By Les Payne
As a columnist who clocked Mayor Koch’s abuses against black New Yorkers throughout his 12-year tenure, I felt duty-bound to violate Biblical instructions to: “let the dead bury the dead.”
When Alabama Gov. George Wallace departed this globe of sin, I wrote in my Newsday column, “He lived too long and sank quite deep in the mud.” My concern then, as now, was that silence about a pattern of transgressions committed against a majority constituency might deprive future generations of the lessons to be learned by studying the motivations of such men.
The Gotham send-off of the super-impeccable Koch as the “mayor of all the people of New York City” was simply a bridge too far. The celebration flipped the script of Mark Antony’s funeral oration in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by insisting that: the good the mayor did lives on; while the evil is interred with his bones.
Let the record show that blacks and Latinos—who constituted a majority of the City—were given a distant back-seat in regards to the policy goals, practices, and concerns of the Koch administration.
Lest the insults and abuses that Koch needlessly heaped upon blacks of his City be lost to long-term memory, I will cite but two instances here, one personal, leaving it up to the curious to ferret out other such abuses littering his 12-year tenure at Gracie Mansion.
My attention to the onslaught was focused by Rev. Timothy P. Mitchell, of Queens, who led the unsuccessful campaign to keep the mayor from closing down Sydenham Hospital, allegedly for budgetary reasons. Though not a particularly reliable health-care operation, it held enormous, historical significance as the only institution where black doctors once could practice medicine in New York.
What struck me about Koch’s shuttering of Sydenham was the joyous and unbridled gusto with which he ripped away this safety netting from poorly served Central Harlem. This scuttling seemed intended to end all charges that the Greenwich Village liberal was beholding to alleged moochers and “poverty pimps.”
Such meanness of spirit by a mayor against his majority population I had not witnessed outside the apartheid systems of the Old South and the Orange Free State. So flimsy was the budgetary excuse that even Koch backed away decades later.
Lone among his many abuses against African-Americans, Koch offered his “regrets” about closing Sydenham when securing his Washington Heights grave site recently; a point at which the devil was likely thumbing through the octogenarian’s dossier.
Throughout his tenure, I carried on a long-running shootout with Mayor Koch while much of the City media, save the Village Voice and the Amsterdam News, took every opportunity to follow him into the swamp for the privilege of swatting his flies.
For what it’s worth, the mayor included my attacks on him in one of his jive books. And on official “Mayor of New York City” stationery, he petitioned Newsday to fire me several times, once nearly achieving this career goal; the closest I’d come to getting fired at the paper.
Pressure from top advertisers is a force no publisher can withstand for long, and Mayor Koch knew this.
I had become one of Koch’s half-dozen media fixations; word had it, much as he reigned as my dart board in Gracie Mansion.
In the mid 1980’s, the mayor attacked me at a press conference down in Washington D.C. for referring to Bernhard Goetz as “the golden blond gunman.” Fugitive Goetz had shot 4 black teenagers on the subway, two in the back, one, the most seriously wounded, was shot sitting on the floor pretending to be dead. My “golden blond gunman” quote was lifted from a NYPD cop and I used it, always in quotes, simply because it had a nice ring to it.
After I flatly refused to drop this phrase from my column after Koch, the mayor turned up the pressure. It turned out also that Koch had sympathizers at Newsday, and angry fellow-workers placed anonymous notes in my mailbox. Till this day, I don’t fully understand why the phrase “golden blond gunman” triggered such a storm among so many white readers. If someone had explained the harmful effect of the phrase to me, perhaps I would have discontinued using it out of respect. But short of that, I saw no reason to play into someone’s unreasoning and inexplicable pathology.
Instead, Mayor Koch triggered the organized response of the Jewish communities of Long Island and NYC against me, headed by the powerful Conference of Presidents of 50 Major Jewish Organizations.
A telephone tsunami was loosed upon Newsday to the extent that 3 additional phone answerers were employed from Monday to Thursday, full-time, just to field calls demanding that I be fired. And regularly, officials of the Conference would reportedly demand to speak to the editor or publisher.
Eventually, the publisher was moved to the point where he felt a crushing need to do something about me; and I learned from my well-placed sources that my axing was imminent.
At last the “Golden blond gunman” siege was broken and the pressure upon the publisher relented when aroused reporters--led by columnist Jimmy Breslin – tracked down Goetz in New England. Instead of this “Death Wish Gunman” type “hero” who had “bravely” stood up as a white man against black thugs on the subway, Bernhard Goetz was revealed essentially to be a vengeful, racist psychopath who shot those unarmed and mainly innocent youngsters for no reason other than that he had earlier been mugged by someone else.
So hair-triggered against young black men was Goetz that terrible day that he may well have pumped a few bullets into Michael Jackson had the singer been strolling through the subway car offering the gunman a “Watchtower” magazine meant to save Goetz’s soul
Koch, who had all but embraced Goetz in the early goings – as he did with so many other racist thugs – never came clean with the public about this peculiar predisposition that ran through his handling of every such incident of significance throughout his 12 years in Gracie Mansion.
The acknowledgement of such evil, now that Koch is gone, must not be interred with his bones if we are to come to gripes with those dark and inward racial forces that tend to keep us apart even in this great city.