Thursday, March 29, 2007

CLYDE HABERMAN: How to Tell a Billionaire From a Bomber

The Billionaires, with a capital B, were delighted to hear that there are more superrich New Yorkers than they had thought.

Several Billionaires were sitting in Union Square Park the other day, and one of them remarked to us that 45 billionaires, small B, call New York home. Actually, we said, there are 50, judging from the latest Forbes magazine list.

Well, that touched off so many high-fives and shouts of “All right!” that you’d have thought the incredible had happened, like world peace or the Knicks making the playoffs.

“Ka-ching,” said an exultant Andrew Boyd, also known as Phil T. Rich. Marco Ceglie, who at times calls himself Monet Oliver DePlace, had something of an “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment. “Every time there’s a new billionaire,” he said, “a devil gets a new pitchfork.”

All in all, they had to concede, these are not bad times for the rich and mighty, normally as unappreciated a minority as we have.

Speaking up for that put-upon class is a mission of the Billionaires, whose full name is Billionaires for Bush. You may have seen them in the streets, decked out in tuxes and gowns, praising Big Oil, proclaiming à la Leona Helmsley that only little people pay taxes and organizing events like Dick Cheney Is Innocent Day. In New York, they have circulated petitions demanding limousine lanes, freed “from the clutches of bicycles.”

They are, as should be obvious, a band of satirists who don’t think much of President Bush (or, for that matter, the never-met-an-unwelcome-developer climate of the Bloomberg City Hall).

They are also one of the many political groups that the New York Police Department spied on in advance of the Republican National Convention held here in 2004.

That the authorities have conducted covert operations in the wake of Sept. 11 is neither a surprise nor, many would say, a problem. These are dangerous times. Most New Yorkers probably accept that it would be derelict of the police not to keep tabs on potential threats, be they rampaging anarchists or — worse — terrorists. Courts have thus far agreed.

The only goal of the pre-convention surveillance was to keep the city safe, the mayor insisted this week. “We were not keeping track of political activities,” he said. “We have no interest in doing that.”

But as a report in The New York Times has disclosed, the spied-upon included many groups that, agree with their views or not, engaged purely in political activity; they had no history of violence and no agenda other than a constitutional right to oppose the government. The Billionaires are a good example. The only bomb that they’ve been known to throw is a joke that falls flat.

“Not only did we not do violence,” Mr. Boyd said, “we did not profess doing violence or even pretend to profess doing violence. We see ourselves as a calming presence in demonstrations, getting out of that normal confrontational protest/police mode.”

Melody Bates, a member whose nom de rire is Ivy League-Legacy, called humor one of the more effective ways to make a point. “A good joke is in essence a gift,” she said, “and when you open with a gift, people are more receptive.”

The question is whether City Hall and the police have struck a reasonable balance between security needs and the imperatives of free expression, or whether the authorities, in Mr. Ceglie’s words, suffer from a post-9/11 case of “not knowing when to stop.”

It isn’t as if New York hasn’t rethought other policies that were deemed absolutely essential in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. With municipal blessing, hideous concrete barriers rose in front of one building after another across town. In recent months, most have finally been torn down — recognition that Fortress New York doesn’t cut it.

Similar questions have been raised about the refusal of the National Park Service, in the name of security, to allow tourists to climb to the crown of the Statue of Liberty. Such a restriction at this potent symbol of American freedom has been strongly criticized by the likes of Senator Charles E. Schumer and Representative Anthony D. Weiner, who hardly see themselves as soft-on-terror types.

When the police spy on law-abiding groups, “it’s hard not to feel that it is an attempt to discourage free speech,” said Elissa Jiji, a k a Meg A. Bucks.

And Mr. Boyd drew lessons from the past. “It’s like that famous quote,” he said. “First, they came for the billionaires, and nobody said anything. …”


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