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Norman Siegel Runs for Public Advocate

“The decline of Brooklyn as a borough,” a certain legendary sportscaster used to say, “is directly traceable to the day the Dodgers left town.” Like all nostalgia, such a belief carries with it elements both of truth and wishful thinking. The Dodgers did indeed field a mixed race, multi-ethnic squad, and in so doing put the hopes of the entire borough into play. Yet by 1957, when the O’Malley family betrayed the borough, white flight and increasing racial segregation had already been occurring rapidly throughout Brooklyn. Quite rightly, most Dodger mythology thus tends to focus on what was happening inside Ebbets Field.

In that yearning for a simpler, more “innocent” time, one can find within the same Dodger nostalgia a still quite relevant desire, namely for Brooklyn to be a place where race or ethnicity does not limit an individual’s chances for success. Ebbets, though, is about the only playing field leveled in Brooklyn since the 1950s. Throughout the borough, patterns of discrimination in employment, housing, and city services endured through the flush times of the late ’90s, and stand to worsen during the current slowdown.

Norman Siegel, a native of Borough Park, board member of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, former head of the New York City A.C.L.U., and inveterate foe of the Giuliani regime, now seeks to open up public debate over racial inequality across the city. Currently running as one of five candidates in the race to succeed Mark Green as Public Advocate, Siegel presents himself as a product of a generation first inspired by Jackie Robinson, then Martin Luther King, Jr. Bucking the prevailing “wisdom,” Siegel insists that “now is the time for a new civil rights movement in New York City.” His challenge is to convince New Yorkers of all colors that such a struggle is necessary; that the time is indeed right, and that he should be at the forefront of that effort.

Over the past eight years, Siegel, as Executive Director of the New York A.C.L.U., repeatedly placed roadblocks in Giuliani’s plans to redesign the city. Those plans included an aggressive zero-tolerance approach to policing, in which Giuliani permitted wholesale assaults on civil liberties in an all-out effort to lower the crime rate; a crackdown on the right to protest, most dramatically symbolized by Giuliani’s closing off the steps of City Hall; and the mayor’s schoolmarm-ish approach to cleaning up “indecency,” whether on the streets near Times Square or inside the Brooklyn Museum. The list surely could go on.

“Everything I’ve done in seven and a half years, somebody has sued me,” Giuliani noted the other day, referring to critics, Siegel included, who view his proposed reforms of the Civilian Review Board as a rather obvious attempt to silence complaints about police brutality with a half-hearted oversight measure. More often than not, that litigating “somebody” during the two Giuliani administrations has been Siegel. In eight years, Siegel and the A.C.L.U. (from which he has now resigned) sued Giuliani 27 times, winning 23 cases, with one still pending.

In retrospect, it is less ironic than coincidental that both Siegel and Giuliani went to NYU law school together from 1965–1968. After all, only one of the two figures came out of that explosive era with a fundamentally changed perspective. Those commentators eager to declare the ’60s dead and gone might note that Giuliani’s vision hearkens back even a decade further, when Authority was to be obeyed, never questioned.

Siegel, born in 1943, describes his Borough Park youth in American Graffiti-esque terms. On the street, with other Jewish as well as Italian kids in his neighborhood, he played punchball and stickball, and also a rather elaborate game called “Johnny on a Pony.” He sang on street corners, and went to Doo Wop shows at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theater (now part of the L.I.U. campus). Places like the Paramount exposed him to the world beyond his “insular neighborhood,” for it was there that he first interacted with Brooklyn’s growing black population.

The Dodgers, Siegel says, provided the real glue of Brooklyn’s identity. With names like Furillo, Snider, Reese, Campanella, and Robinson, their starting lineup was as diverse as the borough; depending on whether Don Newcombe of Preacher Roe was on the mound, the team was either majority black or white. Siegel remembers regularly sitting in the bleachers at Ebbets Field and being as heartbroken as the rest of the borough when the team left town. “Our innocence,” he recalls, “was crushed. We now realized that the game was a business, and that there were other powerful forces at work out there.” A few decades later, at the behest of Dr. Kenneth Clark, Siegel became friendly with the Robinson family, and Jackie and Rachel’s daughter, Sharon, currently serves as one of his campaign co-chairs.

At Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst, Siegel got involved in student government, eventually becoming class president, but he generally considered himself to be more of a social than a political animal. His father was a union printer, and his mother a housewife, but he was not a red diaper baby. Neither of his parents had earned a high school diploma, and Siegel recalls that his mother “made conversation about politics and religion off-limits.” “I guess I rebelled to the point where that’s now all I talk about,” he says with a laugh. Like other working class parents of that generation, the Siegels placed great emphasis on education, pushing their children to succeed as doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople. Before graduating high school, Siegel also became friendly with his classmate David Geffen, who is also one of his campaign co-chairs.

Brooklyn College in the early 1960s was no hotbed of radicalism. It was more of a commuter school, where students often worked in order to support themselves; Siegel began to become acquainted with the legal profession because of his afternoon job at the law firm of Louis Nizer, the legendary trial lawyer. The relative tranquility of Siegel’s world would be shattered when he entered law school at NYU in the fall of 1965. L.B.J. had come full circle, now fully supporting civil rights, but at the same escalating the war in Vietnam. Siegel felt inspired by the pressing issues of the day, and in the summer of 1966 traveled south to Atlanta to intern with the regional office of the A.C.L.U. It was while training in segregated Mississippi that he decided that he would “use all of my skills to make all the slogans we had been taught about equality and justice for all a reality for African Americans and poor people.” And it was in Atlanta where he first began to draw inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Siegel heard speak at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Yet just as he grew active in the fight to make equal rights a reality, Siegel also became increasingly “suspicious of government,” a common reaction among his generation, particularly given all the lies told by American officials surrounding the war in Vietnam. At NYU, Siegel was an active member of Law Students Against the War, traveling often to D.C. for protest marches. Once out of law school, he defended draft resisters for the A.C.L.U., and in 1973 initiated an even more dramatic antiwar effort. That August, he traveled to Supreme Court Justice William Douglas’s Gooseberry, Wash. summer home to ask for a hearing to halt the clearly illegal bombing of Cambodia. Douglas proved to be sympathetic, issuing a temporary injunction, causing the case to go before the full Burger Court, which rejected it. It was then that Siegel realized that “at a certain point it’s just about power, and the law doesn’t matter anymore. And so you have to march, organize, and protest by other means.”

Both he and Giuliani, Siegel observes, “went into law school as ’50s kids, believing that authority was never to be challenged.” Though Siegel’s eyes clearly opened, he says that what always “troubled” him “about Giuliani was that he never changed. The War, the civil rights struggle—none of it ever seemed to register in his mind.” An old score perhaps, but one that clearly shaped each figure’s future: Giuliani went on to become a zealous state prosecutor during the Reagan Administration, then a mayor extraordinarily intolerant of dissent; Siegel, by contrast, has remained an outspoken defender of civil liberties and the rights of those with the least power in American society.

The gap between Giuliani and Siegel’s respective visions most clearly reveals itself on the issue of race relations. Defending his longstanding policy of “avoiding dialogue” with black leaders, Giuliani late last year brazenly claimed that “I think the things we’ve done are better for the community than the things they were fighting for the past 20 or 30 years.” The mayor’s only factual evidence for such “improvement” is the decline in welfare rolls, whereas issues like police brutality and racial profiling, the continued deterioration of city schools, and the gentrification of black and brown neighborhoods by non-local residents offer ample evidence to the contrary. Rather than avoid genuine discussion of racial inequality, Siegel seeks to open it up. Over the past decade he has been doing so, whether at public demonstrations over the police shootings of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond, or behind the scenes at Utrecht High School, where he has taught a weekly class called “Civil Rights and Race Relations” for the past 13 years.

Siegel faces an impressive roster of opponents in the race to become Public Advocate. The list includes the liberal State Assemblyman Scott Stringer, who represents the Upper West Side, where Siegel now lives; Park Slope native and now City Councilman Stephen DiBrienza, who fought on behalf of the city’s homeless shelters against Giuliani; Lower East Side City Councilwoman Kathryn Freed, who helped write the city’s loft law; and Betsy Gotbaum, President of the New York Historical Society and veteran of three city administrations. Of the group, Siegel is ideologically distant only from Gotbaum, who champions her work as Parks Commissioner in “cleaning up” Tompkins Square, whereas Siegel defended the homeless and the squatters there from eviction.

To rise above the pack, Siegel is hoping to cash in on his status as a political outsider, someone who has not held office before and therefore can be an uncompromising public watchdog. Harlem State Senator David Paterson, who finished second to Mark Green in the race for Public Advocate in 1997, is convinced. Although “the candidates tend to agree on many of the issues, it is the times I didn’t agree with Norman Siegel that make me support him,” Paterson stated in early April as he announced his endorsement, fittingly, on the steps of City Hall which Siegel fought to re-open to public protest. With uncertain economic times ahead, Paterson believes that a strong voice for the “protection of equal rights for everyone” is doubly necessary.

Outside the Brooklyn Museum in the September of 1999, Siegel organized a candlelight vigil against censorship, “Legally, the case was a no-brainer,” he says, “but the point was to mobilize the arts community and the broader public in defense of the First Amendment.” That effort also successfully brought together the two streams of protest Siegel advocates—the legal and the popular. Generating an open dialogue about racial inequality may not be so easy, but Siegel’s commitment to doing so is indisputable. As Giuliani’s 1950s regime departs, might Siegel’s candidacy signify the coming of another era when Authority is truly challenged?


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail


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