Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Divisiveness: Is it about Goldstein—or Ratner?

Most people attending the candidates' forum last night at the Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Clinton Hill were likely not aware of the building controversy over Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) spokesman Daniel Goldstein’s regrettable statement, in an email exchange with Daily News columnist Ben Smith, about why “plundering astroturf groups and their wealthy white masters avoid your wicked barbs?”

But was this about Goldstein, or was it about developer Forest City Ratner? City Council Member Charles Barron said it was the latter and, at least at this event, got the last word.

Controversy in print

In Smith’s Daily News column yesterday, Goldstein's racially-insensitive email comment had morphed into a larger racial generalization. (See my correction at bottom.) Smith wrote:
The group is known for its own sometimes over-the-top rhetoric. Its main spokesman, Dan Goldstein, e-mailed me not long ago, describing his African-American opponents as tools of "their wealthy white masters."

It's verboten for a nonblack critic to use such racially-charged language these days—and even Harry Belafonte caused a stir when he called Colin Powell a “house Negro."

Goldstein apologized, but not before the Rev. Al Sharpton, ACORN’s Bertha Lewis, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, State Senator Carl Andrews, and Assemblyman Roger Green—all Atlantic Yards supporters--issued a joint press release denouncing Goldstein, in serial statements, for racist language and racism. (Only Lewis's group had actually been targeted.) Indeed, the press release had a broader purpose, as the headline indicates: "African-American Elected Officials and Leaders Call on Atlantic Yard Opponents to Denounce Develop Don't Destroy's Use of Racial Language."

Of course, other racially-charged issues may get a bye. Note that Daughtry, who recently said he had always "found Forest City Ratner Companies to be an organization that cares about the communities in which its projects are built," has not criticized Bruce Ratner's racially-coded explanation for the forbidding design of the Atlantic Center Mall. Ratner told the Times: “Look, here you’re in an urban area, you’re next to projects, you’ve got tough kids.”

As for public denouncements, Sharpton, when asked during his mayoral candidacy in 1997 if he would denounce Minister Louis Farrakhan, responded, "I don't publicly denounce anybody," according to a 4/4/97 article in the New York Times.

Apology

In his contentious apology, Goldstein pointed out that he had been writing personally, rather than issuing a statement on behalf of the group, and noted that he was referring specifically to BUILD, which has received significant funding from FCR, and ACORN, which has received donations from the developer.

ACORN can't be called an astroturf group, given its track record, but BUILD is another story. The group has no track record in job training, and its main accomplishment has been to negotiate the Atlantic Yards Community Benefit Agreement; while it denied being funded by FCR, eventually both BUILD and FCR spokespeople admitted such funding.

Others' intemperate remarks

And BUILD president James Caldwell has expressed his own over-the-top rhetoric, telling the New York Sun, an a 7/26/05 article headlined Ratner-Extell Fight Turns Ugly, "If this thing doesn't come out in favor of Ratner, it would be a conspiracy against blacks."

On Smith’s blog, a commenter referenced Sharpton’s infamous description of a shopkeeper in Harlem as a “white interloper” at a rally that led to a fatal fire. While Sharpton's remarks did cause a furor at the time, Caldwell's comment has received less attention. (Note that Caldwell, who has avoided media questions for months, was not part of yesterday's response.)

Batson on the spot

At the forum last night, a neighborhood resident asked Bill Batson, a candidate for the 57th Assembly District, if he would denounce the comment from Goldstein, “one of your supporters,” as racist. Batson said he hadn’t seen the statement in full context but had told Goldstein “how incredibly disappointed I was with him” and that he should apologize immediately. “I worry that the whole dialogue has become really heated,” he added.

Batson’s questioner was later seen chatting with Lupe Todd, a neighborhood resident who is both a spokeswoman for Forest City Ratner and also a supporter of Hakeem Jeffries, a rival candidate for the open seat. (I don't know whether Todd encouraged the question or merely wanted to say hi to a neighbor.)

Barron takes it on

Though Green wasn’t present for the second phase of the forum, featuring candidates for the Tenth Congressional district seat, he sent an aide to read a statement. In the statement, Green criticized the organizers for scheduling the panel on a night when he had obligations in Albany, and he singled out DDDB for insensitivity to his request. The Rev. Clinton Miller of Brown Memorial pointed out that the event was sponsored not by DDDB but by his church, the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, the Fort Greene Association, the Clinton Hill Society, and the Downtown Brooklyn Leadership Coalition.

Green’s statement then addressed Goldstein. Were Green present, his aide read, “I would be challenging this vicious, racist stereotype.”

Barron, a former Black Panther and an opponent of the Atlantic Yards plan, immediately denounced Green for a “disrespectful” note, saying his rival was hiding “behind a racist email.”

“It doesn’t take away from the real issues,” Barron thundered. “You want to find a divisive person, it’s Ratner.” He scoffed at the claims made by Atlantic Yards supporters. “Anything you build is going to get you jobs,” he said. “What you needed was an open, competitive bidding process.”

Without naming specific groups like BUILD or ACORN, Barron blamed community groups for negotiating individually with Ratner. It would've been different, he said, "if we had all gotten together at the beginning... Some quick folk made their deals early." He reiterated the point, criticizing "people rushing to Ratner and manipulating the situation to their economic interest."

The candidates (and audience) had more to say about Atlantic Yards and a host of other issues, which I'll report on in another piece.

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