I’m back in Manhattan Criminal Court for another round of The People of the State of New York v. Robert Spencer, looking at a misdemeanor conviction. At previous court appearances, the People have offered me plea-bargains of fines and community service, but I’m toughing it out to clear my name. I’ve been caught in a Hitchcock nightmare, accused of a crime I didn’t commit. It’s one of the worst crimes of all here in the New York Socialist Republic: I stand accused of being a small businessman.
While Mayor David Dinkins insisted that New York is “not Dodge City,” he may have meant only that Dodge City didn’t have skyscrapers. For the rule of law is not much more in evidence in the City that Never Sleeps than in the popular conception of the Wild Wild West. Crack dealers and muggers can roam free after the courts hand them token penalties. Joel Rifkin has to murder 16 women before anyone notices the body parts in his truck. When a thug tossed a Molotov cocktail into a passing fire truck in Washington Heights, city officials acted quickly to advise firemen not to risk life and limb by closing fire hydrants opened during the recent heat wave. Even the Man doesn’t dare cross the Boyz. But there’s crime and there’s crime! Moscow and Prague and the rest have given up Marxist pipe dreams and started opening up to the free market, but New York City government remains a bastion of socialist purity. However powerless city officials may be to stop murders and rapes, they know how to stop their real enemy: independent entrepreneurs.
An underground economy always grows where state controls stifle legitimate business initiative; it’s booming now in New York as much as in Warsaw in the bad old days. My alleged crime is being part of it by trying to sell unlicensed T-shirts to unsuspecting innocents. The city, ever jealous of its prerogatives, demands that even the most insignificant vendor be licensed. It blocks initiative like a mafia bully demanding part of the take of a neighborhood business in exchange for “protection.” At least the mob offered real protection! The city only offers tangles of red tape and a large tax bite.
Consequently, the Jamaicans and Africans who carry scarves in tote-bags and watches in briefcases fold up and move along when the police come up the block. They know they’re a more conspicuous and ultimately more dangerous target than the average crack dealer, for by going unlicensed they undermine the city establishment’s legitimacy. They might complain about their lot, but they don’t have it much worse than the legitimate businesses in the storefronts behind them, choked by forests of prohibitive taxes and hyper-detailed regulations. My arrest has offered me a glimpse into the actual priorities of the municipal government as the city slides toward Third World status.
The charge against me originated outside the Democratic National Convention. Manhattan’s embattled businesses had taken heart from the imminent arrival of the Democrats. “Welcome Democrats” signs were everywhere. As if New Yorkers hadn’t ever seen a Democrat! I got caught up in the spirit of the festivities myself and decided to go to Madison Square Garden one evening to see the sights.
Everyone was earnest and ready to fight for his cause. There were quixotes for Brown and Cuomo, dressed like Mike Doonesbury with vests and round glasses, and a different kind of dreamer urging all to “Prepare for the Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. October 28, 1992â€”Rapture.” (The Democrats’ October Surprise?) The most visible special interest group was NOW, handing out stickers blaring “Abortion on Demand and Without Apology.” Virtually everyone except the preacher was wearing one, mostly on the lapel. But out in front of the Garden was a passel of strippers in bikinis, offering weary conventioneers discount coupons; one stripper took a NOW abortion sticker and placed it on the crotch of her bikini, right on the sexual revolution.
Soon I noticed a man accompanied by two women, pulling a cart along Seventh Avenue outside the Garden. The cart was full of T-shirts they were selling, attacking Bush, Clinton, and Perot in an extended visual metaphor based on The Wizard of Oz. I think Perot was the Wizard. The man had drawn the design and made the shirts himself. Intrigued by their rough-and-ready nihilism, I struck up a conversation, asking him, “Well, then, who are you for?” Not Brown, not Cuomo, not even Fulani or Marrou or the Second Coming preacher. No one. He was fed up, he said. He wanted to make a little money as well: he told me he hadn’t worked in two years.
One of the women with the artist, his sister-in-law, began to tell me about the spiritual benefits of channeling, pausing frequently to try to sell the T-shirts. There were no takers. Soon she became even more distracted as a tall, young black gentleman in a short pink skirt appeared next to us and began setting up video equipment. He was with a white fellow, who despite wearing a charming flower-print summer dress, had not gotten around to shaving his legs. They were famous! In the next ten minutes I noticed two different crowds of people stop to tell the black man, “I saw you on TV!” One said in Chicago, the other in Washington.
Like everyone else that night, this TV star had a handbill. He called himself “Joan Jett Blakk,” and he was running for President. “The Queer Nation Party (and we do mean PARTY, sister) Knows This Election Is Gonna Be A Drag . . . So We Decided to Make It A Real Drag.” The channeling fan was enthralled. She asked me to hold up one of the T-shirts for Joan’s camera while she made her best pitch (“It’s a limited edition! It’s only ten dollars! It shows how this whole convention is a joke!”), and I did so. It was a festive occasion, after all; who was I to spoil it?
Before I could give the T-shirts back to one of them and move on I was approached by a burly Irish fellow in a new Florida Marlins T-shirt, untucked. “Are you selling these T-shirts?” he asked me. “Yeah,” I said. It was a festive occasion. The shirts were being sold, right? Who was I to obstruct commerce? “Yeah,” I said, and as I was about to direct him to the actual designer and vendor of the limited-edition product, Irish informed me that I was under arrest.
The untucked shirt should have tipped me off. Undercover cops wear baggy, untucked shirts if they’re packing a piece, to keep it from showing. I guess the gun was to cut me down if I tried to escape: I was now a criminal, an unlicensed vendor. Dinkins readily understood the “rage” that leads to senseless murder in Crown Heights and elsewhere. But not unlicensed vending! That shakes Big Brother’s paternalistic system to its roots. After all, one in five New Yorkers now receives some form of public assistance. What if they all started working instead?
Irish took me quite firmly by the arm and started to lead me away. He arrested the T-shirt artist too and handcuffed us together. He didn’t arrest Miss Channeling; she was still busy being interviewed for Joan Jett Blakk’s cable show. He didn’t bother with the artist’s wife either. Those two actually offered to go in my place, telling the officer that I had just been passing by and killing time. He would have none of it! He knew a real criminal when he saw one. After all, I was caught red-handed holding the shirts and offering them for sale. A clear crime, a New York crime for the New Tax 90’s.
Not knowing the intricacies of the T-shirt statute, I started to ask Irish questions on the way to the paddy wagon. No problem, he said. Just a violation, he said. Like a parking ticket. A court appearance, a little fine, maybe 25 dollars, and that’s it. No record. He even promised me that the shirt designer, whose first name was Gary, and I would be in court together. Gary assured me that he would speak up for me. I was so reassured that I didn’t even get his last name.
We took a short ride to the station. The only other criminal in the van with us was an unlicensed wallet vendor. He was bitter. “You can sell crack out there on the streets anywhere you want, man,” he repeated, “but I can’t sell my wallets. I’m trying to make a decent living, and they haul me in.”
At the station we were handcuffed to a wall and given milk cartons to sit on. There was quite a catch of rogues: a weeping Chinese woman copped for vending unlicensed jewelry and three other T-shirt vendors. No muggers, no rapists, certainly no murderers, although each tabloid had already carried lengthy accounts of imprudent Midwestern conventioneers shaken down by the ever-alert locals after a night on the big town. When the wallet salesman repeated his complaint about crack dealing he got a roar of agreement, but no explanation, from one of the policemen on duty. What could he say? After an hour of forms (“How much money do you have in your possession?”), we were let go. I told Gary I’d see him in court and thanked him in advance for his help.
Of course I never saw him again. That was only one of the unpleasant surprises I got at my first court appearance. The first was the Manhattan Criminal Court building itself, where I had to wait 15 minutes in the rain just to get in. The Criminal Court may be the only place more dangerous than the streets of New York. It’s the “Criminals’ Court”: it’s their turf. So eager are New York defendants to put the past behind them and please their social workers by making something positive of their lives that as soon as their cases are dismissed they start mowing each other down right in the halls of justice. I’ve so far been spared having to witness this recreational horseplay, but I’ve seen its effects: the police have decked out the entrances with the kind of metal detectors usually found in airports and, in this city, public schools. Only court officials, of all people, can get in without passing through one of the machines.
The metal detectors were no use: a good many people had apparently been able to smuggle in aluminum spray-paint cans without any trouble. Not only were the hallways covered with graffiti; the courtrooms were, too. I’ve counted at least five uniformed policemen at the front of the courtroom during each of my appearances here; nevertheless, the oppressed youths’ artistic expression was all over the benches. A bathroom on a hallway of courtrooms was graffiti-covered, lightless, and downright frightening.
More surprises were coming. It seems Irish had been wrong about everything. Gary was nowhere. The fine had grown from 25 dollars to 50. The charge was not a violation, but a misdemeanor. If convicted, I’d have a criminal record. The People were going to make sure it would be difficult for me to threaten them again. But God protects unlicensed T-shirt vendors; in court the first day I happened upon a lawyer friend, who agreed on the spot to take the case and quickly got a postponement.
Before the second court appearance my lawyer spoke to one of the assistant DAs on the phone. He got her to agree to an ACD: Adjournment with Contemplation of Dismissal. An ACD isn’t a bad deal. The ACT UP protestors who desecrated the Sacred Host and chained themselves to pews in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989 got ACDs. An ACD means that if the defendant stays out of trouble for six months, the charges will be dropped.
Since I’m not really in the T-shirt business, I agreed. But when we got there. New York justice was served again: a different assistant DA, who’d probably been thrown my file right before going into the courtroom, knew nothing of the deal. The wheels of justice ground too slowly for the news to have gotten through. He did magnanimously offer me an ACD attached to a 50-dollar fine and ten hours of community service, but I wanted my name cleared and got another postponement. (Where does New York send unlicensed vendors for community service? The Socialist International home office?)
The third appearance, a few months later, was no better. My lawyer made a motion for dismissal in the interest of justice, a legal term for the People’s admitting they made a mistake. Again, he’d gotten the People to agree to this over the phone, but again, they denied it once we got there. My lawyer made the motion anyway, but was told that he couldn’t make it right there, in front of the judge. That would be too easy for the city government! It had to be made in writing and submitted beforehand. Another offer of community service, another postponement.
For this appearance I’ve hired another, high-powered lawyer experienced with hardened criminals like me. He’s submitted the written motion for dismissal and the People have agreed to it over the phone. Despite their track record I don’t think there will be trouble this time, for the money spent on my prosecution is no doubt beginning to outweigh the return I’d give in fines and socialist labor.
No end is in sight, however, for the city’s woes. The guy who was really selling the T-shirts and the wallet salesman were, as they themselves put it, “only trying to make an honest buck.” But New York keeps regulating the honest buck away. Dinkins’ replacement is Rudy Giuliani, the Wall Street market buster. There’s no serious challenge to the unctuous and hypocritical socialism of the Democratic establishment Dinkins fronted. The national picture, of course, is not much different, although at the time of my arrest I had no way of knowing that I was being treated, in the crowd outside the Garden, to a preview of the Clinton administration’s vaunted First Hundred Days: abortion, government crushing business, transvestites.
New York is dying; businesses are fleeing daily. The long-entrenched liberal governing establishment is fast accomplishing the final outcome of its classwarfare rhetoric: New York will soon be safe from businessmen, if from nothing else.