Bloomberg blows it with New York state Indians

New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, rightly winning praise from civil libertarians over his principled position on the “Ground Zero Mosque,” blows it bigtime with Native Americans—weighing in against their right to tax-free tobacco sales on their reservations in blatantly racist terms. New York state Indian nations held a rally at City Hall on Aug. 23 to demand an apology, which your trusty blogger covered for the weekly Indian Country Today. Excerpts:

On Aug. 13, Bloomberg told the New York Daily News: “I’ve said this to David Paterson, I said, ‘You know, get yourself a cowboy hat and a shotgun… If there’s ever a great video, it’s you standing in the middle of the New York State Thruway saying, you know, “Read my lips – the law of the land is this, and we’re going to enforce the law.”‘”

The newspaper sarcastically wrote that the mayor, “channeling his inner Wyatt Earp, shot himself in the foot.”

The comments came as the state has set a Sept. 1 deadline for a crackdown on untaxed tobacco sales at the Seneca Nation in western New York. In 1997, a dispute over the issue led to Seneca activists erecting roadblocks on the Thruway.

The Seneca Tribal Council passed a resolution the day after the Daily News story, condemning Bloomberg’s comments and calling on him to resign. The resolution notes the irony of Bloomberg using such imagery as he calls for tolerance and respect for constitutional rights in his support of the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero…

Many of the protesters expressed amazement that Bloomberg would be so insensitive given his Jewish background. “How would he like it if someone stood in front of the road dressed like Hitler?” asked Ramona Beglen of the Oneida Nation, who came by bus some five hours northwest of the city.

“Everything represented in his phrase is about pushing our peoples out of our territories,” added her daughter, Sheri Beglen.

“That was the savagery and brutality that was imposed on our people,” said Lance Gumbs, a senior trustee of Long Island’s Shinnecock Indian Nation… “And the Jewish people went through the same thing. Why doesn’t he get it?”

The worst part is that not only was he was dumb enough to say it—now he is too spineless to own up to it and apologize…

Asked for a comment on the protesters’ demands, Bloomberg’s press office responded with a news release touting an Aug. 20 decision by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the city’s favor, denying requests by Poospatuck [reservation] cigarette dealers to allow them to resume sales.

“We are confident that with newly enacted laws – both at the state and federal level – the city will be able to end the massive amounts of illegal cigarette trafficking,” said city attorney Michael A. Cardozo in the statement.

When asked again for a statement specifically on the controversial remarks, Bloomberg’s deputy press secretary Jessica Scaperotti said the mayor had no comment. She insisted that the city’s favorable Second Circuit ruling is what “is at the heart of the issue.”

In other words, let’s just change the subject. The governor’s office was more forthright:

Asked for Paterson’s position on the controversy, the governor’s Communications Director Morgan Hook said: “The mayor’s comments obviously do not reflect the policy of the Paterson administration. Gov. Paterson will continue with his stated policy of negotiation, litigation and implementation of the laws of New York when it comes to all dealings with New York’s sovereign Indian nations.”

See our last posts on Native America and the Iroquois struggle.