation of how these covert networks function, they remain in place and the pipeline will con­tinue to carry components of weapons of mass destruction to anyone with the cash to pay for them. Or in the case of Iraq, the credit to charge them.

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Banca Nazionale del Lavoro had been rocked by scandal before. In the ’70s, there was an exodus of top brass tied into the P2 Lodge, a clandestine group of corrupt busi­ness interests with far right-leanings. But that was at home. In Iraqgate, the scandal involved parties in several countries, and damage control had to happen in the U.S.

Dozens of Fortune 500 companies had huge letters of credit with BNL and big­-volume business with Iraq. There were Iraqi front companies in the U.S. set up to procure weapons and nuclear technology that were heavily tied into BNL, like the Matrix Churchill subsidiary in Ohio. Also implicated was a Turkish trading company and a Jordanian businessman, who was a good friend of King Hussein. The New York branch of the Yugoslavian bank LBS, where Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger was once a director, used BNL start-up capital and had provided a mortgage loan to a key figure in the scandal. And there was strong evidence that intelligence services in both the United Kingdom and the United States were fully aware of the Iraqi network all along.

So it was crucial not just to the Italians for the BNL central bank to be cast as an unwitting victim of a single yuppie loan officer from Atlanta.

What was supposed to be Drogoul’s sen­tencing hearing, however, turned into a fiasco for the Bush administration. Bobby Lee Cook, the brilliant lawyer who de­fended Drogoul, kept the U.S. Attorney breathless as he produced bombshells like internal BNL-Rome diaries that included day-by-day accounts of how the bank brass lobbied the highest levels of the U.S. gov­ernment to limit the criminal investigation on grounds of political expediency. The CIA and the Justice Department started blaming each other after getting caught sup­plying incomplete and misleading evidence to the federal judge in the case.

But then the judge, Marvin Shoob, grew so suspicious of the government’s handling of the investigation that he called for an independent prosecutor and ultimately withdrew from the case. Cook, who was working pro bono, withdrew when the case dragged on and Drogoul was unable to pay him. And now Drogoul, who remains in federal prison in Atlanta with no bail set, has been ruled an indigent and was as­signed court-appointed counsel for a new trial in April.

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Meanwhile, the Justice Department, smarting from its humiliation at the hands of Cook, sent in the same national security specialists who had seen to it that former CIA employee Manuel Noriega got put away without the government having to air too much of the CIA’s dirty laundry. This litigation SWAT team wasted no time in filing a motion with the court to invoke the Classified Information Procedures Act for Drogoul’s upcoming trial.

CIPA, passed by Congress in 1980, makes it much harder to get the govern­ment to release classified documents during a trial. The government can substitute for the actual document a statement of the prosecution’s own creation that has to suf­fice as a true and accurate summation of the document’s contents. What the CIPA protocol insures is that the flood of infor­mation about Iraqgate, including the role of U.S. intelligence and high-level Bush ad­ministration figures, will dry up, leaving some burning questions unresolved:

Who in the U.S. government invited three Iraqis from Hussein’s top explosive research and development facility to attend a federal seminar on nuclear detonation in 1989 held in Portland, Oregon?

Where is the followup on the former USDA official who federal prosecutors sus­pected was soliciting bribes from compa­nies exporting to Iraq?

And why, in the midst of a massive mul­ti-agency investigation that alleged the BNL criminal enterprise included high-level Ira­qis as well as Drogoul, did Secretary of State Jim Baker push for another $500 mil­lion in Commodity Credit loans for Iraq?

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But the most pressing unanswered ques­tion is, just how high and how wide does the coverup reach? The Justice Department contends it first knew about the criminal activity at BNL when two bank employees, who worked closely with Drogoul, decided in July 1989 to turn him in. They got im­munity. BNL U.S. branches were raided on August 4, 1989. An indictment was not handed down until February of 1991.

Initially a team comprised of representatives from the USDA, the Federal Reserve, the FBI, and the Atlanta U.S. Attorney’s office conducted the investigation. But something just was not right. On February 6, 1990, Federal Reserve official Ernest Pa­trikis wrote in a “restricted” internal memo, “Obviously, the indictments that were expected to come down in January did not materialize. A planned trip to Italy by criminal investigators was put off because of BNL-asserted concerns regarding the Italian press.”

On April 5, 1990, Federal Reserve offi­cial Thomas Baxter wrote New York Feder­al Reserve boss Gerald Corrigan: “The res­ignation of the United States Attorney in Atlanta has led to a number of difficulties in that investigation. These difficulties have been compounded by what is per­ceived as interference from the Justice De­partment in Washington.”

Eventually a former high-ranking Justice Department lawyer, Joe Whitley, was ap­pointed to be the chief U.S. attorney from Atlanta. The only problem is that he didn’t go directly from one Justice job to the next. He was in private practice for a while work­ing for none other than Iraqi weapons front company and BNL customer Matrix Chur­chill of Ohio. Whitley has said he withdrew from the BNL prosecution in June 1990, but the Financial Times reports that Justice Department memos dated September 1990 and February 1991 “make specific references to his involvement in the BNL case.” All of this seems at odds with the party line from Attorney General Barr that Jus­tice’s investigation was properly conducted. U.S. Attorney Michael Chertoff, whom Barr brought in to review the prosecution’s conduct before denying Congress’s call for an independent prosecutor, told the Voice that the time lag from the initial raid in August of 1989 to the indictments in Feb­ruary of 1991 was the result of an internal debate between the Fraud Section of Jus­tice in Washington and the U.S. Allorney’s office in Atlanta. The Atlanta contingent had the theory that Drogoul had victimized the bank. Chertoff said some people in Washington thought the bank had to have known about Drogoul’s high-volume trans­actions.

When Atlanta won out, there certainly must have been glee over at former attor­ney general William Rogers’s law firm, Rogers and Wells, which had worked back channels for the Italians.

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During Judge Lacey’s press conference last week, he noted that the Atlanta prose­cutors were fully aware of Matrix Chur­chill’s operations but decided there was “no sense” in going after the Iraqi front corpo­rations because they had already been seized by Customs. In fact, U.S. attorneys had granted immunity to one of the Ameri­can principals in Matrix Churchill, Gordon Cooper. According to the Financial Times, it was a document signed by Cooper and certified by then Secretary of State Baker in March of 1989 that permitted Matrix Chur­chill to solicit Iraqi contracts.

As for the CIA and Justice Department’s mishandling of classified evidence in the BNL case, Lacey was generous to both agencies: “The fiasco in September was a series of mistakes by well-meaning and well-intentioned and ironically very experi­enced prosecutors and CIA persons.”

Lacey dismissed implications that the ad­ministration tried to influence the Atlanta BNL prosecution with the famous phone call from White House attorney Jay S. By­bee to Assistant U.S. Attorney Gale McKenzie on November 7, 1989: “I am not concerned with what’s on Mr. Bybee’s mind when he makes the call. My own instincts are what happens to the person who receives it … I am convinced [McKenzie] didn’t detect any sense of pres­sure being imposed on her by this call.”

To support his characterization of McKenzie as independent, Lacey described how she fought Jus1ice in Washington to go with her theory 1hat BNL Rome was a victim. In fact, if Rome had authorized Drogoul’s actions, Justice might not have had a case, because at the time, foreign agency banks enjoyed a high level of crimi­nal immunity. “You know what would hap­pen to this case?” Lacey asked. “Drogoul would wind up with some regulatory slap-on-the-wrist punishment. But even worse, lhe Iraqis [would not be] guilty of a crimi­nal conspiracy.”

Of course, this line of reasoning had an­other gain for the administration: limiting the case to Drogoul almost from the start kept not only Rome but Washington out of the spotlight.

No matter how often the judge answered questions with “I don’t know” or “we did not have time,” he was emphatic that the BNL prosecution had not been corrupted. But he did allow that his “process was fallible in this respect: We were unable to determine who at Justice saw what and when … I was unable to penetrate with any precision where responsibility lay.”

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While Barr and Lacey, et al., try to close the book on Iraqgate here in the U.S., the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Major has struggled to keep the lid on its part in Iraqgate. The cabinet worked hard to suppress a considerable paper trail that illustrates how the government allowed the sale of sophisticated military technol­ogy and provided financing for Saddam Hussein up until a few days before the invasion of Kuwait.

The British government has a much easi­er time keeping documents out of public domain than the U.S. does. There is no Freedom of Information protocol; all slate papers become public 30 years from their date of origin. That would be like our entire government filing system being on the JFK document release schedule.

Major suffered a setback when the three Matrix Churchill executives on trial for selling military technology to Iraq success­fully blocked the government’s attempt to prevent the use of the files on British ex­port policy and military technology in their defense. The judge admitted the papers, which illustrate how exports of all kinds were first in the ministers’ minds and how the Thatcher and Major governments fully supported Matrix Churchill’s exports to Iraq as well as the exports of other U.K. machine tool and die makers. In fact, they would rarely reject an exporter’s request out of hand. If they really felt there might be some serious proliferation issues they would tell the exporter the decision was pending.

As its turned out, however, the three exutives did not need all the evidence. One of the prosecution’s star witnesses, Alan Clark, former minister of trade and de­fense, switched his testimony, conceding that the government was well aware of the exports and that officials had given Matrix Churchill ideas on how to get around the export laws. The Conservative spin on it was that, by maintaining the Matrix Chur­chill-Iraqi connection, British intelligence could better estimate the Iraqi threat.

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But a read through the Matrix Churchill evidence and British military export files gives quite a different impression about what Britain thought it could do in Iraq. British export bureaucrats wrote with great optimism as late as March of 1989 that the British displays at the Baghdad Internation­al Exhibition for Military Production would really boost business. “Minister will recall that there is a proposal to set up an aircraft factory in Iraq based on the Hawk trainer. BAe [British Aerospace] have been keeping the pot boiling on this project throughout the [Iran-Iraq war], and are committed to bring it back to Ministers if it looks as though the Iraqis wish to sign a contract,” wrote A.W.H. Barrett.

Starting in 1987, the British allowed that up to 20 per cent of loans to Iraq could be spent on military procurement from British suppliers, providing a windfall for the sup­pliers. But British taxpayers would be left holding the bag for $1.5 billion in bad Iraqi debts — almost matching the nearly $2 bil­lion U.S. taxpayers must pay. Meanwhile, the English exporters were able to spread their action around, thanks to BNL. Down in Atlanta, over 100 English companies got listed on the bank’s letters of credit worth over $250 million. Now that’s real trans­atlantic cooperation. ■

Research assistance: Maggie Topkis 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

In Search of Bohemia

A worn gray tepee sits at the edge of the city’s oldest shantytown, just yards from where Manhattan Bridge traffic hits Canal Street. But it also sits in terra incognita. The two artists who’ve lived in the tepee since Thanksgiving 1990 admit to feeling “muddled” at times about what they’re even doing there.

Seated in the dim interior on foam pads, Nick Fracaro and Gabriele Schafer began to explain. For years, they’ve collaborated as Thieves’ Theatre, trying to “embody and articulate” the voice of the disenfranchised. Doing Genet’s Deathwatch with prisoners in Illinois. Doing Marat/Sade with punks and ex-mental patients in Toronto. Trying to work with the homeless in the city’s shelters, but rejecting it as an “us/them” experience. That propelled them into the shantytown, where they decided to stage Heiner Müller’s Despoiled Shore Medeamaterial Landscape With Argonauts in the teepee.

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As the artists struggled to explain their mission, I got the impression that they’d spent hours, days, months trying to unravel the koans presented by their new life. How to do theater in the shantytown without being elitist. How to go public without being consumed. How to determine who the audience would be, could be, should be. Such questions become inevitable to artists without a community. I mean — apart from one’s own circle of friends, is there such a thing anymore as an artist with a community?

Schafer and Fracaro had settled in among the alienated, but homeless people aren’t necessarily bohemians. Most of them share the values of the larger world, and other residents of the Hill (as those who live there call it) saw the artists as the outsiders they really are.

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

Several times someone called in through the tent flap, “Hey, Chief,” and Fracaro would ease himself out to talk to a neighbor. The Hill is clearly a man’s world. Schafer is known there as “Mrs. Chief.” She made the tepee last fall out of 78 U.S. mailbags while Fracaro spent weeks getting acquainted. The artists did not want to move in without the other residents’ permission. (And after much discussion, they decided not to give up their Brooklyn apartment.) They share a job at a movie production warehouse and live sparely. A few tools. A few books. They dubbed the tepee the Living Museum of the Nomad Monad. They’ve kept it drug-and-alcohol-free, providing coffee to their neighbors in the morning. Fracaro and Schafer say the others accept them now, but still regard them as odd.

The artists call the shantytown a “Temporary Autonomous Zone.” They had come across this phrase in an obscure text called T.A.Z. [The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism] by an arcane anarchist who calls himself Hakim Bey. I’d read the book myself, since I’m interested in what’s passing for autonomy these days, when a New World Order seems to permeate even our attempts at disorder or dissent. “Realism demands not only that we give up waiting for ‘the Revolution’ but also that we give up wanting it,” writes Bey. “In most cases the best and most radical tactic will be to refuse to engage in spectacular violence, to withdraw from the area of simulation, to disappear.” The artists in the tepee had managed to disappear by refusing to speak to reporters. (“As soon as the TAZ is named [represented, mediated] it must vanish, it will vanish …”) Only now, as they intuit that their days on the Hill are numbered, are they willing to talk to me.

I was reminded of other art satellites I’ve encountered over the last few years — the Neoist rituals in Tompkins Square, the Sideshows by the Seashore on Coney Island’s boardwalk, the Festival of the Swamps beneath the Williamsburg Bridge — all of it unfolding far from the grant-getting vortex, part of no movement, isolated from any larger context.

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Certainly I’ve found it harder to track the art margins lately. The climate for things experimental, for things adversarial, has not only worsened; the damage to those “autonomous zones” seemed irreparable. That historic institution once called “bohemia” has been so intensively exploited that it’s had to become invisible. For the first time in 150 years, bohemia can’t be pinpointed on a map. The dematerialization of the artist’s milieu has had a devastating impact on the entire culture — more intangible, and therefore more insidious, than the problems posed by shrinking corporate and government funding, the march of the real estate developers, and the debilitating war over free expression.

Dissent cannot happen in a vacuum. Nor can social or aesthetic movements grow in one. Community is the fabric that sustains experiment, stimulating that leap into the void and maybe even cushioning a fall.

Back when subterraneans still had a terrain, the bourgie types might go slumming through a Left Bank or Greenwich Village, but the colonizing process took much longer. No instant condos. No developer-spawned neighborhood acronyms. Now — relentless in its hunt for the Next Big Thing — the media cut such a swath through the demimonde that colonizers follow instantly, destabilizing and destroying. So, the energy that moved from Paris to New York, from West Village to East Village, from Old Bohemia (1830-1930) to New Bohemia (the ’60s) to Faux Bohemia (the ’80s) has atomized now into trails that can’t be followed: the ‘zine/cassette network, the living-room performance spaces, the modem-accessed cybersalons, the flight into neighborhoods that will never be Soho.

They’re all part of the bohemian diaspora.

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One winter night in 1916, Marcel Duchamp, John Sloan, and several other artists made their way to the top of the Washington Square arch, where they built a bonfire, ate a picnic, shot off some cap guns, and declared Greenwich Village an independent republic. And why not? Home to the wild advocates of socialism and anarchism, free love and free verse, the Village was a place out of sync with puritan America. Here, a left-wing monthly called The Masses actually opposed the Great War (for which the federal government effectively censored it). Here in 1918, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap began serializing the banned Ulysses in their magazine, The Little Review (for which they were charged with pandering obscenity). Here, at a time when women in American did not even have the right to vote, some were joining together to form the Heterodoxy Club for “unorthodox women” — which included feminists, several “out” lesbians, and one black woman.

They were bohemians in the classic sense — people alienated from middle-class values (artistic, sexual, political) who knew where to find a community of like minds. The word came from bohémien, the common French term for gypsy, a people defined in the popular mind as social outcasts. By now, “bohemian” has been recycled so endlessly it has no precise meaning — though it continues to evoke an image: the Rebel With an Aesthetic. “The bohemian spirit. Not too hard to spot,” says a current ad for Bohemia beer, beneath a photo of a man in a leather jacket repairing a motorcyle in his perfect white-walled loft, while a draped and available woman sits on his bed.

Even though it originated in 1830s Paris, the whole notion of a bohemia seems so American (Dream) to me, so much about “lightin’ out” for the frontier. Bohemia still plays a role in bourgeois fantasy as the road not taken, where you could’ve would’ve done your own thing, free from the yoke of work and family. This quest for breathing space was always less about art than about capitalism, an escape from the rat race and the cultural cookie cutter. In this fluid zone, someone from the lower class could slip in and someone from the upper class could opt out. Certainly, a revolt against capitalism is something few people — and few artists — are interested in these days.

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In 1991, it’s becoming something of a cliché to describe Western culture as a flattened landscape where the boundary between margin and mainstream has eroded. As critic Hal Foster put it, in his book Recordings: “the center has invaded the periphery and vice versa.” It’s the media spotlight that erases the line between them.

The demimonde, for example, revolved around its “third spaces” (not home, not work), the now-legendary cafes and clubs: Toulouse-Lautrec at the Chat Noir, Pollock at the Cedar Tavern, every East Village artist at 8BC. Expatriate Paris flocked to Gertrude Stein’s salon, while the Harlem Renaissance had A’Lelia Walker’s. But there are no equivalent hangouts now, because once they’re discovered by the media, they disappear. (The night I spotted Jerzy Kosinski and David Lee Roth at 8BC, I knew the end was near.) Compound that with the problem of finding any affordable downtown space at all, and it’s no accident that most of the boho energy I’ve encountered in Manhattan in the last couple years radiated out of a squat (Bullet Space) or someone’s living room (Gargoyle Mechanique, Gusto House). An exception like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe — holdout from an older era — simply proves the rule.

Of course, bohemia was something of a media invention right from the start. The first stories about it, written by Henry Mürger and based on himself and his friends, appeared in a small Paris newspaper in 1845-46. They were adapted for the musical stage in 1849, collected in Scenes of Bohemian Life in 1851, and immortalized in Puccini’s La Bohème in 1986, romanticizing what some still romanticize: the garret, the bonhomie, the “sacrifice for art.”

But the lore of the starving artist changed with mass media, till image was everything. The artist became the emblematic chic figure of the ’80s — the rebel fit for a beer ad. The media feeding frenzy around “East Village art” developed in part because those promoting this scene used its marginality as a marketing ploy. The ensuing spotlight quickly corrupted the playful impulses behind the original galleries and inflated the relatively modest accomplishments of many of the artists. Such inflation of reputations, of expectations, of the very idea of what it means to succeed as an artist — distorted the ’80s art world. Made it a bottomless pit of neo-celebs. And of course, it inflated rents as well. Now, even the faux bohemia once known as the East Village Scene is gone, replaced by the usual Manhattan real estate protectorate where the extremes of capitalist life coexist like two sides of a knife.

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By the late ’80s, more and more artists had decided to leave what some of them now called the Beast Village. For the most part, they were moving directly across the river to Greenpoint and Williamsburg, just one subway stop into another space-time continuum. This is the newest artists’ neighborhood, and a quiet one, barely visible in the working-class nabe around the L train or the barrio-near-the-bridge fed by the J and M. A few “spaces” are open, like Minor Injury and Brand Name Damages. (What could such names portend?)

But in contrast to the publicity-mad East Villagers, many artists in Greenpoint don’t seem to want their neighborhood publicized. As a friend who’s lived there for years put it, “We don’t care about getting validated by people from Manhattan.” There’s nothing for the hype to stick to, anyway. No trendy new ism. No glamour. No “No Wave.” Just cheap rent. But the artists find one another. There’s a knot of community. For example, Mike Ballou and Adam Simon run a symposium called Four Walls out of Ballou’s home. (“Don’t print my address.”) Simon started Four Walls in Hoboken a few years ago, so its move to Brooklyn follows the trail of cheap loft space. Once a month now, guest curators hang a show in Ballou’s studio for a day; it ends with a discussion of the work among the exhibitors and artists from the neighborhood. It’s always crowded.

But there are crowds and then there’s the Crowd. Last June, intrigued by flyers wheat-pasted all over the East Village, I made my way to an abandoned warehouse on the Williamsburg waterfront for a one-night-only art extravaganza called the Fly Trap. I’d heard good things about an earlier event called the Cat’s Head, and so had everyone else, apparently. By midnight, the line waiting in the rutted dirt road to the warehouse was two blocks long, complete with the old buzz surrounding the place-to-be. Inside, I found 20,000 square feet of huge and uninspired installations, live bands, and beer — club fun, a contrived atmosphere of outlaw revelry. Hanging art in some decrepit quasi-forbidden old building? A veritable tradition — and we did it better in the ’70s (Times Square Show). Then we did it better in the ’80s (Real Estate Show, Warren Street Pier).

Artists who fled to Williamsburg precisely to escape trendification are horrified to find it following them. Painter Amy Silliman, a longtime resident of the area, said of the Fly Trap: “Don’t assume that this is a summary of the neighborhood. It’s just the bad old East Village come to haunt me.”

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Allen Ginsberg gave his first public reading on October 13, 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Kenneth Rexroth played MC for the five young poets who would all go on to achieve some measure of poetry-fame — Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen — while an unpublished and unknown Jack Kerouac, too shy to read, passed jugs of wine through the packed gallery. But this became a legendary evening on the strength of the one poem, still unfinished, read by Ginsberg: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness/starving hysterical naked …”

As his biographer Barry Miles reports it, Ginsberg was “transported … arms outstretched, eyes gleaming, swaying from one foot to the other with the rhythm of the words” while Rexroth listened with tears in his eyes and the audience yelled “Go!” at the end of each line. “Howl” was an explosion in consciousness heard round the world, the collective howl reverberating through every outsider enduring the lonely-crowd ’50s. This was poetry that changed people’s lives.

In Memoirs of a Beatnik, Diane di Prima describes the electrifying moment when she first encountered the poem and sensed that, for better or for worse, her isolation was over. Someone had brought Ginsberg’s now-familiar little square book to a dinner party at her “pad.” Scanning the first lines, she immediately left her own party to read the whole thing, then returned to read it out loud to everyone. “Allen was only, could only be, the vanguard of a much larger thing. All the people who, like me, had hidden and skulked, writing down what they knew for a small handful of friends — and even those friends claiming it ‘couldn’t be published’ … all these would now step forward and say their piece … I was about to meet my brothers and sisters.”

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It’s hard to imagine anything with “Howl”‘s impact emanating from “high culture” now. The breakthroughs, such as they are, seem to come from the “low” — the first Sex Pistols record, for example, which rewrote every rule about what music could be or say or spit on. It was during the ’50s that the spite of “danger” and “rebellion” began to shift from the art world to mass culture. The Beats were the first bohemian movement born under the eye of the mass media. Ginsberg’s biography notes that “he took pains to show the difference between the Beat Generation … and the beatniks.” But the media didn’t observe the distinction, “and the public perception was that Allen was the progenitor of all the bearded young men who wandered around Greenwich Village in handmade leather sandals.” The Beats thought they could inject their vision into mass culture, but what the “bearded young men” really signaled was the beginning of the community as artifact.

In the ’50s, the media image of the beatnik became a corollary to masscult images of rebellious teens. James Dean, that icon of Misunderstood Youth — wasn’t he also the Tortured Artist? As for Elvis Presley — wasn’t the emblematic scene in each movie the one where he dropped the dumb ballad and learned to rock, blow, go-man-go? Today it’s easy to forget how two people as different from each other as Presley and Ginsberg would have grated against the status quo in the Eisenhower years.

If this didn’t quite make for a mass Bohemia — yet — Kerouac could still complain that the Beats were nothing but “a fad.” His own overnight transition from vision-seeking subterranean to flavor-of-the-month celebrity was a painful one. When On the Road appeared in 1957, he’d been trying to get the book published for six years. Suddenly The New York Times declared it the testament of a new generation, and one day later, the interviewers began to arrive. What was it really like to be Beat? they wanted to know. Soon Kerouac was appearing on talk shows spouting metaphysics to the likes of Mike Wallace (“we are great empty space … an empty vision in one mind”). He never seemed to understand that the press wanted hot copy, not enlightenment. It was a San Francisco journalist who invented the word beatnik (after Sputnik), and soon the media had the movement boiled down to jive talk and a set of bongo drums. By 1959, the most famous beatnik in America was Maynard G. Krebs.

Back in 1957, while the brand-new Village Voice covered a few Beat moments like Kerouac’s appearance at the Village Vanguard, it featured much longer pieces on old Bohemians — infamous Village characters like Joe Gould and Maxwell Bodenheim, who were virtually unknown outside the neighborhood. Fierce rivals, these two impoverished writers were reportedly fed and given drinks at one Village bar for awhile “so customers would come to watch the hostilities.”

Bohemia itself was moving from West Village to East at the end of the ’50s, and would house a very different sort of “freak.” There would be no more Goulds. The Voice piece on his funeral speculates on the whereabouts of Gould’s lifework, The Oral History of Our Time — 11 million words written in dime-store notebooks as he sat in Goody’s Bar on the Minetta Tavern. (Oral History remains a lost work.) Today, Gould’s portrait hangs in the Minetta Tavern, but surely someone so unkempt, ornery, and wild-eyed would no longer, uh, suit the decor. This was the boho as hobo: the rebel who could not be televised.

What the full flowering of electronic media made possible was alienation as a growth industry rather than an emblem of community. Malcolm Cowley, part of the so-called Lost Generation, describes in Exile’s Return how the First World War and a new set of values set his generation irrevocably apart from the one before it. In the ’60s, of course, this feeling infected mass culture, creating the infamous “generation gap” — for it took no more than loving the Beatles, the world’s most popular group, to set one apart from one’s parents. While “do your own thing” was the notion at the heart of the old bohemia, during the ’60s it found a place in the heart of every teen consumer. Nonconformity, transgression, risk — adjectives once associated with bohemian values and avant-garde art — suddenly described superstars whose hits played in Peoria. And Jimi Hendrix became a Fluxus artist when he burned his guitar.

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On February 9, 1967, 16 patrol cars pulled up around the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque on West 41st Street. Helmeted police converged on the stage inside and arrested artist Charlotte Moorman during a performance of Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique. Moorman had been playing the cello topless. The Brahms Lullaby. A “lewd act.”

Three months later, a Manhattan criminal court judge convicted her of indecent exposure. Moorman faced one to three years in prison. Judge Milton Shalleck suspended the sentence, however, calling the cellist “weak and immature.” His 29-page opinion is a classic artifact of official contempt for the avant-garde, with its references to “bearded, bathless Beats” and “those ‘happeners’ whose belief it is that art is ‘supposed to change life’ as most of us know it.” There the judge had a glimmer of art’s true potential for transgression. It could change life.

And that never seemed more possible than it did in the ’60s, when every art form broke apart into something rich and strange. Remember cynaesthetic cinema? Cybernetic sculpture? Intermedia? Destruction art? Underground film? The death of painting? The death of the novel? The death of the theater? One could make a case for the ’60s as “the end of the avant-garde.” But the media gravitated to Warhol and Ginsberg and the other supernovas of an official demimonde, ignoring the aesthetic ferment behind the personalities. It was up to critic/advocates like Jill Johnston (performance) and Jonas Mekas (film) to witness the revolution. Certainly Charlotte Moorman, an emblematic figure in the ’60s avant-garde, could not expect a Times review. Nor a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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To be part of the art netherworld then was to be part of something suspect, outré, and perhaps even illegal. Moorman’s arrest was no anomaly. In 1961, postal inspectors busted LeRoi Jones and Diane di Prima for sending obscenity through the mail — their literary magazine, Floating Bear. (A grand jury failed to return indictments.) In 1964, Lenny Bruce got a one-year sentence for using words like fuck and cocksucker onstage at the Cafe Au Go Go. (It was overturned on appeal after Bruce’s death.) That same year, two detectives broke up an East Village screening of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, arresting Jonas Mekas, who had programmed the film. (Mekas got a six-month suspended sentence, and Smith’s film was banned in the state of New York until 1970.) These were people who’d chosen a life in art that would keep them impoverished, marginal, embattled. They were “don’t-wannabes.” Bohemians.

The difference between censored artists in the ’60s and the ’90s goes to the heart of how things have changed in the bohemian margin. Artists like the so-called Defunded Four — Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, John Fleck, Tim Miller — have now been catapulted out of their contexts on the backs of the media. All the publicity did was expose them to an audience guaranteed to find them intolerable, while artists of the “any-ink-is-good-ink” school looked on with envy. But none of the four have ever done work for a mass audience, nor have they wanted to. These days, however, transgression is just one more sluiceway into the undifferentiating whirlpool of media attention.

Censorship used to mean arrest; now it means publicity. That’s the superficial observation. Imagine Jack Smith’s fate if Flaming Creatures had been targeted by the religious right, discussed on Good Morning America, and televised across the country on CNN. As it was, Smith found the exploitation of his movie so unbearable he withdrew it from circulation, at one point declaring it “lost.” He never completely finished another film.

As Smith once said of his own work in Semiotext(e), “Nobody wants to open a can of worms, but that’s the thing that has been handed for me to do.” His was never work intended for mass audiences, but for kindred souls. And such work is valued less and less. Such work was the demimonde’s raison d’être.

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Bohemia has always been an official margin, the dominant culture’s test site for new isms, its holding pen for “different drummers.” And from its funky confines, certain artists have been able to launch themselves into the mainstream. Such outsiders-turned-insiders fill the pages of 20th century cultural history. But from Rimbaud to Kerouac, they’ve been mostly of the whiteboy persuasion.

While there have always been significant Others in bohemia, they’ve rarely articulated their own cultural realities — in part because their audience, though unconventional, has always been, for the most part, straight, white, and male. If key figures in the Beat movement were bi-or homosexual, they didn’t consider that an identity with its own potential for radicalism; like their straight buddies, they worshiped masculinity, despised effeminacy, and shafted women. And gay men were the most likely Others to cross over. As for women, writer Joyce Johnson, one of Kerouac’s girlfriends, would write years later of being a “minor character” in the Beat Scene. And as for people of color, bohemia American-style has always included folks like LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], Ralph [Rafael Montanez] Ortiz, and Yoko Ono — to name just a few. But people of color and women in general remained outside the canon long after Ginsberg and Burroughs had become the stuff of Hollywood films and Nova conventions and papers presented to the Modern Language Association.

There has always been a single bohemian tradition — and it didn’t include something like the Harlem Renaissance, still the demimonde most bohemians know least about. (It’s barely mentioned in most boho histories.) Of course, Harlem in the ’20s was different from the Village. Reacting to life in a racist nation, writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston struggled to give voice to the voiceless African American, and so were less alienated from a larger community. They sought their roots, while white artists fled from theirs. But like any other demimonde, the Harlem Renaissance had its salons and soirees, little magazines, quarrels, cranks, and utopian political ideals. Its artists and writers occasionally crossed paths with their Village counterparts at, say, Mabel Dodge’s salon on Lower Fifth Avenue. But Harlem’s so-called Talented Tenth made few inroads into white America. Their particular margin — being unofficial, thus invisible — couldn’t launch them into the big time.

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These days the whole concept of marginality is in flux, thanks to the advent of multiculturalism. No, that’s not a code word for “minority representation,” but a movement that would have recognized both Harlem and the Village; a movement in which every margin is visible; a movement that would redraw the map of the art world to make it more like the real world.

Much more is at stake in the margins now than there was during, say, some style war leading to the triumph of Abstract Expressionism. Throughout modernism, the demimonde had a worthy but narrow function as an official periphery. In that milieu, artists defied the official center, some crossed over and the art world got a steady flow of new product — but never a challenge to its basic assumptions. Now, however, multiculturalism is exposing art history as exclusionary, art theory as incomplete, and bohemia as one margin among many.

Performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, who has played a major role in shaping multicultural debate in the art world, invoked the image of Columbus when he spoke of the Latino Boom and the margins from which he emerged: “The model of discovery is in place. Going into the territory of the Other, discovering the Other, bringing the Other back into the mainstream. The big question of the ’90s for the Chicano movement is, can we be in control of our context? Will we be able to keep our negotiating powers, or will we just die on display like the Arawak [the native people Columbus sent back to the Spanish court]?”

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Now the shifts and schisms in the margins reflect the tug-of-war going on throughout the world: the trend towards globalization versus the trend towards community. The pressure to assimilate versus the urge to segregate.

Traditionally, an artist like Gómez-Peña would be seen as culturally specific, not universal. In fact, he is both, though his universalism is lost on those who see only Otherness. “Our generation belongs to the world’s biggest floating population,” he once wrote in one of his manifestos. And he’s not just referring to an ethnic group. He means all of us — “the weary travelers, the dislocated, those who left because we didn’t fit anymore, those who still haven’t arrived because we don’t know where to arrive at, or because we can’t go back anymore. Our deepest generational emotion is that of loss.” This perfectly describes the bohemian diaspora: an autonomous zone of the mind.

We’ve come full circle, back to the original meaning of the word bohémien: “gypsy.” Of course, bohemia was always part of the exile tradition, the place where the lost ones went to find each other. But it was exile from one tangible place to another. Now that there is no place, the exiles have become nomads, and there’s a whole culture of the disappeared. ❖

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

Categories
From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Al D’Amato: Hopelessly Corrupt

Start a War? Violate a Constitutional Privilege? Spur Economic Disaster?
For Al D’Amato, Nothing’s Too Much for a Big Donor. 

One more sleaze story that puts Al D’Amato in bed with a contributor is like one more sex story about Ted Kennedy, in or out of bed. A decade of endless revelation has made New York’s two-term junior senator the Madonna of corrupt coupling. But since he is saluted as Senator Pothole as often as he is derided as Senator Shakedown, all that the electorate is left with is the perception that at least the state has a feisty senator who never fails to shake the pot. With the election less than a week away, despite almost a dozen years of saturation tawdriness, Al D’Amato’s most spectac­ular senatorial achievement is that he has somehow man­aged to immunize himself from ethics charges, at least in certain regions of the public mind, by making new sagas of his duplicity so “hopelessly” redundant that few readers have the patience to wade through them again.

Many of the millions of New Yorkers who will vote again for him next week will do so knowing he is a con man. You can see them holding up their hands when they are ap­proached by reporters and insisting that they don’t want “to hear about the past.” They know he is taking care of himself — horse-trading with every special interest imagin­able to pay for the $21 million worth of televised lies that have been protecting his Senate seat since 1981. But as long as he convinces these voters that he might also be taking care of them free of charge, they will tolerate his bartered service.

D’Amato’s campaigns are seen as raffles with enough prizes for everyone who plays to win a little something. Sure, those who buy a block of tickets get a Washington wallet-full, but ordinary voters out in Buffalo or Melville think they own a reassuring piece of him themselves, even if all they get is a promised tax break or a bone tossed to a personal bias. He will never be so lofty they can’t visualize him coming to their house for dinner, and bringing an expensive dessert. If he is Jesse James, it is not their bank deposits he is stealing.

Inside this review of D’Amato’s life and times are three new Fonz fables that show just how far he is willing to go for the ticket buyers who can afford the wallet-full. For friend and financier Donald Trump, he was willing to violate the constitution by volunteering privileged informa­tion on the witness stand. For Drexel-Burnham, he was just as prepared to submarine legislation that, had he pushed it, might have restricted junk bond influence on S&L col­lapses and hostile corporate takeovers. The story also re­veals D’Amato’s shocking effort to manipulate the Manhat­tan U.S. Attorney’s office in ways that benefitted his Drexel donors.

The third episode in this trilogy of a contributor-con­scious career exposes D’Amato as a senator whose attitudes about the Noriega government shifted with those of a longtime donor, even to the point of becoming an advance man for an invasion that would ultimately secure his client company’s oil pipeline interests.

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Of course, it’s a given that D’Amato be­lieves in nothing. Though it has somehow passed unnoticed all these years, even his personal life is a fraud. As soon as he won his 1980 Senate race, just before he as­sumed office two months later, he separat­ed from Penny, his wife of many years. Twelve years later he is still separated, yet they have never divorced. In the meantime he has dated half of Manhattan and Wash­ington, demonstrating an ironic fondness for former and current prosecutors, yet maintaining the political sanctity of his Catholic marriage, a presumed prerequisite for reelection in a decidedly Catholic state. While other Catholic politicians with way­ward views but less wayward lives must keep a wary distance from the unpredict­ably disapproving cardinal, tuxedoed Al D’Amato is welcome at the Al Smith dinner or at O’Connor’s hospital bedside after­ward, photographed on his way to this cor­poral act of mercy by attending news cam­eras and allowed by a tolerant cardinal to wrap himself around a church pillar. Per­haps O’Connor thinks that Al, too, is a celibate.

The senator’s technical avoidance of the sinful stain of divorce, as well as his possible pillow talk with a top organized crime investigator, might ordinarily be fodder for the New York Post; but in recent years, it has been owned by the senator’s longtime finance chair, Peter Kalikow. It would not be too hard for the Post to source the story, since D’Amato began using his friend Kali­kow’s Fifth Avenue apartment as his legal address when he left his wife all those years ago, even sometimes visiting the develop­er’s penthouse for a change of clothes.

Consistent with this counterfeit life, D’Amato has, in the final weeks of what may be his final campaign, shed a “principled” po­sition a day, transforming himself into a Clinton Republican, redefining his abortion position, embracing gays, waffling on plans to punish the welfare pregnant. His com­mercials have been such transparent ho­kum — ranging from the ridiculous misuse of Benito Mussolini, Geraldine Ferraro, and 26-year-old assembly votes by oppo­nent Bob Abrams — that D’Amato almost seems to be winking at the voters, offering up openly banal explanations so they can justify their otherwise indefensible urge to support him. This campaign of high-priced deceit has been such an outrage because D’Amato knows he is not just running for reelection; he is running for his life, pain­fully aware that a Justice Department liberated by a Democratic administration, with federal prosecutors in New York nominated by two Democratic senators, might not be as forgiving as those who’ve been in charge of the constant probes of him that have occurred in recent years.

While D’Amato may still be able to draw on this cynical grassroots acceptance and win, he knows now that a consensus has finally coalesced against him at the elite levels of New York politics. When Newsday and The New York Times brilliantly as­sailed him in same-day endorsements of Abrams last week, he officially became an outcast, revered only by the “he’s-never-­been-charged-with-a-crime” Post. Even when he extended his hand for one final dance with his old partner Mario Cuomo, the governor slapped him in the face, ap­parently well aware that too many people were watching to resume their once mutual­ly soothing tango. As the Times, which had endorsed D’ Amato last time, put it about the senator’s vice, enough was finally enough.

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Mike Armstrong, the savvy and loyal D’Amato lawyer and confidant, reminded me last week that the ethics cloud over D’Amato was first floated by the Voice during his bitterly reminiscent 1980 campaign. But when Jack Newfield, Joe Conason, and I finished that four-part series, we sadly came to realize that we’d actually helped him win his narrow victory. The grave charges we launched — all based on his prior career as a Nassau County official with a penchant for plunder — created such a stir that we’d go to an Alphonse press conference and the cameras would surround us. The D’Amatos, with brother Armand playing an aggressive role in the publicity war, successfully positioned themselves as the targets of the far-left, progay, anti-Italian Voice and rode the hard truth of our charges to triumph. (Then, as now, D’Amato declined to talk to the Voice.)

I remember the Fonz’s father, Armand D’Amato Sr., whom we unveiled as a dou­ble-dipper on public payrolls who collected exorbitant insurance brokerage fees from the county through his son, chasing our car down an Island Park street, shaking his fist at us. I remember our discovery during the series that D’Amato had hired a private investigator who’d once worked for Colom­bo capo Sonny Francese to tail us.

But mostly, I remember the salty taste in our mouths at the end, disappointed that we had been portrayed as mere partisans, though our portrait of the Nassau GOP machine was a carbon copy of our earlier work on the Brooklyn Democratic organization.

Since then, the breaking stories about Alfonse, published by every newspaper but the Post, have come nonstop. He is the only elected official in the state who’s been the recipient of three sets of illegal contributions, all of them earned by public perfor­mance on behalf of the compromising do­nors — $30,000 from Wedtech (“the most corrupt little company in America,” ac­cording to the subtitle of one book); $10,000 from Unisys, the defense contrac­tor whose payments to brother Armand led to his current indictment; and $32,000 from a group of Puerto Rican HUD devel­opers, who are also the subject of a pending criminal case.

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D’Amato is the only senator in America who has acknowledged having conversa­tions on behalf of two mobsters with a United States Attorney, contacting Rudy Giuliani in one instance to “warn” him that “lawyers” thought he might be “embarrassed” over the possible loss of a racke­teering and murder case against boss of bosses, Paul Castellano. Just as unique was D’Amato’s appearance as a character wit­ness for mob-tied disco owner Phil Basile, whom the senator kissed on both cheeks in the courtroom after proclaiming him “a man of honor and truth.” D’Amato rents his office to this day — paying the highest congressional rent in America and far more than the market rate in the building — from a landlord who was involved in a parking lot deal with convicted felon Basile (both Basile and the building’s owner, who have contributed thousands of dollars to D’A­mato, have also been represented by broth­er Armand).

Of course he has also distinguished himself before the Senate Ethics Committee, which found barely a year ago that he “con­ducted the business of his office in an im­proper and inappropriate manner” by let­ting his brother “systematically misuse” it for “personal gain,” writing a letter for Unisys on the senator’s stationery. While others in Washington have only bad checks to count, D’Amato may have set other kinds of Guinness records — seven immu­nized witnesses forced to testify about his actions, 41 wiretapped conversations from various federal jurisdictions where his name came up, 35 potential witnesses who took or said they would have taken the Fifth Amendment rather than testify about him, and four full days of sealed testimony by a senator seeking reelection.

Of course the committee never consid­ered the charges now being entertained by a federal grand jury in Washington, which is reportedly examining the senator’s attempt to induce a HUD regional director to per­jure himself for him. As Newsday‘s Bob Greene has revealed in recent days, the Washington prosecutors are also reviewing for possible perjury prosecution 11 pro-D’Amato witnesses who appeared before the Ethics Committee about the Island Park houses, and they are doing it on the recommendation of the Senate.

D’Amato has of course so far survived the recurring investigations that have dog­ged him, but conduct that so frequently attracts prosecutors yet falls short of an indictable offense is hardly an affirmation of innocence. Indeed these bouts with grand juries have become so routine that a self-conscious Newsday downplayed Greene’s exposé of the latest one, and the Gabe Pressmans of this city’s media pack have yet to shove a mike under the sena­tor’s chin to even ask him about the alleged perjury coaching. A prospective deputy mayor who may or may not have harassed a female aide has gotten much more atten­tion, even in the Times, than these criminal allegations against a senator up for reelec­tion. Astonishingly, Greene’s second story, shaking the foundation of the Ethics Com­mittee’s already hesitant findings on Island Park and announcing the probe of the 11 witnesses, was shunted off on page 23.

It is indisputable that if Abrams, rather than D’Amato, were suddenly revealed as the subject of a criminal probe, it would be banner headline news in every newspaper and would bury his candidacy. But even though the new charges against D’Amato resonate against a background of endless allegations (or perhaps because they do), they cannot compete with the media mag­net of another black hard-on and have been relegated to the back pages. D’Amato is once again saved, in part because of the familiarity of his sins. It is as if the worse editors in this city’s media establishment be­lieve he is, the less they will allow them­selves to reveal it.

Almost every one of these D’Amato scan­dals has involved a contributor, an unsur­prising fact for a public official who proud­ly told the Times that “only 35 per cent of those who give expect something in re­turn.” Since that adds up to over $3 million in quid pro quo contributions since 1981 — at a mere $ 1000-a-head — the senator has been very busy indeed, by his own account, delivering to demanding donors.

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The irony is that he has successfully made Abrams’s questionable fundraising techniques a focus of his campaign commercials, zeroing in on the Feerick Com­mission’s conclusion that the Attorney General solicited a $15,000 contribution from a developer who had millions in condo plans pending before Abrams’s office. What no one’s noticed is that D’Amato himself has collected $23,500 since 1980 from the family and employees of this developer, who goes unnamed in the sena­tor’s television commercial, and that D’Amato has done more for the developer than Abrams ever dreamed of doing. The devel­oper is Donald Trump, who in addition to contributing actually hosted D’Amato’s an­nual fundraising dinner at the Grand Hyatt at a deliberately reduced rate five years in a row during the ’80s. The senator in fact may have decided not to mention his friend’s name in the commercial for fear of jeopardizing the possibility of spending an­other weekend at Trump’s dazzling Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, as D’Amato did in the late ’80s — a far cozier scene than Abrams’s breakfast with Trump.

While there is no evidence that Abrams ever personally participated in his office’s review of Trump’s condo plans, D’Amato himself took the witness stand for Trump in the biggest legal case of Donald’s life, the United States Football League’s $3 billion antitrust suit against the National Football League in 1986. D’Amato was used as a witness to lay the groundwork for a key contention in the USFL case that was, in the end, flatly rejected by the jury: that the NFL had engaged in a conspiracy with New York Jets owner Leon Hess to block Trump’s USFL team from getting a New York stadium and franchise. D’Amato tes­tified about three conversations he had with Hess that supposedly proved this the­sis, but a Voice review of the legal billings submitted to the USFL after the trial has revealed that a partner in the law firm Trump handpicked for the floundering league talked to D’Amato shortly before two of the conversations with Hess. The timing of these contacts suggests that the Fonz may have been acting as a conscious agent of Trump’s lawyers when he called Hess, setting the Jets owner up for testimo­ny at trial.

The Voice has also obtained sealed side­bar discussions with the judge prior to D’A­mato’s testimony revealing that the senator was planning to testify about much more than his Hess conversations, but was stopped by an embarrassing legal ruling. He was prepared to detail talks he had with other senators who supposedly told him that NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle “was making personal threats to yank franchises unless they voted right” on certain key NFL antitrust legislation “or to grant fran­chises if they would go that way.” But U.S. District Court Judge Peter K. Leisure ruled that D’Amato’s proffered testimony would violate the Speech and Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which bars senators from revealing in court privileged conversa­tions with other senators. The judge pre­vented Trump’s lawyers from asking any questions about the Rozelle conversations, though D’Amato was apparently quite will­ing to break a senatorial confidence for his ingratiating supporter.

Such boldness, however, was a small mat­ter compared to how far he would go for that other billionaire emblem of the ’80s, Mike Milken.

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What Jesse Kornbluth in his new book, Highly Confident: The Crime & Punishment of Michael Milken, called the “leveraged buyout of Al D’Amato” is already a fairly well-known story. First reported in 1986 by The Wall Street Journal, it is standard D’A­mato fare, only this time with a peculiarly high level of impact. When the Fonz took the money and tanked it for Drexel, he managed, according to much of the hindsight analysis, to encourage the junk bond explosion in both corporate takeovers and S&L’s, leading eventually to the collapse of companies and banks laden with over­-priced debt.

While the Senate Ethics Committee cleared D’Amato of “any improper con­duct” on the Drexel charge, its carefully
worded finding addressed only the question of whether D’Amato had “changed his po­sition on junk bonds” after he “promised to introduce restrictive legislation.” Since the committee restricted itself to reviewing the charge only in its most damning form — a callous reversal of position after collecting the cash — the result was predictable. Unless Drexel witnesses at the very top were willing to say that they told him they’d give him thousands if he would tank the swirl of 1985 reform bills, the committee was doomed to come up dry.

Instead, of course, something vaguer hap­pened, and either Mike Milken, who per­sonally hosted the May 31, 1985, D’Amato fundraiser at Chasen’s in Beverly Hills, nor D’Amato, who tried embarassingly hard in retrospect to insinuate himself deeply in­side the glamorous Drexel fast track, is likely to ever say just what it was. But the fact is that the Milken party occurred, generating at least $34,000 for Alfonse barely two months after his subcommittee launched hearings on junk bond reform and just a week before Drexel CEO Fred Joseph testified. Then, one week after D’Amato pro­duced a watered-down study bill on junk that December, Joseph and 34 other Drexel executives bought $500 tickets to a giant D’Amato fundraiser in New York.

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D’Amato called the timing “absolutely coincidental,” but what is not coincidental was just how often this sort of awkward happenstance has hit the senator. When these two large chunks of donations are added to those from Drexel’s PAC and oth­er individual contributions, the Fonz’s total hits $70,750 by the end of 1986. Voice calls to many of the donors last
week found few willing to discuss their gen­erosity, though one, Jon Jetmore, said that “someone” at the company asked him to give, indicating that “it would be good for Drexel” and explaining that “there were few in Congress defending Drexel publicly and that D’Amato was the only one the company felt would listen.” Jetmore, who contributed after D’Amato produced his toothless December bill, recalled that the Drexel donations might have been connect­ed with the fact that D’Amato had “voted against inhibiting legislation” Drexel opposed.

If most of the donors were still shy about such a straightforward explanation, the sen­ators who were pushing for restrictive legis­lation at the time no longer are. Former Wisconsin senator Bill Proxmire, who has never before been quoted on the subject, said in a Voice interview last week: “The legislation could’ve been very good for our economy because it would have prevented hostile takeovers and that is certainly one of the reasons we have so many major bankruptcies today. [D’Amato] got contri­butions because he was chairman of the securities committee; they were buying in­fluence. PAC’s don’t contribute because they admire someone’s principles or their looks. I think D’Amato was unusually sup­portive of Drexel. That is why he got the contributions.”

Senator Howard Metzenbaum told the Times back in 1986, three weeks after D’A­mato was reelected, that D’Amato had giv­en him “a firm commitment” to introduce a bill aimed at curbing takeovers “before the July 4, 1985 recess,” but that it “never came to pass and I never heard another word about it.” Last week he told the Voice that D’ Amato later “offered a number of excuses for his failure to do so, none of which I considered compelling.” Metzen­baum added that D’Amato’s eventual bill came so late and was so weak it “effectively eliminated any possibilities of passing take­over legislation that session,” which came at an unusual, historical moment, when leading Republicans were temporarily out­raged by Milken tactics. “It’s clear that by failing to move forward as promised, Sena­tor D’Amato squandered a golden opportu­nity to enact meaningful reform at a point in time when it was needed most.”

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D’Amato counsel Mike Armstrong likes to point to a supposed discrepancy between Metzenbaum’s post-1985 comments and his attempt that November at typical sena­torial back scratching when he praised D’A­mato during a committee session for run­ning “excellent hearings.” But the fact is that in the same brief statement, Metzen­baum said he was still hopeful his reluctant colleague would “soon introduce his own tender offer bill,” making his ultimate dis­appointment perfectly consistent.

Most of the reporting about D’Amato’s Drexel relationship ended with that bill, but the relationship itself didn’t. Prime Drexel clients like Integrated Resources dumped $58,750 into the D’Amato coffers, much of it in the midst of the 1985 machi­nations, and employees of Saul Steinberg’s various Reliance entities donated another $56,000. Everyone from Drexel raider Boone Pickens to the Milken-manufactured billionaire Nelson Peltz to several Drexel lawyers like Richard Sandler to Milken publicist Linda Robinson dropped change in the passing D’Amato hat.

The senator was flown out to Beverly Hills for four days in April of 1986 at Drexel’s expense, paid a $2000 speaking fee, and entertained at the infamous High Yield Bond Conference, better known, at least after Connie Bruck’s 1988 book, as “The Predators’ Ball.” Before bringing him out to the coast, Drexel paid for a strange stop in Denver, where D’Amato was appar­ently the beneficiary of another fund raising festival, collecting over $18,000 from 51 Colorado donors, led by executives of the MDC home building company. Described in S&L bestseller Inside Job as “a junk bond Frankenstein given the spark of life by Dr. Milken,” MDC president Larry Mi­zel kicked in $1000 for D’Amato, while his brother and several other company officials gave $300, the ticket price for the party (two Mizel companies later pled guilty to making illegal campaign contributions to a Colorado congressional race).

Once out in California, D’Amato stayed in the luxury Palm Desert, condo of Co­lumbia Savings and Loan president Tom Spiegel, currently under indictment in Los Angeles for bilking his bank of millions and one allegedly illicit transaction with his mentor Milken. Drexel’s Dennis Levine, the insider-trading felon who wrote his memoirs in prison and was himself a D’A­mato donor, recounts one brief exchange with D’Amato during the notorious confer­ence festivities: D’Amato, “effusively work­ing the room” at a Chasen’s dinner party and approaching his table, slapping Boone Pickens on the back and extending “a warm hello” to Boesky. When D’Amato moved on, Boesky muttered to Levine, “That bas­tard cost me five thousand dollars” — an apparent reference to past campaign contributions.

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The Republicans lost the Senate, and D’A­mato lost his subcommittee, in the begin­ning of 1987. With Boesky’s indictment a few weeks earlier, Drexel, too, was in the midst of dramatic change. Instead of chas­ing every consumable company, they had suddenly become the quarry themselves. Ironically, Drexel’s pursuer was none other than an appointee and friend of Al D’Ama­to’s, U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, whose office had wired up Boesky for meetings with Milken shortly before the inside trad­er’s $100 million guilty plea was publicly announced. The fear of Giuliani on Wall Street and in Beverly Hills was palpable at the time: pressing forward with new theo­ries of securities prosecutions, he seemed both unreachable, in standard political par­lance, and dangerously skillful when it came to making towering cases stick.

Before 1986 ended, Mike Milken’s broth­er Lowell, a top Drexel executive with po­tential exposure in the unfolding scandal, hired as his criminal attorney Mike Arm­strong, the senator’s strong right arm. A former federal prosecutor and the principal powerbroker on the D’Amato screening panel that nominates federal prosecutors and judges in New York, Armstrong imme­diately flew out to California to meet with his client and his client’s brother. Over the next three years, Armstrong would play a broad role in the joint Milken defense, run­ning up a fortune in Drexel and Milken bills (he still represents Lowell on outstand­ing civil matters).

Armstrong maintained in a Voice inter­view that neither Milken brother discussed his ties to D’Amato. At the time, however, Armstrong was starting his seventh year of periodic pro bono representation of D’A­mato. Beginning in 1980, during the first Senate campaign, D’Amato asked Arm­strong to advise him about the possible release of his earlier grand jury testimony about a Nassau County 1 per cent kickback scheme, which had become a hot issue in a close race. Named to D’Amato’s panel as soon as the senator took office in 1981, he continued representing D’Amato in a feder­al probe of the senator’s involvement with a Hempstead recycling plant, ultimately ap­pearing in court with the senator when D’Amato testified at the trial of one recy­cling plant defendant. He was there again in 1983 when D’Amato appeared on behalf of Phil Basile, and later during the senator’s Wedtech testimony.

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Armstrong’s Legal Aid list for D’Amato, including aspects of the many HUD inves­tigations and the Meade Esposito case, goes on and on. He didn’t charge D’Amato, however, until 1989, when he took on the senator’s defense in the Senate Ethics Com­mittee probe. Today, a senator who claims a net worth of $60,000 owes Armstrong $400,000 for the concluded probe.

A few months after Armstrong went on Drexel retainer (he was paid by the compa­ny until the two Milkens were indicted in 1989, when Lowell was forced to pay his own bills), Al D’Amato called Giuliani and said he “wanted to talk politics,” inviting him to dinner and asking that he bring his wife, television newswoman Donna Hano­ver. Though D’Amato wasn’t any more spe­cific than that, Giuliani discovered what the agenda for the August 1987 dinner was while riding there in his car. WTNS report­ed that D’Amato was trying to talk the politically ambitious Giuliani into running against Democratic senator Pat Moynihan. That night, for hours, and for weeks later, chummy Al kept the pressure on, promising to raise millions for the run. Giuliani, whose four-year term was winding up, was sorely tempted, even writing a declaration speech at one point. But U.S. Attorneys don’t have to leave when their term expires, and Giuliani was also reluctant to leave, with so many giant cases hanging in the balance.

Giuliani and D’Amato, undercover on a 1986 drug bust

He asked that D’Amato allow him to pick his own successor, announcing public­ly his preference for an aide, Howard Wilson, but D’Amato balked. Then news re­ports appeared listing a half dozen finalists that Armstrong’s panel was considering to replace him, and describing prominent de­fense attorney Otto Obermaier as the front­runner. This worried Giuliani, and he said so in news interviews, but only in the most general terms, expressing a concern that several of the senator’s prospective appoin­tees specialized in representing the securi­ties industries or white-collar criminals. When D’Amato charged that Giuliani’s re­luctance was “provocative and not too smart,” Giuliani replied that he’d tried to “convey to the senator that I’m not being arrogant,” adding that he was “concerned about four or five very, very sensitive investigations.”

The concerns started with Armstrong, whom Giuliani refused to talk to about the transition, precisely because of the defense lawyer’s Milken conflict, a message Arm­strong concedes was sent directly to him. Another powerful player on the panel, Paul Curran, represented Robert Freeman, the head Goldman, Sachs trader whose Wall Street handcuffing and arrest in early 1987 had caused a media stir. Obermaier had a client squarely in the middle of the same case. Bob Morvillo, a partner in Ober­maier’s small, top-flight criminal firm, was just starting to represent Tom Spiegel, the senator’s California condo host whose S&L had $3 billion in Milken junk. The firm was also representing top Drexel brass, includ­ing one potential witness it has refused to identify when questioned by reporters to this day. While Obermaier seemed the all­but-certain designee, others on the pub­lished list of candidates were also involved in the securities cases, including a partner of Peter Flemming, Mike Milken’s princi­pal attorney.

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The efforts to induce Giuliani to leave were so carefully monitored at Drexel that the weekly meetings of its so-called “War Council” — discussions that included 15 or so executives, lawyers, and consultants — ­were regularly interrupted by chitchat about his possible departure. Even Arm­strong conceded in a Voice interview that he “may have talked about the Southern District situation in a conversational way” with his client Milken. “I didn’t agree with the way Rudy was running the office,” says Armstrong. “I wanted him to leave.” Arm­strong had in fact convinced D’Amato to name John Keenan to the post in 1983, and the Keenan appointment was only blocked when Giuliani, who worked in the Justice Department then and had strong support there, prevailed on D’Amato to change his mind.

Armstrong also acknowledges that it was he who recommended Obermaier, an old colleague from their days in the U.S. Attor­ney’s office together, though he claims he was unaware of Obermaier’s published views, mostly in a New York Law Journal column, bashing insider-trading and other securities cases. It was this philosophy that most upset Giuliani, since not even an Obermaier recusal on an individual case where his firm had a client could protect the office’s securities prosecution from a wholly different point of view about every­thing from the use of the RICO statutes against white-collar criminals to deferring to the SEC on trading cases. Giuliani was so uncomfortable with these columns he carried them around with him and showed them to friends. “Otto had the same point of view as everyone else,” Armstrong ar­gues now, listing several former securities prosecutors who shared Obermaier’s views, and not even noticing that all of them wound up with Drexel clients. “Rudy didn’t know shit from Shinola about securi­ties cases,” Armstrong declared.

By early 1988, Giuliani had all but decid­ed to pass on the Moynihan race. Wilson had appeared before the D’Amato panel, and Armstrong and Curran had left the room during his interview, implicitly recus­ing themselves on his review, though at least Armstrong was clearly involved in the ultimate selection. Neither Giuliani nor Wilson would return Armstrong calls on the matter or discuss it with him, until he final­ly cornered Wilson at the swearing-in of a federal judge. According to a memo Arm­strong prepared — out of what he says was caution over how Giuliani might one day misinterpret his conversation with Wil­son — he offered to make Wilson chief assis­tant under whoever was the new U.S. At­torney, and give Wilson control over “the ongoing investigations about which Rudy had expressed concern.”

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While Armstrong sees this memo as proof that Drexel wasn’t his motive in try­ing to facilitate a Giuliani departure, it is clear that Armstrong’s offer was a last-ditch proposition on the eve of Giuliani’s an­nouncement that he would not run. Indeed the memo reports that Wilson told Arm­strong that Giuliani had already decided not to run even though he very much wanted to.” Wilson says that Armstrong “may have said I’d be someone’s deputy, but I don’t think so”; he was “positive that the Drexel thing wasn’t presented.” Even Jesse Kornbluth, whose sometimes-persua­sive Milken book is a staunch defense, spent hours discussing this pivotal period in the effort to block a Milken indictment with Armstrong, Milken, and many others, leading him to tell the Voice last week: “It’s pure projection; but it’s hard to believe that the effort to get Rudy out wasn’t fully dis­cussed. God knows every other avenue of saving the Milkens was gone over innumerable times from 1986 to the end.”

When Giuliani announced he wouldn’t run, D’Amato seemed to lose whatever in­terest he ever had in fielding a Republican opponent against Moynihan, endorsing an obscure Long Island businessman who’d long been a backer of his, but declaring that he was “too busy” to campaign with him. Giuliani stayed in the office another year, took Drexel’s guilty plea but could not get Milken’s. In a sudden, and deliberately ar­ranged maneuver, he resigned and brought back to the office from private practice a onetime top aide, Benito Romano, getting the Justice Department’s approval to install him as an interim U.S. Attorney in an end-­run around D’Amato. One top Justice De­partment official who cut the Romano deal with Giuliani, Robin Ross, said that an angry D’Amato called him and was “quite blunt about his displeasure.” D’Amato immediately moved to nominate the ever-pa­tient Obermaier, but Justice and the White House sat on his name for 10 months, leav­ing Romano in office.

That gave Romano time to finally either indict Milken or get a guilty plea. When the two Milkens did not meet a March plea deadline offered by Romano, he filed a racketeering indictment against them. Though Romano remained in office until October, Milken’s lawyers never resumed plea discussions with him. “I wanted to resolve the case before D’Amato’s replace­ment got there,” Romano told the Voice. “Whether they were waiting” for Ober­maier, “you’d have to ask them.” A few months after Obermaier arrived, Mike Mil­ken finally pled guilty to six felony counts, none of them on the racketeering charges, and the always-difficult case against Lowell Milken was dropped.

Obermaier recused himself on the case, as he has on at least 34 other cases that went to indictment since he took office. (Since the only information the office will provide about this unprecedented number of recusals is the press releases issued by the chief assistant when Obermaier is con­flicted out, there is no way to count recusals in cases that never get to indictment. By contrast, the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, Andy Maloney, has recused himself on two cases though he’s been in office twice as long as Obermaier.)

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While there are certainly aspects of the office’s handling of Milken that have con­tinued the tough traditions of the Giuliani/Romano era, the decision this summer to write a letter to sentencing judge Kimba Wood, citing his “substantial” cooperation, in direct contradiction to a letter sent by the SEC enforcement chief, has been widely questioned. What Giuliani himself says made the government’s position on sen­tence reduction so strange was that its letter offered no critique of Milken’s testimony as a defense witness for one Drexel client, even though Milken’s “appearance against the government was expressly rejected as unbelievable by the jury,” which convicted Milken’s friend anyway.

Wood, who wound up citing the letter from Obermaier’s office as a basis for re­ducing Milken’s sentence to two years (slightly less than Boesky, the witness who brought him down), did not dispute in her opinion the SEC contention that Milken was principally offering information to prosecutors about Drexel folks who’d coop­erated in the investigation of him. The judge cited only one other letter in her decision — a voluntary submission helpful to Milken on the issue of his attempt to make restitution to those he’d damaged. The attorney who wrote it, Pat Hynes, rep­resented a group of civil claimants whom Milken had agreed to make a sizable pay­ment to, though she was hardly the princi­pal litigant in these separate lawsuits. A close friend of D’Amato’s who Armstrong acknowledged used to date the senator, Hynes was recently dubbed by D’Amato to join the Armstrong screening panel.

In addition to the favorable treatment for Milken by Obermaier’s office, it has also recently passed on retrying the Drexel spin­off, a case against several traders from Princeton-Newport that was overturned principally due to a sentencing error by the judge, and also decided not to prosecute Columbia S&L’s Spiegel (eight months lat­er, federal prosecutors in L.A. indicted him on largely different charges). Obermaier re­cused himself on these cases, as well he might since his law firm is extensively in­volved in both. But his recusal did not prevent him from summarily dismissing the prosecutor who’d tried Princeton-New­port and, though he’d since left the office, was available to work on its appeal. Ober­maier used the assistant’s appearance in a television interview as a rationale.

While there is no smoking gun establish­ing what D’Amato’s purposes were in all the intricate machinations surrounding his Southern District appointment, the final proof is in the pudding. The office that once pioneered Wall Street cases has not made a new, significant securities prosecu­tion since the “scholar-on-Ottomatic” got behind Rudy’s desk.

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It Is January 1983 and Al D’Amato, just starting his third year in the senate, is aboard a chartered flight to Panama City. He and his daughter Lisa are taking a four­-day trip to Panama paid for by the Long Island petroleum giant that will soon em­ploy her as an economic analyst, Northville Industries. While Northville will fly over 300 people down to Panama to join in ceremonies and receptions celebrating the opening of its new, 80-mile pipeline across the heart of the Isthmus, D’Amato is the only U.S. senator aboard. But he isn’t going just because of his daughter’s imminent job.

In fact his daughter’s job was an out­growth of his own almost 30-year friend­ship with the president of this family­-owned firm, Harold Bernstein. According to Northville vice-president Joseph Ackell, Bernstein and the company were major financial supporters of D’Amato’s during the early days in Nassau politics, and news reports indicate that on occasion, at least, he purchased oil from them as Hempstead’s presiding supervisor. Since D’Amato’s 1980 primary race against then senator Ja­cob Javits, the Bernstein family, the company PAC, and a few Northville executives and their wives have donated at least $28,000 to D’Amato campaign coffers. In addition, Bernstein was named by D’A­mato as one of his six top fundraisers in a 1986 Times story.

The pipeline Northville opened that Jan­uary was erected by the U.S. Congress. Its viability to this day utterly depends on the periodic renewal of a controversial piece of legislation barring the export of Alaskan oil anywhere outside the U.S. (its principal pri­or market was Japan). Originally instituted in the mad days of the 1970s energy crisis, and rationalized as part of a national strate­gy for oil independence, the ban led to the building of the pipeline in 1981 — D’Ama­to’s first year in the Senate. The senator has been a major force in the preservation of that ban ever since, helping to sustain the pipeline, which stretches from the Pacific coast port of Charco Azul to Chiriqui Grande Bay on the Caribbean and is designed to carry 800,000 barrels of oil a day.

Far cheaper than shipping the oil through the Panama Canal, the pipeline has become the principal conduit for the transport of Alaskan oil to markets along the East Coast of the United States. It also became, as spokesman Ackell described it in a Voice interview, “the biggest thing going in the Panamanian economy,” throwing off hun­dreds of millions in taxes, fees, and pay­ments to Panama’s government, which is a partner with Northville in the ownership of the line.

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Of course, the government of Panama in 1983 was dominated by military strongman Manuel Noriega. Already serving as the number-two man in the Panamanian mili­tary that January, he was slated to become commander in chief by March under the terms of a prior agreement with his ally, Ruben Paredes (a short delay resulted in Noriega’s formal takeover that August). The country’s civilian vice-president, Jorge Illueca, a Noriega front whom he would later install as president, hosted the actual opening ceremony, which was held near a remote Indian village outside Panama City at the Atlantic terminus of the pipeline.

While Ackell says he did not see Noriega himself at the ceremony or any of the host of receptions and other events surrounding the four-day celebration, others remember his participation, including Noriega’s one­-time minister of commerce and industry Mario Rognoni, who is currently the oppo­sition leader in the Panamanian National Assembly. Ackell also tries to downplay the company’s relationship with Noriega dur­ing the flush years of 1983 to 1987, but he concedes that Northville “had to find a way to work with each administration.” Everett Briggs, the American ambassador to Pana­ma during most of that period and current ambassador in Portugal, goes a bit further, recalling that “it’s safe to say” that the relationship between Northville and Nor­iega was “probably very good.”

Just how D’Amato fit into this relation­ship is somewhat murky, though Ackell ac­knowledges that the senator “might have been identified with the company” in the minds of Panamanian officials, then and now. The senator flew down to Panama for a second four-day stay paid for by North­ville in December of 1983, after Noriega’s formal ascension to power, but Ackell said he could not recall why (Northville paid for a third D’Amato trip in 1988 as well, this time, to Pennsylvania).

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Escolastico Calvo, the editor of a Pana­manian newspaper who once served as a close Noriega aide, specifically recalled a D’Amato meeting with Noriega in Panama, but was fuzzy about the timing. And legisla­tor Rognoni was certain that D’Amato and the general “knew each other personally” and that D’Amato was “friendly” with the Noriega government “while he was dealing with his business interests,” which he iden­tified as Northville. D’Amato routinely vot­ed in favor of military and other aid appro­priations for Panama during these years, though he hardly distinguished himself as particularly active on these issues.

What he did distinguish himself on was pipeline legislation. As a member of the banking committee, which has jurisdiction over the Export Administration Act, he be­came a cosponsor in 1983 of a bill that passed the Senate a year later extending the Alaskan oil ban for six years. D’Amato even went so far as to introduce, with a handful of other senators, an unsuccessful measure to extend the ban forever. This bill also attempted to void the conditions con­tained in the old law that permit the presi­dent to lift the ban, with the consent of Congress, if he could make a showing that it was in the national interest (D’Amato is still pushing this rather extraordinary bill, having cosponsored it again in 1990). The ban is still effective even though its last extension expired in 1990, since it remains in force unless the president meets the conditions set in the law for lifting it.

There is little doubt about why D’Amato has been such a pipeline champion. Ted Sorenson, the former Kennedy aide who has represented Northville for years, says D’Amato called him at one point in the 1983 controversy over the bill: “He said he was going to make a speech for it on the floor and I said fine.” Why was he on the inaugural trip and why has he been such a strong supporter of the ban? “He’s a friend of Harold Bernstein,” explained Sorenson. “They went way back.” Steve Toth, the Washington lobbyist for Chicago Bridge & Steel, which is a 20 per cent partner of Northville and the Panama government in the ownership of the pipeline, put it simi­larly: “D’Amato supports the ban because the principal owner is Northville Industries and Al supports his constituents. He shows his support with his votes.”

Like Northville and the other bulwark of the lobbying force behind this legislation, the maritime industry, D’Amato has resist­ed any efforts to modify this total ban. The coalition even opposed Alaska Republican senator Frank Murkowski’s amendments to permit the export of 200,000 barrels a day. Based on the premise that it is wrong to bar only Alaska from exporting its oil, Mur­kowski’s changes were nonetheless rejected, though he offered to continue to require that the exported oil be carried on U.S.-flag tankers.

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Critics of the ban, like Marshall Hoyler, who did a study for the Georgetown Uni­versity Center for Strategic and International Studies, have branded it “a scandal,” saying it has “enriched a small number of individuals and corporations, who have formed a vocal interest group in its behalf.” Hoyler calculated years ago that federal revenues would jump over $10 billion over the next quarter century if the ban was dropped (and that oil costs would drop over the long haul). A staff economist for the Senate Banking Committee, Paul Freeden­berg, explained the support for the ban when the D’Amato extension was under consideration in 1983 by observing: “Too many people are making money because of the way it is now.”

While the strongest rationale advanced for the ban is the need to reduce American dependence on foreign oil, William Silvey, the Energy Department’s planning director, argued when the ban was last extended that “the congressional perception” wasn’t tak­ing into account that “there is one world petroleum market and that we are part of it,” concluding that because of the export restrictions, “we are charging ourselves more than we need to” for oil.

But there are indications that D’Amato’s ties to Northville help explain more than just the pipeline aspects of his Panama pol­icy. All the public remembers about D’A­mato and Panama is his explosive opposi­tion to Noriega, when he moved center stage in the Washington debate about Pana­ma policy in mid 1987, at first urging sanc­tions and eventually an invasion. Though D’Amato’s rage was ostensibly over Norie­ga’s cocaine trafficking (D’Amato called him “a tinhorn drug dealer”), it is hard to explain it on just those terms. Sy Hersh had revealed Noriega’s smuggling activities in June of 1986 on the front page of The New York Times, even detailing an American plot to assassinate the then lieutenant colo­nel in the 1970s as a common drug dealer. Yet D’Amato remained silent for almost a year.

Like many other senators, D’Amato moved when Gabriel Lewis, the former Panamanian ambassador to the U.S. and onetime Noriega ally, broke with the gov­ernment and began lining up opposition to it in Washington. One of the architects of the Panama treaty, the well-connected and wealthy Lewis, who once hid the Shah of Iran in his Panama home as a favor to American authorities, struck up a close re­lationship with D’Amato. Long tied to the Kennedys, and close to Ted Sorenson, Lew­is was one of three Northville appointees on the board of Petroterminal de Panama, the joint venture of Northville, Chicago Bridge & Iron, and the Panamanian gov­ernment that owned the pipeline.

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Lewis pieced together the Kennedy/D’Amato alliance that suddenly turned the Senate into a firestorm of Noriega opposition. D’Amato even became a harsh Rea­gan administration critic on the issue, blast­ing the administration as
“cowards” for not moving against the general and provoking Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci to public­ly object to D’Amato’s “insults.” The sena­tor solidified his relationship with Lewis during this rhetorical war, getting so close that he has become a periodic visitor at Lewis’s Panama estate since Noriega’s ovenhrow.

It would be an oversimplification to attribute D’Amato’s sea change solely to a Northville agenda. While many factors were surely involved, D’Amato’s goal of compelling an American take-out of Nor­iega was perfectly compatible with North­ville’s objectives. The company’s spokes­man Ackell concedes that during this period, Northville was “very anti-Noriega,” including “everybody who worked for us down there, from the workers to the manag­ers,” adding that the company was “pleased” with the December 1989 inva­sion. Indeed, on the eve of the invasion the Washington Post reported that if it “contin­ues as planned, it should become easier for Northville Industries to do business in Panama.”

Relations between Northville and Nor­iega were so strained in 1988 and 1989 that the company stopped meeting altogether with its partners on the Petroterminal board, which Noriega had stacked with his brother-in-law, publicist, and finance min­ister. A freeze ordered by the Reagan ad­ministration, and expanded under Bush, barred Northville and other American busi­nesses in Panama from making any pay­ments to the Noriega government, and Northville pumped over $70 million due to Panama into an escrow account here. Northville got a waiver from federal offi­cials so that they could keep the payments in its own account, rather than make them to the exiled Delvalle government, a shell entity recognized by the U.S. Fat with funds from other American interests, the Delvalle government retained as its lobby­ist John Zagame, the former D’Amato aide who is still very close to the senator, and Rich Bond, the current head of the Repub­lican National Committee.

Throughout these tense two years, the pipeline continued to function virtually un­interrupted, with Noriega apparently con­vinced that any disruption of the line might be used as a rationale for an American invasion. He even used his army to force striking electrical workers back on their jobs in early 1988, in part because the strike had knocked out a pumping station along the pipeline. While anti-invasion leaders like Rognoni believe that Northville was itself trying to cause a stoppage in early 1988 to provoke U.S. action against Nor­iega, Ackell says the company was simply biding its time.

Since Noriega was replaced with the cur­rent American-installed Endara govern­ment, relations with Northville, said Ackell, have been “very good, as good as things can go.” The only one left muttering is opposi­tion leader Rognoni, who calls D’Amato a hypocrite and claims that Noriega himself once told him “how surprised he was that D’Amato had turned against him.” ❖

SPECIAL REPORTING ASSISTANCE BY SUSANNA DOYLE. RESEARCH BY SCOTT ANDERSON AND LOU PACILLI. 

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LETTERS TO PRISON

While U.S. Senator Al D’Amato was ready to go to war in Panama to nail one drug dealer, his office relayed letters to federal prison officials on behalf of 23 drug dealers who were complaining about their treatment in jail, the Village Voice has learned. The senator also for­warded letters from two mob bosses, in­cluding Phil Rastelli, the former head of the Bonanno crime family.

While other federal officials also pass along similar letters, D’Amato has set a record for one more form of constituent service. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons says it sent 50 prisoner response letters in a recent year to D’Amato, compared with a mere 15 for D’Amato colleague Pat Moy­nihan, and a total of 13 to a sample group of five congressmen.

From 1987 10 1991, crimebuster D’Amato sent more than 200 such letters about inmates whose offenses ranged from heroin and cocaine distribution to murder and racketeering. The prisoners’ sentences ranged from a year to 75 years, including one drug dealer with a 20-year sentence. Because prison officials will only disclose fragments of the correspondence file, it is impossible to determine how many times D’Amato wrote his own letter on behalf of the prisoner in addi­tion to relaying the prisoner’s letter.

The letter D’Amato forwarded for Phil Rastelli sought a transfer from Oklahoma to a prison closer to his New York home, citing medical reasons. The June 1987 letter to D’Amato was written only eight months after Rastelli began serving a life sentence. When D’Amato sent the Ras­telli request to the bureau, his form letter took no position on the merits of the proposed move.

Robert Fueselo, executive director of the Chicago Crime Commission, said he regarded the routine forwarding of these letters “as inappropriate as can be to act on behalf of any prisoner who has been involved in hideous crimes, let alone an organized crime boss.” Rudy Giuliani said it was okay to forward this kind of letter without screening it, “except in the most notorious cases.” D’Amato for­warded more letters for drug offenders than any other criminal category. — W.B.

Categories
CRIME ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Mark “Gator” Rogowski: Free Fallin’

How Skateboard King Mark “Gator” Anthony Was Born Again As a Rapist and Murderer

While he awaited trial, Mark “Gator” Anthony’s cell in the San Diego County jail lay at the foot of a hill in Vista, California. At the very top of that hill, four-and-a-half miles up from the jail, was the rundown skateboard park where Gator had his last ride, MacGill’s Skatepark. There, a handful of teenagers skated the ramps, rolling in and out, doing flips, handstands, board slides, ollies … and every once in a while, some daring kid would attempt a “lean 360.” It’s a notoriously difficult move, in which the skater tries to get enough momentum and height to fly vertically out of the bowl with his body almost perpendicular to the ground, spin around once completely, and then land where he’d taken off, inside the bowl, but this time rolling backward toward the bottom.

That move was called the “Gait-air,” named for its originator, the man who sat in the jail at the bottom of the hill. For years Gator was skateboarding’s biggest star. When he first started skating, 15 years ago, his moves were so creative, so aggressive, so — there’s no other word for it — radical, that he was able to turn pro at the tender age of 14. By the time he was 17, he was making $100,000 a year.

To skateboarders everywhere, he was a hero. He boasted of being a roving ambassador, telling skating magazines how he was going to turn the whole non-skating world on to the sport. He and his beautiful live-in girlfriend, Brandi McClain, were the skateboarding couple: they starred in skating videos together, they worked as models together, they even appeared together in a Tom Petty video. Gator gave tips to beginners in Sports Illustrated for Kids. There was a Gator clothing line, Gator skate boards, Gator videos. “I had it all,” he says today, sitting in his prison cell. “I had different cars, a big house on an estate, even girls — I had the prettiest, most popular, hah, most voluptuous, most unscrupulous girls. I say that I ‘had a girl.’ I once considered girls a possession. That’s crazy.”

Crazy or sick. Because despite all he had, on March 20, 1991, Gator beat twenty-one-year-old Jessica Bergsten over the head with a steering-wheel lock called the Club and raped her for nearly three hours. Then he strangled her in a surfboard bag and buried her naked in the desert 100 miles away.

There were no witnesses, no one heard her screams, and the murder weapon was never found. Yet something drove Gator to confess his crime.

This is the story of the rise and fall of Mark “Gator” Anthony.

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STOKED

Skateboarding, like other California phenomena such as surfing and savings-and-loan scams, had a tremendous surge in popularity in the 1980s. Skateboard parks were erected across the planet. Skateboard manufacturers became multimillion-dollar companies branching out into clothing, sneakers, even movies. Crude videos were slapped together featuring the latest moves by top skaters, and they sold by the thousands. The National Skateboarding Association was sponsoring contests all over North America, Europe, and Japan, and first-prize money reached $5,000 to $7,000 per event.

All this was fueled by a handful of San Diego County teenagers who had become the sport’s superstars, and Gator was one of them. Born Mark Anthony Rogowski in Brooklyn, he moved with his mother and older brother to San Diego at age three, following his parents’ divorce. They ended up in Escondido, a sun baked, middle-class suburb in northern San Diego County. Classic Reagan country, with surfers, malls, churches, and loads of disaffected middle-class youth, it was there that Gator, at age 7, discovered skating.

“I grew up without a father from day one,” Gator told Thrasher magazine interviewer M.Fo in 1987, “and my brother kinda filled that gap. He was a bitchin’ influence on me. He made me a good baseball player and an athlete in general. What was cool was that he was stoked that I was skating, too. Skating was somewhat deviant.”

By 1977, Gator, 10, was skating regularly, but because he didn’t have as much money as his friends he didn’t quite fit in. “I was a social outcast back then,” he told Thrasher. “My fellow skater friends were all hyped on the surf thing — who had what board, the newest O.P.’s, and who had a Hang Ten shirt. Then there I was, running around in Toughskins, y’know … They were all wrapped up in the fashion and those types of superficial interests, they ended up fading out and I fucking lasted.”

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Gator got his chops down at a local skatepark’s half-pipes, moguls, and pool in the shape of a bra dubbed “the 42D Bowl.” And he found a new set of skating friends. “These guys were so into it, having such a good time, sweatin’ and laughin’ and crackin’ jokes and just snakin’ each other. It was a full soul session, everybody was just shralpin’ it up. When they went into the bowl, their expressions changed to a ‘going into battle’ expression, going for it, no holds barred. When they popped out of the bowl, they’d get a smile on their faces and yelp and chime. It was hot.”

An obvious talent, young Gator was picked up by the skatepark team and began winning local contests. Bigger sponsors followed, and in 1982 he won the Canadian Amateur Skateboarding Championships in Vancouver, his first major title. With his green eyes and dark, lean good looks, charming personality, and aggressively physical skating style, he rose to the top rank of the sport.

Tony Hawk and Christian Hosoi rounded out the triumvirate of 1980’s skating superstars. “That was a great time for us,” says Hawk, who has been called the Wayne Gretzky of skating. “We were making a ton of money, we flew all over the world, there were skating groupies at every stop. It was pretty cool to see a bunch of guys from San Diego County at the center of this huge thing. No doubt, we were stoked.”

The primary vehicle for the wealth of pro skaters was skateboard sales, and Gator was one of the hottest tickets in that market too. A Gator skate “deck” — the board (decorated with his nickname rendered in an op art vortex or pastel quasi-African design), sans wheels and suspension system — would sell for up to $50, of which Gator would receive $2. At their peak, monthly sales of the Gator board reached seven thousand, earning him an easy $14,000. But the cash didn’t end there; he also had his contest winnings and lent his name to a slew of products made by Vision Sport, a skateboard merchandising company. There were Gator shirts, berets, hip packs, videos, stickers, posters — it seemed kids couldn’t get enough of him.

“Gator, Gator, Gator … every issue of Thrasher had Gator doing something,” says Perry Gladstone, who owns FL (formerly Fishlips), a skateboarding company near San Diego. “He was always a part of everything. There were Gator stories, Gator spreads, full-page Gator ads — he was a hero to us. We’d read about their parties, the girls … you’ve gotta understand, top skaters were like rock stars, traveling all over the world, living the life … and Gator was the wildest of them all.”

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Wild for sure, as Gator himself indicated in the ’87 Thrasher interview, when he talked about the rush he got from riding walls at 90 degrees, and “on the left side of the picture there’s a bum with a bottle or a junkie with a needle hangin’ out of his arm,” and on the right side there’s a skater “sweatin’ it out and cussin’ at the wall and — Bam! — fucking forging reality, pushing his body up the wall.” One of the benefits of this, said Gator, was that “it’s a real productive way of venting some way harsh aggressions. Instead of breaking a bottle and slashing some body’s face, you’re throwing yourself at a wall with sweat dripping in your eyes.”

Gator boasted to friends that while touring the South he would walk into liquor stores and 7-Elevens stark naked, rob them, then get drunk in the cornfields while police helicopters searched for him overhead.

On another of those wild tour dates, in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1987, Gator, then 21, met two beautiful 17-year old blondes from rich families, Jessica Bergsten and Brandi McClain. Brandi and Gator partied that entire weekend, which wasn’t unusual considering the groupies who awaited him in every town. But Brandi was different. Soon he was flying her to San Diego to visit him, and a few months later, she left Tucson for good and moved in with Gator.

He had bought a ranch in the mountains near Tony Hawk’s new ranch, which he’d equipped with a whole series of wooden skating ramps. But Brandi became bored with the ranch and few months later Gator sold it. They moved to a condominium in the upscale beachside community of Carlsbad, one block away from the ocean.

Gator and Brandi were inseparable. They caroused all night in Carlsbad bars, made the scene at all the San Diego parties. They were the hottest couple on the beach. “We would get high every night,” says Brandi. “We wouldn’t do coke every night, but we’d do bong hits, we’d go to the Sand Bar at the end of his street, and get fucked up. Then we’d hang out in his Jacuzzi, get drunk off our asses, and go in and have wild sex all night.”

Gator spared no expense on Brandi. So that she could join him at competitions, “he flew her to Brazil and Europe,” says Gator’s brother Matt Rogowski. “He bought her two cars. She was a gold digger, but when they were together, they were absolutely in love and you could see it.” The couple did modeling jobs together. Brandi appeared in Gator’s videos, and when he appeared in Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” video, she was in it too.

If he was a celebrity in southern California, in Carlsbad, the unofficial skateboarding capital of the world, he was a megastar. Surfboard shops would just give him all the equipment h wanted, skaters would ask for his autograph or Gator stickers t put on their boards. Despite his ardor for Brandi, when he was alone he’d walk up to beautiful women on the beach, say, “Hi I’m Gator,” and instantly have their undivided attention. With his looks, youth, and arrogance born of money and fame, in the holy land of skateboarding, Gator was his own god.

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BLIND DUDE

But while Gator was getting fat and happy cashing in on his skateboarding fame, by the late eighties a new, hipper type of skateboarding was challenging the dominance of his genre. It was called street skating, where skaters opted for urban obstacles like curbs, garbage cans, and stairways over the traditional skate board parks. Street skaters wore their pants around the knees, eschewed protective pads and helmets and counted on frequent run-ins with the police. Characterized by the sound of boards smacking against the pavement, it was louder, more dangerous, decidedly anti-establishment and, therefore, more appealing to the kids. Vertical ramp skating techniques, of which Gator was the master, were rapidly becoming obsolete. Vision, the company that sponsored Gator and dozens of other top skaters, was about to file Chapter 11.

“He was really worried about becoming a dinosaur,” says Perry Gladstone, to whom Gator confided. “This was an entirely new type of skating. It was rad, more amped, and all the kids wanted to be a part of it. But except for Tony Hawk, none of the old pros could really skate both vert and street, and Gator was stressed out about it.” Gator himself once told M.Fo just how stressed out he would get if he had to quit skating. “I’d probably have some suicidal tendencies. I’d feel low, cheap. I’d feel like nothing. I couldn’t exist … no way, I’d kill myself. Lose my spirit, I’d float away and my carcass would get buried.”

Gator was still trying to milk vert skating for all he could. He talked to his family about marrying Brandi and settling down. Then, in October 1989, after a competition in West Germany, the party animal in Gator reared up and bit him. In typical Gator fashion, he spent the night getting sloshed, wandering from party to party. The accident that ensued is a skateboarding legend — a drunken Gator, partying with a bunch of other skaters, leapt out of a second-story window, convinced that he could fly.

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Although Gator himself doesn’t remember what happened, some of his friends say that he was actually trying to sneak back into his hotel after hours by crawling up a terrace. Whatever the cause, the result nearly killed him. He landed on a wrought-iron fence, impaling his neck, face, and thumb. He survived and was patched up in Germany, but upon returning home he spent months in San Diego with plastic surgeons trying to save his modeling career.

The Gator who emerged from the San Diego hospital shocked his friends and admirers. He looked the same, but he sounded completely different. “Jesus Christ spoke to me through that accident,” said Gator. “I was a blind dude, but now I can see.” Gator had been born again.

Augie Constantino takes the credit for Gator’s metamorphosis. A skateboarder and former professional surfer who lived just two blocks from Gator and Brandi, Constantino had suffered an accident similar to Gator’s four years earlier. “I was in Hawaii out drinking with some other pro surfers,” says Constantino. “After leaving the party, me and a friend of mine were playing chicken when he hit me head on, doing 45 miles per hour. I guess I lost.” The quadriceps in his right leg were severed, ending his pro surfing career. But Constantino decided that it was a message from God, and that he should devote his life to Christ.

Thus was born the man known as “the skateboard minister.” In his stonewashed jeans, cowboy boots, and bolero jacket, he stands out from his fellow Calvary Chapel parishioners. He’s built like a fireplug, wears a goatee, and has one eye slightly askew — a result of his accident. “I met Mark just before he left for Germany,” says Constantino from the office he keeps in the back of the church. He’s vague about his official role at the church, where, he says, he is “a lay minister” who runs a youth hotline, but he adds that officially he is a church custodian.

“I introduced Mark to a personal God, a God the father,” says Constantino. “Mark never had a father to speak of. I showed Christ to him and as the Bible says, He’s our own true father. So of course that appealed to Mark.” It was around this time that Gator started calling himself Mark Anthony instead of Mark Anthony Rogowski, because, as he later said, “I didn’t want to be associated with my father at all.”

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When Gator’s wounds healed, he joined Constantino. He started covering his boards with religious symbols and preaching to skaters, surfers, and anyone else who would listen about his “secret friend,” Jesus. Witt Rowlett, owner of Witt’s Carlsbad Pipelines, the premier surf shop in Carlsbad, says that everyone was amazed. “I believe in the Lord, don’t get me wrong,” says Rowlett. “But Mark was just fanatic. Everything he said was ‘Jesus this, the Bible that.’ He was way into it.”

Others, however, dismissed it as typical behavior from Gator. “Yeah, he was fanatic, but that’s just it, he was fanatic about everything,” says Gladstone. “That was just Gator.”

But Brandi would have none of it. Gator dragged her along to Calvary Chapel a few times, but she wasn’t ready for the party to end. “We literally had sex five times a day, we were so in love,” says Brandi. “Then he met Augie and started saying, ‘We can’t have sex anymore unless we get married.’ And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve been going out for four years, having mad sex for four years, and we can’t have sex anymore? I can’t deal with this. Later.’ ”

Brandi moved in with her mother and stepfather, who had recently moved to San Diego.

“Mark was devastated,” says Constantino. “I think that it upset him even more than his accident in Germany. Look, here’s an exact explanation of what happened to her.” He reaches for his “sword” — a well-thumbed, red Bible on his bookshelf.

“First Peter, Chapter 4, Verse 3. ‘Then, you lived in license and debauchery, drunkenness, revelry, and tippling, and the forbidden worship of idols. Now, when you no longer plunge with them into all this reckless dissipation, they cannot understand it.’ ” He shuts the Bible with a thump. “There. You see? Brandi just didn’t get it. Mark had found a new life in Christ.”

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THE DESERT

Despite his newfound devotion to Jesus, Gator’s response to Brandi’s leaving was decidedly un-Christian, particularly after she started seeing one of the guys she surfed with. Gator started calling her mother’s house, leaving messages on the answering machine. “Mark was crazy,” says Brandi. “He was calling me up leaving all these freaky messages. He’d growl. ‘You bitch! You cunt! You’re gonna fry in hell from your toes!’ Weird shit like that.”

One night, Brandi came home to find that someone had broken into her house through her window, taking everything that Gator had ever given her. Brandi and the police suspected Gator.

“He took it all back, including the car,” says Terry Jensen, an investigator from the San Diego County district attorney’s office, to whom Brandi later recounted the story. “It’s kind of like a typical young teenage stunt. That’s what you do when you’re 15, 16 years old and you lose your first girlfriend. You want all your money back, every necklace, every ring. You know, ‘Give me my high school jacket and my class ring because we’re not going steady anymore.’ Well, that’s what he did.”

Brandi still hoped they might reconcile. On one such attempt, she invited Gator to take her out to dinner. But they started arguing as soon as they pulled out of her parents’ driveway. “He was still so mad about the guy I was seeing,” says Brandi. “He’s the one that told me to go out and find one of my surfer friends to party with. So I did! I found this hot little blond surfer guy, 6-1.

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“And Mark was furious. He was driving out in the middle of this nowhere road out where my parents live when he turned to me with this really scary, serious look in his eye. His voice got all deep and, you know, he sounded like the devil. He says, ‘You know what? I should take you out to the desert right now. I should drive you out right in the middle of the night and beat the shit out of you and leave you there. And I would get away with it, because everybody would know that you deserved it.’

“I started crying and begging him to take me home right now. I’m like, ‘My mother knows where I am.’ And he took me back.”

Brandi was scared enough to flee to New York, not telling anyone but her family where she was going. She didn’t even tell her best friend Jessica in Tucson about the incident, so when Jessica showed up in San Diego a few weeks later, she called Gator asking him to show her the sights.

“Everything that I hated about Brandi, I hated about Jessica,” Gator would later tell the police. “She was of the same mold that Brandi was made of.” He told the police that he blamed Jessica for his breakup. Jessica, of course, had no idea about any of this.

Like Brandi, Jessica was tall, blond, and beautiful, and her friends remember her as tough, savvy, and adventurous. “She was an incredibly intelligent, free-spirited girl,” recalls Brandi. “She wanted to have fun and nothing else mattered. We would go to Mexico together, and she would, say, get so drunk that she would leave me there. If I couldn’t get into bars — because we were under age and had fake IDs — she would leave me outside for three hours waiting while she drank.

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“But we were best friends. We were very much alive. It was, like, quick, we’re going to have the very best lives, and we’re going to have them now.”

On Wednesday, March 20, Jessica and Gator had lunch at an Italian restaurant in La Jolla, then returned to his condo with some movies and a few bottles of wine. As she was getting ready to leave, Gator went to his car, ostensibly to see if his driver’s license was there.

Waiting in his living room, Jessica looked at the picture on his mantel, where Gator proudly displayed his favorite picture — a shot of him skydiving, facing the camera, screaming at the top of his lungs while plummeting to earth. As she stared at the picture, Gator snuck up behind her, hitting her two or three times in the head and face with the metal steering-wheel lock. She fell to the floor, blood gushing from her head, so much so that it soaked right through the carpet. He handcuffed her and carried her upstairs to his bedroom. There, he shackled her onto the bed, cut her clothes off with scissors, and raped her for two or three hours.

Jessica, still conscious, begged him to stop, occasionally screaming. In an attempt to shut her up, he pulled a surfboard bag from his closet and stuffed her inside it. She screamed that she couldn’t breathe. He clasped his hands around her neck and strangled her.

Gator flipped over his mattress to hide the blood that was there, then put Jessica’s body, her cut-up clothing, the bag, the handcuffs, and the Club in the trunk of his car. He drove for two hours into the desert, pulled off the highway at a desolate place called Shell Canyon, and buried her naked body in a shallow grave. As he drove back to Carlsbad, he tossed her bloodstained clothes, his sheets, and the club out the window. On his way back to the condo, he rented a carpet steamer, and cleaned out every spot of blood he could from the rug. When police came to question him about her disappearance a couple of weeks later, there was no evidence to be found.

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THE POSTER AT 7-ELEVEN

Jessica’s father, Stephen Bergsten, a Tucson lawyer, had enough to worry about without his daughter disappearing. One of his clients was under investigation by an Arizona drug task force, while rumors were rife that he himself was being investigated for money laundering. But when his daughter stopped calling soon after leaving for southern California, the panicked father, unsatisfied by efforts of the San Diego police, flew to San Diego to find her himself.

He plastered the entire county with posters that read MISSING PERSON with a picture of a grinning Jessica, her vital statistics (5-8, 115 pounds, blond hair, blue eyes, fair complexion), and the telephone numbers for the San Diego police department. He talked to her friends, he even met with Gator to ask about her whereabouts. Gator shook his hand and told him, No, he didn’t know where Jessica was. Bergsten’s efforts were to no avail. There were no other witnesses to her disappearance. Two months went by without any leads.

But one of the posters stayed plastered up next to a phone booth at a 7-Eleven two blocks from Gator’s condo. Next to the beach, with a pizza shop next door, the convenience store is a favorite hangout for young Carlsbad surfers and skateboarders. It was also a favorite place for Constantino and Gator to preach their message of Christianity to young kids hanging out. For Constantino, he was terrific bait for young skaters willing to listen to just about anything to meet Gator.

“One night at the 7-Eleven,” remembers Constantino, “Gator and I were witnessing and I saw this young girl with what they call a miniskirt — I call them towels. I said to her, ‘Go and put some clothes on and when you come back, I’d like to talk to you about Christ.’ And she said, ‘I’ve got nothing to worry about, I’ve got no problems.’ I pointed to the poster. ‘What about that girl?’ I said. ‘She had nothing to worry about. But where is she now? She could have been involved in drugs, pornography. Maybe she’s dead.’ The girl just ignored us and jumped into a car. But I got a strange reaction out of Mark. He was just kind of blank, silent.”

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Seeing the picture of Jessica, and seeing it in the presence of Constantino, was too much for Gator. One night, after a Bible study at Constantino’s house, Gator returned to the house with tears streaming down his face. “I was getting ready for bed when I answered the door,” recalls Constantino. “He was crying and said he was Judas Iscariot. We both sat and cried. We prayed for about an hour, asking God what we should do. About a week later he came to me and said, ‘Remember that girl in the poster? She was the one I killed!'”

Constantino remembers what he told Gator as he drove him to the police department in the early morning of May 5. “I said to him, ‘Mark, you don’t need a lawyer. You don’t need innocent until-proven-guilty. What do you need a lawyer for, if you answer to a higher power? If a person is accountable to God, then he’s accountable to society — the Bible says that.”

Constantino scoffs at the idea that perhaps his legal advice wasn’t the best. Nor does he think it was unethical for him, as a minister, to turn in someone confessing to him. “Mark didn’t come to me as a minister, he came to me as a friend. Anyway, I’m not an ordained minister. He knew exactly what was going to happen.”

The police were astonished that someone was turning himself in for a murder that they didn’t even know had happened. Jessica’s body had been found in the desert by some campers on April 10, but the body was so badly decomposed that it could not be identified. The next morning Gator led detectives to where he’d buried the body. Uncuffed, standing under the hot desert sun, Gator watched as they dug around for more evidence, photographed the site, and talked to the local police.

When the police announced Gator’s confession, the press jumped all over it. It was the lead story in the local papers, local television ran nightly updates as the case unfolded, and on national TV, Hard Copy did a “dramatic reenactment” of the rape, murder, and subsequent confession. The initial reaction of the skateboarding world’s street wing was best expressed by Koby Newell, a 15-year-old who skated with Anthony at Carlsbad. “He was getting old,” Newell told the San Diego Union, “but he was keeping up with the moves.”

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Skating’s more established wing reacted with a bit more shock. Perry Gladstone had just signed Gator to endorse a new line of skateboards for Fishlips, which ironically featured a takeoff on the 7-Eleven logo. “I came home the night he confessed to find 87 messages on my answering machine. They were all reporters wanting me to talk about Gator. My wife and I were with him two or three days every week for months setting this deal up. He was such a great guy, I just couldn’t believe it.”

The violent, anti-authority image of skateboarding — symbolized in Thrasher magazine’s old motto “Skate or Die” — combined with the sex and bondage aspects of the murder, fed the press’s sensationalist treatment of the story. One of the many videos Gator did with Brandi was called Psycho Skate, which fed the frenzy even more. Skateboarders felt that the coverage was turning into an indictment of their sport, not just Gator. “It’s likely the skateboarding world will be placed under a microscope in the media,” warned Thrasher. “Let’s just hope that we can all remain strong.”

He became a cause célèbre in San Diego County. Kids decorated their jeans jackets with the phrase Free Mark Anthony. But there were also bumper stickers that read Skateboarding Is Not a Crime — Murder Is. Mark Anthony Should Die. Skateboarders who talked to the press about it were ostracized. “It was a terrible event for skateboarding,” says Gladstone. “Skating’s no more inherently violent than heavy metal is inherently satanic. But people in the media tried to make it seem as if skating is a threat to the youth of America. I think you’ll find that most skaters won’t even talk about Gator.”

The police continued to compile evidence in case Gator decided to plead not guilty to a murder charge. They found the bloodstains under Gator’s carpet, and a carpet-cleaner receipt (Gator’s accountant had instructed him to save all his receipts). Gator was charged with “special circumstances,” committing a murder during rape, which under California law can warrant the death penalty or life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

Unable to get a lawyer, he was appointed a public defender, self-described “glory seeker” John Jimenez, a short, stocky former PTA president who drives a Harley-Davidson. After taking the case, Jimenez immediately challenged the validity of the confession, saying that Gator’s minister had no right to turn him in. Jimenez appealed the rape charge, insisting that the decomposed body could show no signs of forcible rape. Although he never denied that Gator had killed Jessica, he suggested that it was her own fault. He told a reporter that Jessica was a “slut,” claiming to have a long list of people with whom she’d had sadomasochistic sex, including the entire University of Arizona basketball team and a handful of pros — their names, however, were off the record. “Hey,” says Jimenez, “it’s like Sam Kinison said, some girls just turn Mr. Hand into Mr. Fist.”

At the time these remarks were made, the San Diego Metropolitan Homicide Task Force was investigating the murders of forty-four women whose bodies had been dumped in isolated places around the county since 1985.

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THAT FILTH

Eventually, when the higher court refused to toss out the rape charge, on Jimenez’s advice Gator pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and rape, thus avoiding the death penalty or life without chance of parole. At the January 1992 hearing in which he entered his plea, Gator submitted a remarkable four-page written statement that hinted at the struggle going on in his mind before his crime, during its commission, and afterward. In the statement he admitted that although his original confession “was directed by the Lord,” in the subsequent eight months he had been “tempted to dodge responsibility, deceiving myself as well as others.” But now, at last, “I’ve been led to a full, true repentance, having nothing to hide. Thank God.”

Finally able to express “my regret and my sorrow over our loss of Jessica,” Gator tried to explain why he’d done what he did. “Two months prior to the incident,” he wrote, “I found myself in the midst of some surprisingly strange and almost uncontrollable feelings. All at once the plague of vile visions and wicked imaginations and the daily battle to suppress them was overwhelming. It’s no exaggeration to say I became completely enslaved to these devious mental images and inescapable thoughts …

“Essentially, I became a victim first, because I turned my back on God in several ways, thinking I could get through it on my own power.”

Slave, victim, but still expressing regret and “without deferring the blame for my actions,” Gator targeted three things that influenced his state of mind:

“Firstly, sex outside of marriage, i.e. promiscuity, premarital sex and cohabitation, the disease of jealousy, and the unhealthy obsession that so often attaches to these.

“Secondly, pornography and its addictive character. Ranging from risqué public advertising, all the way to hardcore S&M, this dehumanizing of women and men and its dulling of the senses occurs at all levels. Porn is a consuming beast …

“Thirdly, closing the ears and heart to God’s counsel, including partial or non-repentance and disobeying and ignoring the Bible … So people, we must realize, without reduction, the gripping strength and deceptive subtlety of sin! What will it take for us to examine ourselves and listen? The tragedy of an innocent young woman’s death? The fall of your favorite celebrity? O.K., perhaps the imprisonment of your best friend or relative?…

“I know the Lord forgave me 2000 years ago on the cross at Calvary. And although I attempt to forgive myself daily,” wrote Gator, the struggle over his ultimate culpability still raging in his head, “I haven’t quite been able and may never be able to do so.”

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Gator’s sentencing took place on March 6. It was quite a spectacle for a suburban courtroom. Five uniformed bailiffs used a hand-held metal detector to screen each observer. They had received information that Stephen Bergsten, who would attend the hearing with his wife, Kay, was going to try to harm Gator. Eight months earlier Bergsten had been indicted, along with 44 others, as part of a nationwide drug ring. With his property in two states seized by the government and his daughter brutally murdered, there was speculation that he had nothing left to lose by killing Gator.

With the bailiffs standing between Bergsten and Gator, the skater offered a solemn apology to Jessica’s family, asking them to forgive him. “God has changed me, and it was no typical jailhouse conversion,” pleaded Gator. “I sincerely hope that they can accept my apology for my carelessness.”

“Carelessness?” Bergsten shouted. “He is a child-murderer and child-rapist. He is evil incarnate.” Gator, along with many others in the courtroom, cried as Bergsten continued in an angry 20-minute monologue. “Cowards die a thousand times and he will die a thousand deaths,” Bergsten shouted, his voice breaking. “He raped her and raped her and raped her and then thought, ‘Let’s kill her.’ We couldn’t say goodbye to Jessica because that filth left her with nothing but a piece of skin, left her for the coyotes and the goddamned birds to eat her.” He glared directly at Gator and said in a firm voice. “I told you — and you remember, Rogowski — what would happen if anyone hurt my daughter. He says he’s undergone a religious conversion. Judge, you must have heard that same story 100 times. If he underwent a religious conversion, it was to evil, degradation, filth, and satanism.”

Shortly thereafter, Superior Court judge Thomas J. Whelan sentenced Gator to consecutive terms of six years for forcible rape and twenty-five years to life for first-degree murder. Gator will not be eligible for parole until 2010 at the earliest.

Jimenez says that Gator “took some shit” when he was first put in the San Diego County jail. But one night soon after he was incarcerated, inmates crowded around a television to hear Gator’s story on Hard Copy. “After that,” says Jimenez, “I guess they thought he was a heavy dude, because the rest of the population has kept their distance ever since.”

Gator is trying to surround himself with other born-again Christians in jail. He is appealing his sentence, and has been placed in a medical facility (for manic depression).

Augie Constantino is continuing his studies to be a minister, while cleaning up the Calvary Chapel. He still preaches to surfers and skaters in the San Diego area working with a group called Skaters for Christ.

Stephen Bergsten’s money-laundering charges were dismissed two months ago in Tucson.

Brandi lives in a penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side, working as a flower arranger.

Jessica’s remains were buried in a family plot in Georgia.

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MY SUBMISSION TO HER WILES

Those who visit Gator in prison are struck at first by how truly repentant he seems, sitting in his cell in a loose-fitting navy-blue jumpsuit with SD JAIL stamped on the back, his once wild long hair now shorn and carefully combed, as he talks about his fall from grace.

“I had been exposed to pornography since I was a little boy, three years old,” he says. “In what form? In the form of sex, actual sex with people. I’m not going to say who, but with people in my childhood. First let me say that it wasn’t only incest. I don’t want to mention family members, of course, because I want to protect them. But let me put more emphasis on the fact that it was babysitters and older neighborhood kids.”

Has it occurred to him that if he was the victim of sexual crime as a child, he might have a propensity to carry out such crimes as an adult? “If you believe that it was a revenge killing and that it was prompted by Brandi, I would say yes,” he replies, and suddenly you’re listening to a dramatically different Gator than the one at whose sentencing a Catholic priest testified, “Never before have I encountered a person so clearly open about his responsibility.” You’re listening to a man skating away from the idea that the murder was really his fault.

“I did lay upon her with a steering lock at one point, but that was part of the S&M,” he says. “The fact is that it wasn’t rape. It was more like an involuntary manslaughter. If it weren’t for my submission to her wiles and the temptation of having such sex with her … ”

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Gator takes a deep breath, sighs, then continues. “I don’t want to defame Jessica at all. I’m very, very sorry about what happened to her. I just want to make it known that I was led into a sexual situation that I didn’t want to have anything to do with.

“I wouldn’t have submitted if I didn’t have some weakness, some background desire. You can go down the street to Coronet bookstore in Oceanside and buy a vast array of S&M bondage magazines, pictorials, descriptive pictorials, paperbacks that are step by step about how to lynch somebody sexually. It’s pretty sick. I got a lot of ideas.

“That night, I didn’t realize what kind of a purring feline she was. It’s really hard for me to say these things about Jessica, we lost her and I don’t feel good about that. I just want to make it known that I was led into a sexual situation that I didn’t want to have anything to do with. I was scared I’d be discovered with this wayward woman.

“There were a lot of kids in my neighborhood, my protégés in skateboarding who would have Bible studies with me. I was being an example to these impressionable kids. For them to see me with this woman and all that had been going on — the wine bottles, the cigarettes upstairs — it would have been devastating. In my attempt to quiet her, in her intoxicated and belligerent state, I had put my hand over her mouth to quiet her for a second so I could hear the voices and the footsteps coming up my walkway. She must have suffocated or had a seizure or a stroke or something. The next thing I knew, I look down and she’s not breathing and not moving.”

Mark “Gator” Anthony, who has finally broken up and out of the half-pipe of his guilt, will be forty-three years old before he is eligible for parole. He says he doesn’t think he’ll ever ride a skateboard again, but hopes that someday he’ll be free so he can learn to fly a kite. ❖

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Taking Aim at the Sex Pistols

Vicious and His Circle: Taking Aim at the Sex Pistols
From the Voice Literary Supplement

On the level of gossip, where most rock hagiographies tend to begin and end, the Sex Pistols’ bio contains no more death and decadence than a hundred other tales of fame and misfortune. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, even Geraldo Rivera all have more skeletons in their closets. “What you can never get in your book,” prophesies John Lydon to Jon Savage in England’s Dreaming, “is the utter, total boredom of being in a band.” But by placing their story in the context of the time — and even more significantly, by filtering its unprecedented theoretical drainage — Savage transforms the Pistols’ tale into an intellectual epic (and at 600 pages in length, including dis­cography, it had better be). Especially when stacked up against other recent takes on the same scene, one by a journalist and another by a band member, England’s Dreaming is a no-nonsense rendering of punk’s over­determined glory.

The whole project, however, is grounded in Savage’s personal enthusiasm, as one of several diary entries makes clear: “30.10.76: I go to see my first proper punk group. I know what it’s going to be like: I’ve been waiting for years, and this year most of all: something to match the explosions in my head. The group are called the Clash … One song: a genuine cry, a child scream­ing in fear: ‘Waa waa wanna waa waa.’ Within ten seconds I’m transfixed, within thirty, changed forever.”

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***

Formed by guitarist Steve Jones, fronted by a shamanic singer with rotten teeth, and named by manager/provocateur Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols (“Why didn’t they just call themselves the Penises?” wonders an analyst of my acquaintance) produced records that were clarion calls to anarchy and transformed concerts, inter­views, and meetings with their record com­panies into incendiary, tabloid-titillating events. During a two-year carnival of chaos, from 1976 to their breakup in 1978 as toothless victims of the apparatus they at­tempted to undermine from within, they ceaselessly disrupted business as usual on tired, stodgy Planet Rock. Less rock band than art project, “the group embodied an attitude into which McLaren fed a new set of references: late-sixties radical politics, sexual fetish material, pop history and the burgeoning discipline of youth sociology,” explains Savage, high claims he actually justifies without lapsing into either mind­less boosterism or I-was-there-and-you-­weren’t smugness.

Savage constantly returns to the primal fitting room scene, however, reminding us that punk rock can never be dissociated from its mondo-bondo dress code. “Never forget,” McLaren says to Savage early on in England’s Dreaming, “that clothes are the things in England that make your heart heat!” He omits the transitional artifice an introduction or preface might provide and instead tosses the reader into the middle of swinging England, onto the stoop of 430 King’s Road. There Vivienne Westwood and McLaren, “Couturiers Situation­nistes,” launched a mordantly entertaining and highly influential fashion movement generating countless safety-pinned cheeks, strategically torn T-shirts, besloganed jack­ets, and spikey haircuts tinted various col­ors unknown to nature. Chez Savage, their conception and dissemination were no less significant than the music itself in the con­struction of punk’s willful mocking of ev­eryday perversity. The clothing mirrored the era’s recessionary and reactive tenor in all its Thatcher-motivated bleakness and paranoia. As glam rock waned and disco had yet to wax, punk style provided the perfect cultural jolt, a new kind of “No!” that brought together fashion, music, press, and politics to tell the world a story En­gland still can’t be too eager to bear.

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More self-conscious than any popular music ever, and postmodern to the max, the Pistols and punk operated at the level of iconography, spectacle, and low-to-high concepts rather than mere sonic signifiers. McLaren’s genius was to exploit boredom with rock as institution, and then to sell a brutalist version of the same back to the kids under the guise of something com­pletely different, which it wasn’t. The Ra­mones, the Dolls, and a generation of New York art-school bands preexisted as role models from which McLaren took the ball and ran in the wrong direction, disguising his Warholian commercial inclinations be­hind naive appropriations of anarchist, Si­tuationist, and Lettrist fantasies.

In this regard, England’s Dreaming also functions profitably as an extended gloss on Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (wherein Savage is acknowledged as a “co-conspira­tor”), and that’s a compliment. Marcus’s wild analysis recuperates the Sex Pistols phenomenon as a hot and gnostic coda upon Dada, Situationism, Lettrism, etc. But where Marcus interprets the Sex Pis­tols as the mythic tale of John Lydon’s negation of the negation, Savage avoids apotheosizing McLaren, Lydon, or even Sid Vicious as a prime mover of this particular cultural blip. If punk is the subject, the Sex Pistols were its object. At times Savage sounds like a closet idealist, as when he quotes Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell in hopes of making this confusing era rever­berate mythically; but his analysis always returns to the fresh bedrock of modem mu­sic sociology as pioneered by such writers as Simon Frith and Dick Hebdige.

For a fly-on-the-wall perspective, it’s at least worth skimming Glen Matlock’s whinging I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol for a brisk reality check. The group’s original bass boy and primary songwriter was ex­pelled from the group in favor of Ur-punk Sid Vicious, so his bitterness, if not his syntax, are to be expected: “We created a lot of talk and a lot of pie-in-the-sky theor­ising, but what was the end result of it all? When you cut right to the chase, The Pis­tols — and the whole punk phenomenon — ­were an inoculation for the music business which has enabled it to survive in its cur­rent depressingly flat state … The Pistols have become one of history’s big So What?’s” And of course Matlock’s absolute­ly right and absolutely wrong at the same time. Punk rock’s recuperation by big busi­ness surprised only the most credulous believers in pop art as a revolutionary activity.

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Charles Shaar Murray offers a different report from the front in his embarrassingly titled Shots From the Hip, an uneven col­lection containing what seems like every syllable scribbled by the veteran hack be­tween 1971 and 1990, gaffes and all. For example, amid a somewhat prescient over­view of the New York punk scene circa 1975, Murray notes that “Blondie will never be a star simply because she ain’t good enough.” And then, a couple of months pri­or to the show that would change Savage’s life forever, Murray appraises the Clash as being “the kind of garage band who should be speedily returned to their garage, prefer­ably with the motor running.”

Beyond proving that John Simon has at least one British fan, Murray’s observations on the punk scene back then illustrate how much what we think of as punk rock is a journalistic construction after the fact. Punk was not particularly subtle as music, yet it threw open the doors to endless theo­rizing. These days, amid an almost inslilu­tional “punk revival,” it seems nothing less than the most immediately nostalgic pop style to come down the pike. Abject nihilism is still in fashion and, as Murray wrote in 1986, “The punchline is this: most people don’t want things changed to any funda­mental degree, but they do like a little bit of excitement now and again.”

You can’t get much more reductionist than that, but in that whimper of defeat there’s an element of the conclusion Savage draws in England’s Dreaming. Everything changed after the Pistols’ infamous appearance on Britain’s Today show in December 1976, during which allegedly intoxicated host Bill Grundy provoked Steve Jones into a volley of live-on-the-air curses. “From that day on,” Jones tells Savage, “it was different. Before then, it was just music: the next day, it was the media.” According to Savage, the subsequent backlash forced the Pistols into a reactionary trajectory leading to stasis, and worse: it reduced them to being an ordinary rock band and transformed punk from move­ment into cult. “They left the creation that was to follow destruction unstated and unresolved: as very few people had the courage to see nihilism through, this negation curdled into the nullities of dogma, cynicism or self-destruction.”

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***

Punk’s death was inscribed in its birth, of course. Born under a bad sign and swathed in basic black, London punkdom fought to overturn an overexposed city in which speed, both chemical and cybernetic, had subsumed space. The movement even had the audacity to present the swastika as its über-icon, which may have been its most unforgivable transgression. Punk’s dark lib­eration suggested what writer Nick Kent early on termed “Rock’n’Roll Fascism,” but Savage tends to take swastika usage at face value, as mere shock therapy. More than a merry détournement, punk’s fascination with fascist symbolism betrayed a somewhat less than healthy interest in au­thoritarianism and a decidedly masculinist sexography, while suggesting that punk rock, despite Rock Against Racism’s utopian rhetoric, was always more interested in exclusion than inclusion. And while Savage lauds the Crass as an example of a group that transcended punk’s political limita­tions, he neglects the battles of punk ideology still being waged in the pages of such fanzines as Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll.

But that is now and this was then. Cul­turally, nothing has happened with quite so much velocity and spunk since (William Burroughs’s recipe for riot — “Record, instant playback, fast forward” — becomes a nervous mantra for these events). Punk was a fabulous meaning generator, and Savage’s book is the movement’s most finely tuned reading so far. By the time you hit the 45-page discography that concludes England’s Dreaming, however, you might be less eager to reimmerse yourself in the music than in such responsive texts as Lipstick Traces and Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin’s 1989 collection On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word. Punk lives in these traces, these theories — and in a million bands— even more than in boxfuls of decaying singles and CD reissues. In its own way, punk is as dead as Elvis. Histories such as Savage’s, however, ensure that the zombie movement will stumble on for the diversion and edification of its believers — by their rainbow Mohicans and steel-tipped boots ye shall know them — at least until some­thing badder this way shambles. ■

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ENGLAND’S DREAMING: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond
By Jon Savage
St. Martin’s Press, $27.50

I WAS A TEENAGE SEX PISTOL
By Glen Matlock with Pete Silverton
Faber and Faber, $12.95 paper

SHOTS FROM THE HIP
By Charles Shaar Murray
Penguin, $10.95 paper

1992 Reviews of books about the Sex Pistols in the Village Voice by Richard Gehr

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Louis Jordan, Forefather of Rock ‘N’ Roll

Do riots have soundtracks? Is there mood music for civil unrest? Should we draw a line from Los Angeles, 1992, and the bleak ve­hemence of Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” back a quarter of a century to Newark, 1967, and the buoyant pride of Aretha Franklin’s “Re­spect”? If so — and why the fuck not? This is the way introductory paragraphs get started — then what do we find when we go back yet another quarter of a century, to 1942 and the Sojourner Truth Homes riots, the Detroit confla­gration that foreshadowed even greater rioting in Detroit and New York the following year?

That trouble in Detroit 50 years ago began on the morning of Feb­ruary 28, when a group of black families, attempting to enter the new Sojourner Truth Homes housing project as instructed by the Detroit Housing Commission, was met by an angry white mob standing hard against the project’s decreed integration. It was, to be sure, a conflict precipitated by white aggression. But when trou­ble rose anew in Detroit on the morning of June 20, 1943 — the same month the so-called zoot­suit riots broke out in Los Ange­les — it began with a spree of rob­beries and assaults by blacks against whites. And when rioting erupted in Harlem several weeks later, on August 1, the violence and looting was confined to the black community itself.

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The Justice Department’s 1943 observation that “large segments of the Negro community hate the police” came as a surprise to no one in Detroit. “Those police are murderers,” one 20-year-old black man in Detroit was quoted as say­ing, “I hate ’em, oh God, how I hate ’em.” The sentiment was there. But there was no Body Count to take it to market.

Things were different. Billboard had continued to publish a “Min­strelsy” column until 1939, only three years before the Sojourner Truth Homes riots. But by Octo­ber 1942, midway between those riots and the riots of the following summer, the trade weekly was publishing a new chart, the “Har­lem Hit Parade.” Soon there would be a riot going on in more ways than one. Something — in time, it would come to be known as rock ‘n’ roll — was gathering in the wind.

Louis Jordan’s first hit, “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” came in early 1942, con­current with the first Detroit riot­ing. Jordan by then was 33 years old, and he had been performing since he was 12, when he found summer work with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels in his native Ar­kansas. From Little Rock, where he studied music at Arkansas Bap­tist College and played alto saxo­phone with Jimmy Pryor’s Impe­rial Serenaders, he made his roundabout way to New York. There, in June 1929, in a group led by drummer Chick Webb, Jor­dan made his first recordings. Joining the Philadelphia-based Charlie Gaines Orchestra, Jordan made his next recordings in December 1932, when the Gaines group accompanied Louis Arm­strong at the Victor studio in Camden, New Jersey. In March and September of 1934, again with Gaines, Jordan played at two Clarence Williams sessions for Vocalion. At the first session, on a song called “I Can’t Dance, I Got Ants in My Pants,” Jordan was featured as a vocalist for the first time on record. In the fall of 1936, after working awhile in drummer Kaiser Marshall’s band at the Ubangi Club in Harlem, he rejoined Chick Webb, whose or­chestra, by then featuring Webb’s teenage singing discovery, Ella Fitzgerald, was the rage of the Sa­voy Ballroom. From that autumn through the spring of 1938, Jordan made 31 recordings with Webb and Fitzgerald, for Decca.

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Jesse Stone, who would go on to write “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and other rock ‘n’ roll classics, and who Ahmet Ertegun would say “did more to develop the ba­sic rock ‘n’ roll sound than anybody else,” was working at the Apollo Theatre in 1938.

“This was right after it had been turned over from being a white burlesque house. I worked for Leonard Harper, staging shows, composing songs,” Stone told me in the summer of 1983. “I also played with my band at the Club Renaissance in Harlem on weekends. That’s where Louis Jor­dan picked up on my style of sing­ing. I was doin’ arrangements for Chick Webb at the time, and Lou­is was playin’ third alto in Chick’s band. He asked Chick could he sing, and Chick said yeah. Louis said, ‘Well, Jesse’s gonna make a couple arrangements for me.’ So I made the arrangements. He tried ’em out one night and he went over great. Chick didn’t like that. He wouldn’t call the tunes again after that. So Louis quit. I encour­aged him, told him that if he wanted to sing, he should get away from Chick. He took my band, and they became the Elks Rendezvous Band.”

Named for the Lenox Avenue nightclub where they found their first steady work, Jordan’s band made its first recordings, for Dec­ca, five days before Christmas of 1938. Changing the band’s name soon after to Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five — a name he would never forsake, no matter how many musicians he brought onstage or into the studio — Jordan remained with Decca for more than 15 years. He became the biggest-selling black act of the ’40s with four of that decade’s 10 biggest r&b hits. More important, he made some of the greatest music that has ever been made; if any one man is to be given credit for siring rock ‘n’ roll, it is he.

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Let the Good Times Roll: The Complete Decca Recordings, 1938-1954 (Bear Family, PO Box 1154, 2864 Vollersode, Germany) is a magnificent collection: eight compact discs and one long-play vinyl album (Jordan’s duets with Ella Fitzgerald could not be li­censed for CD release here) com­prising and presenting the full de­velopment, breadth, and flow of Jordan’s main body of work in all its glory. Inspired in part by the popularity of the current stage re­vue Five Guys Named Moe, there has been renewed interest in Jor­dan of late. The recordings that he made, 1929-38, as a sideman and sometime singer, are now available on several compact discs in the Classics Chronological series from France. The Vintage Jazz Classics CD Five Guys Named Moe: The Best of Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five brings to­gether V-Disc and radio-pilot re­cordings from 1943-46. Jordan’s work after leaving Decca can be heard on the Capitol CD One Guy Named Louis: The Complete Alla­din Sessions and the new Verve CD No Moe! Even Jordan’s penul­timate session, done in Paris in late 1973, is now a CD, I Believe In Music, from Evidence. And there are videos as well — three compilations and a featurette. But know it: the Bear Family set rep­resents the heart of the Jordan corpus.

Jordan’s first number-one hit, “What’s the Use of Gettin’ So­ber,” recorded in New York City in the summer of 1942, 10 days before the Harlem riots, was a breezy piece of hokum, complete with an introductory comical col­loquy, that was little more than a jive-age rendering of an old-fash­ioned minstrelsy turn. The hits continued to come, and by the summer of 1944, when his “G.I. Jive” crossed over to the pop charts, Jordan’s commercial suc­cess was such that Decca brought him together in the studio with Bing Crosby, the golden idol of mainstream pop.

From 1938 through the Crosby duets, Jordan’s music remained essentially a captivating blend of swing, sweet, and jive. By 1945, however, the jive aspect — that elusive protopathic something that Jesse Stone called “my style”; that nascent poetry of hepcat ni­hilism set to the obliterating rhythm of the century’s rising pulse — began to bound forward with a rushing force that soon left swing and sweet in the dust. It can be heard, lush and wild, in the opening waves of “Buzz Me”; in the fierce, truncated saxophone breaks of “They Raided the House”; in the blare and squeal of “Caldonia Boogie” — all recorded on the same glorious day in Janu­ary 1945. Both “Caldonia Boo­gie” and “Buzz Me” became num­ber-one r&b hits and crossed over to the pop charts, impelling and forever imbuing the sound of things to come.

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Jordan by then had moved to Los Angeles. Back in New York, other reed-men — they had come out of the same sort of jazz bands as he — were brewing a strange new sound. By 1946, when Dizzy Gillespie and his All-Star Quintet released a record called “Be-Bop,” that strange new brew had a name; and by the summer of that year, when Charlie Parker record­ed “Lover Man,” jazz was as much about mystique as about music. Those musicians who culti­vated that mystique, that aura of the serious artist, would define jazz and the concept of hip in the decades to come. But the summer of alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker’s “Lover Man” was also the summer of alto-saxophonist Louis Jordan’s “Choo-Choo Ch’Boogie,” the biggest r&b hit of the year and a resounding smack to the face of all self-serious art and a smack as well on the ass of that newborn baby, conceived in rhythm and baptized in wine, called rock ‘n’ roll. It was a sundering smack, leaving the para­digm of hep forever cleft in twain. From here on in, one either sat squirming to the fingerfuck of ex­istentialism or one danced on the grave of pretensions.

The electric guitar had become a part of Jordan’s evolving sound in 1945, and by 1946 its presence was often as important as that of the saxophones. The electric-gui­tar licks that kick off “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman,” recorded in January of that year, would be recycled 12 years later by Chuck Berry in “Johnny B. Goode.” By the end of 1946, Jordan was at his musical peak, having arrived at a unique and consummate sound that was both a continuation of the old — he had not so much for­saken big-band swing as trans­formed its essentials into a driving force for new rhythms — and a foreshadowing of things to come. That peak can be heard in “Let the Good Times Roll,” the rau­cous birth-cry of a new era and the song that still best sums up the sound and style and achievement of Louis Jordan.

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Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” came out nine months after “Let the Good Times Roll” hit the charts, and by the summer of the following year, Wynonie Harris’s cover of Brown’s song was a number-one hit. Jordan continued to make fine music — “Saturday Night Fish Fry” in that summer of 1949, “Blue Light Boogie” in the summer of 1950 — but, in 1951, the hits stopped coming. The two compact discs here that cover the years 1950 to 1954 contain more than a few splendid surprises — the previous­ly unissued blues “If You’ve Got Someplace to Go”; the luxuriant, forth-bursting “If You’re So Smart, How Come You Ain’t Rich?”; the lowdown “I Gotta Move” — but they exude the lassi­tude of a man whose music was being eclipsed by others’, a man reverting more and more to the rote familiarity of past idioms, as if seeking refuge from a world whose sound was changing too fast and too deliriously. Just six months, a breath in time, sepa­rates Jordan’s last Decca session from Elvis’s first Sun session; but that breath is immense, one of expiration and of inspiration both.

As early as 1941, Downbeat, the voice of the hep status quo, damned Jordan’s music as “crap.” Since then, anything that takes a swipe at that status quo has been similarly damned, from Elvis to the Rolling Stones to Body Count. In the end, it is not the music that defines rock ‘n’ roll — the current that connects “Caldonia Boogie” to “Jailhouse Rock” to “Cop Kill­er” runs deep beneath the surface of the cultural waves — it is the damnation it evokes in its myriad disparate emanations.

Though more danceable than damnable, more conducive to ro­mancing than rioting, the blast of Louis Jordan’s music was the in­vocation that started it all. As his­tory — more important, as fun­ — this magnificent set brings that blast to life anew. ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

On Malcolm X: Can This Be the End for Cyclops and Professor X?

Can This Be the End for Cyclops and Professor X?
November 10, 1992

“I’m not a race man. I’m an X-man,” says Bullrose to Dravidiana, the she-ra with the Hi-8 video camera.

“As in Malcolm, of course?” she crack, whopping them blond dreads out of her face with ye olde roundhouse swing of the dome.

“No, as in Ice Man, Angel, Cyclops, and The Beast. My slave name used to be Scott Summers, dig?” A list that does not leave Dravidiana perplexed, just provoked into Bullrose’s bushwah.

“Whoa, Troop! What happened to X-Girl? You just erasin’ her from the pages of Marvel history?”

The gender interrogation feel like déjà vu to Bullrose. It take him back. Back before Dravidiana turned that lesbonic corner, back when she was his woman and he were her man, back when she routinely took him to task for the masculinist infractions.

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“I remember back in the day when being up on Marvel Comics’ lore was strictly a brother-thang. Can’t nothing be strictly a brother-thang anymore? I know how them all-white country clubs feel. Can’t get away from these niggas nowhere.”

“And woman is the nigga of the world,” proclaimed the she-ra. “But let’s stick to the point. The original question was…”

“… how many peckers did Peter Piper prick?”

“The original question was, why are so many young brothers sweatin’ Malcolm X’s dick so hard these days? Is it ’cause Spike Lee, Chuck D, BDP? Why you got the sleaze-ass likes of Big Daddy Kane saying he aspires to be a combination of Malcolm X and Marvin Gaye, a great Black leader and a sexy entertainer? And a virtual humanist like Vernon Reid coming out the box like he wants to be X and Hendrix rolled into one? How cum? Huh? Huh?”

“Well, all the brothers you mentioned led the way far as the resurrection goes, but X wouldn’t be making this kind of comeback if he wasn’t a bona fide superstar. I mean, the brother had style. He never took a bad photograph in his life. His records still sound dope. And no matter what kinda nigga y0u are, if you read his book you can see yourself in him. Like Chaka Khan said she was everywoman, X was every Black man. I mean, the brother had a multiple-identity crisis going on. Count ’em off: preacher, poet, pimp, prostitute, prophet, player, political activist, warrior-king, husband, father, martyr.

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“X occupies so many housin’ units in the Black male psyche, a brother can’t erase X without erasing himself. I don’t think he shot hoop, and he wasn’t a jazz musician, but he was a great jazz dancer, which is close enough to confer jazzman/jock cache on his godhead too.”

“But what do these brothers really know about brother Malcolm? All they know is what other niggas say about what a nigga he was. Jockin’ on the T-shirts, buttons, and shit. What do they know about his politics, which were like totally fucked up?”

“What does a young brother got to know? X was a smooth operator from the streets with a dope rap who stood up for Black folks and got shot down for doing it. That’s the stuff Black heroes are made of. Staying Black and dying for it. It’s a myth0-pop-poeic world out there. Brother been brought up on it same as everybody else. Malcolm was like JFK or Elvis. He was made for the TV age. Brother man was videogenic and gave great soundbites. The hip-hop nation got to dig him because he could rap, he had street knowledge, mother wit, and supreme verbal flow. You know how we value verbal prowess in the Black community. The brother or sister who can make stone rhetoric swing like a pickax to the brain. All of that is why the young brothers are on Malcolm’s jock so hard.”

“Do you think they’d be following him if he was alive today?”

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“If he was alive today they wouldn’t need to be following him. I mean, do you realize how different America would be today if King and X had been around to provide moral leadership and militant thrust to the Panthers and the Yippies and all them muhfuckuhs instead of them being left out there to freelance and fuck it up for themselves? But, you know, it’s cool, because Malcolm left the brothers their first revolutionary pop ikon. Nat Turner don’t count. Who even knows what he looked like? Coulda been a nerd. And when you dealing with American superstars, baby, all you need to know is he lived fast and died young, a martyr who went out in a blaze of glory. Dying under suspicious and mysterious circumstances helps too. That way you can really hype the conspiratorial element. Live heroes are a problem. They be getting all soft and wet and problematic on you. If you’re lucky enough to die young you can be remembered for being a hard muhfuckuh forever. We celebrate the death of Malcolm X for what it is — the birth of a new Black god. X is dead, long live X. He’s like the Elvis of Black pop politics — a real piece of Afro-Americana. That’s why Spike’s logo is branded with an American flag. Malcolm couldn’t have happened anywhere else.”

“Do you think Malcolm’s spirituality makes a difference to the youth at all?”

“Sure it does because that’s all part of the package, the construct we know as X the martyr. But spirituality is like anything else in America, you got to package it right. Malcolm had the right package. If being Muslim is how you get to be a righteous Black man like Malcolm, then you become Muslim. When you’re young, dumb, and full of cum and, lord knows, you gonna get you some, you like to think you got juice to pass judgment on the world, that youth makes right. Self-righteousness comes with the territory: You think however you living is justifiable because you a sexy young thing, maybe good with your hands or in some sport. But maybe not because it really ain’t as important as being proficient in Black Male Posturing. BMP is a bitch. Carry you farther than you will ever imagine in this world because the whole world gives it so much power. Except for the butch breed like yourself who on the whole are probably less impressed than anybody. And cocky because of it. Yeah, I be checking how arrogantly y’all will ignore a fine brother just because you know it fucks up his whole program. Y’all eat that shit up.”

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“You mean like you, boy-Romeo.”

“Being a loveman is a tough job but somebody has to do it, right? Anything else you want to ask me?”

“When did you first hear about Malcolm?”

“In my house growing up. I’m an old muhfuhkuh so we talking ’65, ’66 when I was around eight or nine. He was a regular on the turntable. ’longside Otis, Coltrane, and Nina Simone. We lived in a big three-story house. The stereo was a big old piece of furniture. So when my people played Malcolm on a Sunday it would fill up the house, every nook and cranny, you could almost smell Malcolm’s voice smoking up the joint. Seems like on Sunday my people kept Malcolm going like we keep candles and incense going today. Except for Nina Simone and Otis Redding and John Coltrane, the only records I can remember my people playing was X. Now all my mother listens to besides jazz-lite radio and weight-loss tapes is Public Enemy. There’s some kinda continuity there, I guess. I don’t know what happened to all those X records she had. Probably got stolen, or borrowed and never returned. They’re collector’s items really. Probably fetch a fine price on the open market.”

“What do you remember from the X oeuvre?”

“Certain phrases will stick with me forever. ‘I’m the man you think you are.’ ‘I’d do the same as you, only more of it.’ ‘You can’t get a chicken from a duck egg.’ I always liked that image. It always made me see a baby chick flopping around in an eggshell three sizes too big. ‘You can’t have a revolution without bloodshed.’ ‘Doesn’t matter if you’re a Baptist or a Methodist, you’ll still catch hell.’ That conjured an image in my mind too: churches burning down. That one where he talks about how if you were a citizen you wouldn’t need no Civil Rights bill. What’s funny is that even as a child — and I’m talking seven, eight years old — X made perfect sense to me. Maybe because he was talking about right and wrong in such binary terms, like in fairy tales. You know he painted the world as Black equals good and white equals evil. Black could be stupid, punk ass, and illogical but not evil. And white couldn’t be nothing but evil. Do I still believe that? Not expressly. On the other hand I’m not impressed by much of anything white people do except for some painters and photographers, a couple stand-up comics and the theoretical physicist types.”

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“Not to digress but you can be hard on your Black visual artists. Why is that?”

“The evidence speaks for itself. It’s not even about where’s the Coltrane, the Baraka, the Lady Day, the Fannie Lou Hamer of painting, sculpture, and photography. It’s about where is the Jr. Walker, the Iceberg Slim, the Gloria Lynne, the Shirley Chisholm. There’s very little Black visual work that personifies blackness. You got people that do good work but rarely does it not lack for the wit, pathos, and absurdity of Black existential reality. We got people that have rolled up close up on it. But it can get even blacker than that. I think so, anyway.”

“How can you quantify the blackness of visual practice and phenomena?”

“Only by the way it does things white boys can’t even contemplate. Like being a Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Miles Davis. If you a white boy you know there’s no way in hell you could be one of them because you could never step inside of history in their skin. Race doesn’t prescribe experience or predict emotional depth, but there are historical experiences that only being Black in space, time, and mind will make possible. You get my drift?”

“Sounds kinda essentialist to me. What’s really the difference between what you’re saying and calling white folks grafted devils?”

“Are we gonna have that old debate again? Look, there is a special kind of alienation you possess as Black person in this society that is all mashed up with your feeling of love and loathing and loyalty to Black folks as a whole. Unless you were raised among Black people you never develop certain sensitivities or neuroses about race and culture and identity that I believe are a fundamental inspiration for Black creative genius. Du Bois talked about Black folks and double consciousness. I think if you’re a Black intellectual you got quadruple, sextuple, octagonal consciousness beaming around your brain. You’re always trying to square things that have no lines and hard edges. Like where Africa ends and Europe begins. How to develop yourself without alienating those who are interested in development on whose behalf you are developing yourself. You know if Malcolm hadn’t had the Nation of Islam’s save-a-sinner program behind him to smooth all that kinda shit out he woulda been another alienated Black intellectual in deep crisis. Trying to figure out how to relate to the masses and redeem ’em without romanticizing and patronizing or, worst of all, pandering to them. It’s easy to challenge Black folks on self-destructive behavior. Harder to challenge us on reactionary practices like misogyny, homophobia, and thinking that intellectual development is a white thang. But what is Malcolm to you, Dravi? What are you looking for from these interviews and whatnot?”

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“Well, like, I was never raised to have heroes. I was raised to listen to what people said and look for how it contradicted what they did. I learned that the person who did a constructive thing for the community today could be about tearing it down tomorrow. I was taught how fragile and selfish most human beings are — except for Black mothers — and that holding power over people makes them even more fragile, vain and lonely and dangerous. Dangerous to others because their charisma makes folks want to let them do their thinking for them. Dangerous to themselves because they have to give up their humanity on the way to the hall of glory.

“I think history shows us that the revolutionaries and prophets that the state killed got a better deal than the ones who became living symbols. Because there’s nothing at the end of that road but bitterness, regret, and tyranny. How can you respect the common humanity of people who hold your ideas, your utterances as more valid than their own lives? That’s why I got no use for heroes. I can respect heroic acts I can’t respect anybody who’d want idolatry for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

“You don’t think that’s what Malcolm wanted, do you?”

“I don’t know that any real revolutionary starts out wanting that. It’s what people want for you. And the only way you can defeat that kind of imposed demogogic status is by rejecting the people and the power they invest in you. Malcolm was one of the lucky ones. History swallowed him before he swallowed it.”

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“Ahh, the humanist response. Deep. Far as it goes. But if you want to know the real deal, I think X was swallowed by the world of the assassins.”

“The what?”

“The world of the assassins. The world he renounced after his trip to Mecca and after he renounced the Nation of Islam. Anywhere you have a politicized secret society you’re going to draw the secret order of the assassins. They’re a guild that’s been around since about the 11th century. For more on this than I got time for here I suggest you check out Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Anton Wilson. I think X became a target when he threatened to come out of the cultish darkness of Islamic separatism and into the light of pantheistic humanism. The assassins thrive wherever humans dispute over difference, borders, territories, or identity — anywhere difference becomes politicized, the assassins have got a stake and probably a hand in it. They killed JFK and RFK when they threatened to bridge differences between nations. And they did it to Martin when he threatened the Vietnam project as well as their program of American economic apartheid. They could have killed Castro but they realized his presence provided the ‘logic’ that kept state terror and the assassins’ order alive and well in Latin America.

“The assassins uphold no ideology, no. The assassins live only for chaos, disunion, and the perfectability of the art of the political murder. To perpetuate themselves they have to practice their craft. Anyone with political power who renounces them in pursuit of dissolving human difference is dangerous. The assassins want to keep us in the Tower of Babel state. That’s why they had to take out Coltrane, Redding, Hendrix, Marley, and X, and neutralize Clinton and Sly. That’s why you see cats like Chuck D and KRS-One only flirt with humanism but not really embrace it. They know that the assassins are on the nether side of bringing folk together, with a vengeance. When you can convince folks they don’t need ignorance, hatred, and fear or the ism-schisms to survive, you’ve effectively cut the heads off the assassins and tossed their mangy torsos into the streets to be mulled over and masticated by the dogs in the clear light of day. Malcolm was on the way to taking them out of the darkness and into the light like every other progressive prophet who ever came down the pike, and that’s why ‘history’ swallowed him. Dig?”

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“Dig? Niggapleeze. If you don’t get out my face with that warmed-over Illuminati Tragedy-Mumbo-Jumbo Rainbow Coalition bushwah — I still say we don’t need another hero.”

“And I say you still don’t get it. It’s not about us. It’s about an ancient conflict over how the soul of the world should turn.”

“No, it’s about the souls of the men and how easily they turn to violence when they can’t control the earth, nature, or women. If any of these prophets you speak of were truly progressive, they’d realize the only way your assassins could be assassinated will be when the planet is ruled by the cult of woman, which is the cult of the earth. But men are too into keeping up the body count because all they can bring into existence on the planet without bowing down to the feminine principle is murder.”

“I ain’t even steppin’ up into that nonsense. Baby, I’m 5000.”

“5000? Not even that high. More like 33 and a third.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos

The Complete History of Post-Soul Culture: Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos
March 17, 1992

IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN WHEN mobile DJs began rocking Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express in 1977 or when WBLS’s slogan shifted from “the total black experience in sound” to “the total experience in sound” to “the world’s best-looking sound.” Or when dressing down to dress up be­came the new Saturday-night aesthetic of high school teens. Another clue was when Richard Pry­or’s blues-based life experience humor gave way to Eddie Murphy’s telegenic, pop-culture-oriented joking. Neither you nor I knows exactly when it happened. But we know what happened. Over the last 20 or so years, the tenor of African American culture has changed. I came up on the we-shall-overcome tradition of noble struggle, soul and gospel music, positive images. and the conven­tional wisdom that civil rights would translate into racial salvation. Today I live in a time of goin’-for-mine materialism, secular beat con­sciousness, and a more diverse, fragmented, even postmodern black community. The change was subtle, yet inexorable. 

At Billboard magazine in 1982, I pushed to update the title of the “Soul” chart. Prince wasn’t soul, nor was Kurtis Blow or Run-D.M.C. The direction of black music, one of the truest reflec­tors of our culture, had changed profoundly, as it always does. After much discussion the chart was renamed “Black,” which outraged many white re­tailers and black musicmakers. Too ethnic. Too limiting. Too damn black. Where “soul” was once universally accepted, the new era had yielded no new all-purpose catchphrase for the black mood — ­we couldn’t very well call it the funk-disco-hip hop-soul-crossover chart. This diversity said a lot about the new African American mentality deseg­regation has spawned. In October 1990 Billboard’s chart was recast as “Rhythm & Blues,” a suppos­edly nonracial compromise that was actually an anachronistic evasion, the kind of back-to-the-­futurism that signals a whole population over­whelmed by the complexity of the present. 

As a musical genre, a definition of Afri­can American culture, and the code word for our national identity, soul has pretty much been dead since Nixon’s reelection in 1972. But what’s replaced it? Arguing in these pages in 1986, Greg Tate tried to establish a “new black aesthetic” as a defin­ing concept. He had a point, though I’d argue there was more than one aesthetic at work. For better and worse, the spawn of the post-soul era display multiple personalities. 

Group self-definition is always tricky. It’s too easy to turn people into caricatures or distort the complexity of individual experi­ences. Still, it’s clear to me that four new African American character types have been crucial in shaping this country over the last 20 years — types that began germi­nating in the ’70s and blossomed in the ’80s. There is the Buppie, ambitious and acquisitive, determined to savor the fruits of integration by any means necessary; the B-boy, molded by hip hop aesthetics and the tragedies of underclass life; the Black American Princess or Prince a/k/a/ Bap, who, whether by family heritage or person­al will, enjoys an expectation of main­stream success and acceptance that borders on arrogance; and the Boho, a thoughtful, self-conscious figure like A Different World’s Cree Summer or Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, whose range of interest and taste challenges both black and white stereotypes of African American behavior. 

The B-boy has rightfully been the most celebrated and condemned of these figures, since he combines the explosive elements of poverty, street knowledge, and unfocused political anger. B-boy style has flowed far from its ghetto base and affected language, clothes, music, and damn near everything else. In fact, these other post-soulers often respond consciously to his challenge. But they ain’t no joke either. The four types first came together in She’s Gotta Have It, a film that managed to accommodate B-boy Mars Blackmon, Boho Nola Darling, Bap Greer Childs, and embryonic Buppie Jamie Overstreet. 

The post-soul era hasn’t just been about style or aesthetics, but cash money too. Economics is very much a part of my framework. There is a bigger spread be­tween black rich and poor than at any point in this nation’s history. The debate over the role of capital in our race’s advancement has taken a new twist, with neocons in media if not grassroots ascendancy. Eco­nomic clout has granted many black cultur­al figures an unprecedented level of finan­cial control over their art. Once Berry Gordy was the patron saint of black capital­ism, but Godfather Bill Cosby, singer/con­glomerate Michael Jackson, TV host/pro­ducer Oprah Winfrey, and a legion of others enjoy total product control — though, significantly, not distribution control — over their hunk of culture. That’s an unde­niable result of genuine integration. There is wide disagreement, however, whether this black media elite has really uplifted the race or is just another example of American capitalism’s savvy taste in window dressing. 

Which brings us back to our search for the source of this transition — for the single event that first engaged all these aesthetic, class, and economic issues. After consider­able equivocation, I’ve decided that my starting point is a renegade work that, like many pivotal expressions throughout histo­ry, has only been encountered by a small percentage of the folks it affected. It was the creation of a man who’d lived as a Boho, a Buppie, and a B-boy, with a little Bap arrogance on the side. Twenty years after its release, this work’s children stroll our streets alienated from if not ignorant of the old soul verities. 

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SWEET STUFF 

When Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweet­back’s Baaadassss Song came out in 1971, nothing like it had appeared on an Ameri­can movie screen before. The depiction of a Watts-based male hustler’s act of rebellion against brutal police and subsequent flight to freedom “was an important moment in the evolution of black cinema which in­volved redefinition and initial statement of a willingness to act against one’s fate in America,” according to veteran black film­maker St. Clair Bourne. Film historian Gladstone Yearwood has written that Sweetback “stands as a milestone in con­temporary black cinema because of its popular impact, its example of economic inde­pendence, its fine use of cinematic language and its creative incorporation of the Afro­-American expressive tradition.” Risking his directing fee from the politically correct civil rights–era comedy Watermelon Man and $50,000 borrowed from that remark­ably openminded capitalist Bill Cosby, Van Peebles made a film that both chal­lenged the industry and foreshadowed the ongoing conflicts between street culture and mainstream taste. After a Boston theater cut out nine minutes of the film and the Motion Picture Association of America gave it an X rating, Van Peebles made like a lawyer for 2 Live Crew: “Should the rest of the community submit to your censor­ship that is its business, but White stan­dards shall no longer be imposed on the Black community.”

Sweetback initially opened in only two theaters — one in Atlanta, one a Detroit venue that specialized in zombie triple fea­tures — and never received national distri­bution worthy of its controversy. Yet Sweetback’s ghettocentric style, outsider perspective, and financially independent spirit still reverberate in two crucial Afri­can American artistic movements — hip hop and black film. Sweetback defied the posi­tive-image canon of Sidney Poitier, dealing openly with black sexuality, government-sanctioned brutality, and the arbitrary violence of inner city life. Its refusal to com­promise still sparks black artists from Ice Cube to Matty Rich. 

At a 1980 colloquy on the film, Van Peebles explained his narrative strategy. “The reality is that our people have been brainwashed with the ‘hip’ music, the beau­tiful color, and the dancing images flicker­ing across the screen. This is what they know as cinema. And that’s where we must begin. We obviously cannot dwell there; but it’s a point of departure.… That’s what revolution is! It isn’t everybody standing up here on an intellectual high. And it is not meeting people and starting from where they are not. It is starting from where they can see.”

With a change here and there, Van Pee­bles’s rap could be the spiel of a hardcore hip hopper in The Source talking about his rhymes and videos, though what the rap generation owes Sweetback has been ab­sorbed secondhand through the blaxploitation films that Sweetback spawned. Those films, which took Van Peebles’s aggressive hero and made him/her either a cop or a traditional gangster, live more on home video than in dim memory for the hip hop generation. Superfly and The Mack, crimi­nal-minded chronicles of a cocaine dealer and a pimp respectively, inform the imag­ery and music of Big Daddy Kane, N.W.A, the Geto Boys, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, and hundreds of lesser rappers. Blaxploitation set standards for ghettocentricity the rap generation matches and single-mindedly exceeds, reaching levels of profanity, sexism, and violence that these ’70 flicks only suggested. 

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What’s more, their funk-soul-disco soundtracks were composed by some of the most visionary minds of post-soul black pop. From veteran soul performers like Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, and Marvin Gaye to more broad-based producer-instru­mentalists like Willie Hutch, Norman Whitfield, and Maurice White to Miles Da­vis and his student Herbie Hancock, these composers created a motherlode of riffs, sounds, and vocal harmonics that today underpin thousands of sample-heavy hip hop recordings. The new level of ambition that seized black pop between 1971 and 1974 was in large part inspired by the ac­cess of so many producers and artists to film. While as a genre blaxploitation may strike us now as narrow and negative, the music created to support these films wasn’t. Black pop’s longer tracks, more complete horns, strings, and percussion refinements in synthesizer technology and jazz-inflect­ed vocal harmonics all got their start in Hollywood. So Sweetback trickled down to the current generation. 

For black filmmakers, Sweetback is a vi­tal memory of what could be, and its bas­tard child blaxploitation is a bitter remind­er of what to avoid. No one had plotted a feature film with an uncompromised black viewpoint and put it into theaters without mainstream Hollywood involvement since the days of Oscar Micheaux, and Van Pee­bles’s achievement wouldn’t be duplicated with similar impact for 15 years. But for independent filmmakers as diverse as Halie Gerima, Charles Lane, Julie Dash, and Warrington Hudlin, blaxploitation was what kept African Americans from focusing on the variety of black perspectives they were exposing at film festivals, art houses, and, following the formation of the Black Filmmakers Foundation in 1978, discos, and galleries, and parks. This community of politically committed and historically aware filmmakers was eclipsed in the black community by blaxploitation even after the blaxploitation era ended. 

Unlike the black theater, dance, and liter­ary worlds, all sustained by a committed interracial following and regularly covered in the black and white press, black indepen­dent filmmaking received little recognition until 1986. Hollywood’s dominance over African American viewers seemed unshak­able. After blaxploitation dried up, Richard Pryor and then Eddie Murphy were the only African Americans with star status, while no directors, writers, or producers entered Hollywood’s closed circle. During the current explosion, black filmmakers have embraced Van Peebles’s legacy and disavowed blaxploitation. Van Peebles, who’s finally gotten his props as a pioneer, represents what a lot of these filmmakers say their work is — rebellious, sociologically important, entrenched in the black psyche. Yet the content and/or marketing of many of the films shared more with the low­brow, commercially calculated productions of blaxploitation than with the renegade artiness of Sweetback. By denying this, the new directors imply that to acknowledge any connection with blaxploitation is to celebrate everything about it — to ghettoize your work, and to recall with fear and loathing how quickly and easily the earlier black film boom was deflated. 

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The great thing about rap for its early audience was that it created homegrown heroes with larger-than-life personas. Shaft, Truck Turner, and Nigger Charlie were disposable Hollywood fictions. Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and Kurtis Blow were stars for the ghetto and of the ghetto. Similarly, the circumscribed world of independent film has its own heroes, such as MacArthur fellow Charles Burnett, whose Killer of Sheep, one of the select films stored in the National Archive, is regarded by many as the black masterpiece of the ’70s. But in the current commercial climate, most black directors, like the early rappers, can’t be sure whether this is their 15 minutes of fame or the beginning of a career. With the taste of hype lingering on their tongues, it’ll be hard for them to swallow when the film colony decides, maybe in a fiscal quarter or two, that Hispanic films are the next big thing. 

Though the saga of post-soul culture hinges on the way two fringe movements, hip hop and black film, came up from the under, other equally important strains re­flected the unending debate over authenticity, co-optation, and redefinition that desegregation’s new opportunities and contradictions intensified. Are blacks selling out our culture to corporate America? Is our media elite using its new clout to pro­mote the best aspects of the race or just pandering to black folks’ worst instincts? What do they owe their core audience? Aside from dollars, what is gained by reaching a white audience? Looking over the last 20 years, it’s apparent that when confronted by crossover, assimilation, and white standards of success, most African Americans have said, “Well, I guess they’re all right by me.” Even our most nationalist pop culturalists, people like Chuck D and Spike Lee, work within the established sys­tems of capitalization and distribution. Both, for example, maintain total creative control over their work, but the only reve­nue stream that flows directly into their accounts is merchandising money.

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So despite the rise of Afrocentric con­sciousness, I find that many young-gifted-and-black post-soulers practice integration without anxiety. Buppies, Baps, and Bohos have come of age since the end of the struggle against blatant segregation. Through busing or family migration, many attended predominantly white schools and took their access to mainstream opportuni­ties for granted. That’s not to say they’re Uncle Toms or even that they’re out of touch with the masses of unassimilated African Americans, but both dangers lurk. Their experience, especially if it was not formed by ghetto life or some romantic ghettocentric identification, makes race consciousness less central to their being. The Cosby Show, along with figures such as Bryant Gumbel, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson, and Gov­ernor Doug Wilder epitomize this view. Bill Cosby’s landmark sitcom embraced the middle-class achiever culture closest to the traditional civil rights agenda. Cosby’s Dr. Cliff Huxtable and his lovely lawyer wife, Clair, represented the upside of crossover, with Lisa Bonet’s Denise giving voice to the relatively color-blind children of this race­-neutral environment. The boho vibe Bonet suggested was made explicit in the music, speech, and dress of her husband Lenny Kravitz, Tracy Chapman, Cree Summer, and the Black Rock Coalition. Looking back to the dawn of the ’80s, Prince can now be seen as the “new breed leader” he always postured as, a figure emerging from the frozen North to announce that multi­culturalism was coming, that explicit sexu­ality was no big thing, and that black-is-­beautiful was just nostalgia. Along with his doppelgänger Michael Jackson, Prince suc­cessfully blurred ethnicity, escaping from standard definitions of blackness (and black male sexuality too) as he reaped both healthy artistic tension and megabucks. 

Most of us aren’t simply B-Boys, Bup­pies, Baps, or Bohos. We are some combus­tible compound — I used to describe myself as a B-boy intellectual. But in the two de­cades since Van Peebles’s film, all of us have seen African American culture evolve (or, as some old jacks argue, devolve) from gospel-and-blues rooted with a distinctly country-accented optimism to assimilated­-yet-segregated citified consciousness fla­vored with nihilism, Afro-centricism, and consumerism. The soul world lingers on, but for the current generation it seems as anachronistic as the idea of a National As­sociation for the Advancement of Colored People and as technologically primitive as a crackly old Motown 45. Our aesthetic metamorphosis is not always a bad thing­ — Dr. J begets Air Jordan, Zora Neale Hur­ston begets Alice Walker. But it’s not al­ways good either — PCP begets freebase begets crack. Mostly, it just is, and there ain’t no stoppin’ it now.