Dear Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo,
You, as governor and mayor — New York State’s most powerful liberals — have argued constantly. I, along with millions of New York civilians, have endured years of your snark-attacks and antler-locks. Recently, it got really bad, when you, Governor Cuomo, insinuated that you, Mayor de Blasio, might be in league with Vladimir Putin to persuade Cynthia Nixon to run for governor. I felt like a kid asking God to “Please make Mommy and Daddy stop fighting.”
But then: Herman Bell. Who would have thought that a 70-year-old former Black Panther, granted parole after 45 years in prison for the 1971 killing of two New York City police officers, would bring you two together? Finally, you agree! Each of you has railed against the New York State Parole Board granting parole, on March 14, to Herman. Mommy and Daddy are okay again!
It’s ironic that you, Mr. Governor, a purported progressive, say you “disagree strongly” with the Parole Board’s decision, while you, Mr. Mayor, who’ve been called a communist — having gone to Nicaragua in the ‘80s to support the Sandinista Revolution — went further, writing, in a letter to the Parole Board, that what Herman Bell did was “beyond the frontiers of rehabilitation or redemption” and that Herman should remain behind bars. Talk about progressive!
Progressive values are, in fact, what motivate me, a legally married, card-carrying lesbian, to sit here typing to you with real concern. Hey, I’ve been to Nicaragua, too. And I’m glad you guys agree about something. I just abhor what you’re agreeing about.
See, I’m one of Herman Bell’s friends. I didn’t know him back in the day, but I know him now. I’ve visited Herman in various New York prisons for the last 18 years. I know Herman to be an honest, compassionate, honorable man, to whom I would entrust my life.
It stuns my heart to remember the acts for which Herman was convicted. Yet I’ve seen Herman take responsibility for what he did and express true remorse. I don’t mean to minimize anyone’s loss or pain. There is nothing that can ease it or bring back lost loved ones. But Herman was sentenced to 25-years-to-life; he’s served four-and-a-half decades. Why shouldn’t justice include a 70-year-old man, who poses no imaginable risk to anyone’s safety, getting out of prison to quietly enjoy his last years with his family and friends?
I would have thought that you, Mr. Governor, who’s spoken so often against mass incarceration, and you, Mr. Mayor, who curbed the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics, would want to release one among the growing number of elders locked up solely for what they did generations ago. That you would want to take a little credit for the fact that human beings are capable, within the New York State correctional system, of actual correction. Redemption, if you will.
Herman is someone who, arrested at age 25, spent his years inside obtaining three college degrees, mentoring hundreds of incarcerated people, coaching prison football teams, and initiating outside projects, like a garden for growing food to feed inner-city people. Someone who, inside prison, has not once engaged in a violent act — even last September, when prison guards assaulted him and slammed his head repeatedly onto a concrete floor. A man who, given a New York State “risk and needs” assessment (COMPAS), consistently scores the lowest possible risk for “felony violence,” “recidivism,” and “absconding.”
Under your administration, Governor Cuomo, the New York Parole Board has been modernizing its criteria for release. It’s moving away from relying solely on the “nature of the offense,” as it used to (how can anyone outside a sci-fi thriller possibly go back in time and correct their wrongs?). It now also looks at things like someone’s age; length of time served; how a person has changed; what they’ve accomplished inside prison; disciplinary record; and reentry plan, including family, jobs, community standing. The Board looks at who someone is today.
These are solid, progressive — yea, Enlightenment — standards, and I, as a queer, embrace them. They allowed Herman Bell, on his eighth appearance before the Board, to be granted parole. By not defending the Board’s measured, lawful decision, both of you risk letting this high-profile case be used by vigilante forces to overturn the Board’s humanitarian changes that can affect thousands inside New York prisons.
Let’s distinguish justice from gratuitous vengeance. On one hand, I’ll admit that, like everybody, I read news stories about people who do horrible things and wish they would rot in jail. But that’s me, alienated, finding cheap therapy by imagining someone else’s suffering. On the other hand, there is the concerted drive for endless punishment propagated by people like those in the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, who want anyone who hurts a police officer to rot in jail for real. These are law enforcement professionals, devoted to making prison the worst place in the world, where they themselves will never spend one day. “We’re gonna get you, we don’t care why you’re behind bars,” said PBA president Patrick Lynch, responding to Herman’s parole decision. “We just care that you are behind bars.”
You, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, are standing back in quiet accord as the PBA tries in every way it can to intimidate the Board into rescinding Herman’s parole so that Herman dies in jail. The PBA has issued an outlandish “safety alert,” supposedly to “provide back-up” to NYPD officers, should Herman be released. Its latest trick has been to get media outlets to pit Manny — the brother of Waverly Jones, one of the slain officers — against Jones’ son, Waverly, Jr., who has for years expressed forgiveness of Herman and his desire for Herman’s release.
Those efforts aren’t a cry for justice; they’re the remorseless exploitation of grief-stricken people to get what the PBA wants: public assurance that the police are the unalterable, ungovernable face of order, if not law. A militarized gang, whose lives matter more than any civilian’s.
Can we imagine these roles reversed? What if, for instance, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo spent four decades in prison for his 2014 strangling of Eric Garner? Would Panteleo get out, finally, on parole? Would we let him? This is a problem I’d love to have. Unfortunately, you, Governor Cuomo, and you, Mayor de Blasio, have more in common than you might like to admit: a fear of your own cops and abandonment of your progressive values.
Susie Day is the author of “Snidelines: Talking Trash to Power,” published by Abingdon Square Publishing.