Being a governor is often seen as a stepping-stone in the United States for the presidency. While the current and former U.S. Presidents are exceptions to that rule, nobody’s behavior embodies that tradition more than Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. The Governor has never missed an opportunity to promote himself, including around issues that have almost nothing to do with New York state politics — from conducting his own foreign affairs to partisan grandstanding against Donald Trump’s most illiberal policies.
Given that a wannabe president like Cuomo might be expected to constantly promote his own brand, it raises eyebrows when a politician refuses to show up at a parade for one of his state’s most vibrant demographics. But that’s exactly what Cuomo did when he publicly rebuked the organizers of the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Accusing the Puerto Rican Day Parade organizers of engaging in a “political mess” by choosing to honor revolutionary leftist and former political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera, the Governor joined several mega-corporations in refusing to respect the organizers’ autonomous decision to honor Lopez Rivera.
Lopez Rivera has been ruthlessly attacked in right-wing press as little more than a terrorist, in part because of his connection to the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (FALN). The FALN was an armed group involved in a string of bombings aimed at ending American colonial rule over the island of Puerto Rico. Founded by the children of Puerto Ricans who migrated to the U.S. mainland in the 1940s and faced racism and police violence through the 1950s and 1960s, the FALN was established in 1974.
Adamantly anti-imperialist and socialist in outlook, the FALN carried out attacks aimed primarily at government institutions and corporations that were invested in the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico, and by extension, the campaign of violent repression carried out on that island. Although right-wing press portrayed the FALN as mindlessly violent, analyses of the actual armed campaigns waged by the FALN indicate that few of these attacks — none of which involved Lopez Rivera — were intended to kill at all. In a 2008 article, sociologist Michael Gonzalez-Cruz points out that out of one hundred and twenty actions carried out by the FALN, there were casualties in only two: a reprisal attack on Wall Street that killed four, and an attack on a Chicago police station in response to a lynching, which killed two. Per Gonzalez-Cruz, 95 percent of the attacks carried out by the FALN were not aimed at killing people at all, but were various forms of symbolic violence aimed at the destruction of property.
Lopez Rivera, who was never accused of involvement in any of the FALN’s bombings, was nonetheless arrested and jailed for sedition due to his campaign against American rule over Puerto Rico. Lopez Rivera’s political activism until his arrest was characterized by traditional grassroots organizing: he founded a school and a community center for Puerto Ricans in Chicago, campaigned for bilingual education and affirmative action in schools and universities, and sought an end to police brutality against Puerto Ricans. Ironically, one of the few times that Lopez Rivera engaged in armed combat was when he served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, where he was awarded a Bronze star.
Uniquely principled, Lopez Rivera refused clemency when offered by Bill Clinton in 1999, because it did not come with the release of other members of his organization. President Obama, responding to overwhelming support for Lopez Rivera among Puerto Ricans and others, finally pardoned him before leaving office last year. The same overwhelming support culminated in New York City councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito choosing to honor him with an award at the parade — sparking an immediate right-wing backlash that mirrors the sort of mischaracterization that took place against the FALN in the 1970s and 1980s. Cuomo alleged that this backlash was too much of a distraction from other issues in Puerto Rico, such as its economic malaise — as though support for a jailed comrade and the long history of American control over Puerto Rico that Lopez Rivera confronted could be meaningfully separated from the present-day financial crisis in Puerto Rico.
But political violence, bombings, needless casualties, boycotts, and controversy has not, and never has, created too much of a distraction for Cuomo to attend another national parade. Carrying an Israeli flag and draped in a sash labelling him an “Honorary Grand Marshall,” Cuomo joined the “Celebrate Israel Day Parade” on June 4. Funded by Zionist billionaires, banks, lobbying initiatives, and the government of Israel itself, the Celebrate Israel Day Parade was attended by an assortment of Zionist community organizations and their constituents. Men, women, and small children donning light blue shirts spent the entire day, alongside Cuomo, whitewashing the systematic dispossession of another nation of people as they celebrated a state that has just completed 50 years of U.S.-funded military occupation — an occupation that has killed more innocents in the last month than the FALN killed during the entirety of its existence.
Speaking at a breakfast meeting the morning of the parade, Cuomo read out a proclamation dubbing June 4th “Shimon Peres Day” after the late Israeli President. Cuomo gushed his uncritical support for the Israeli state as he sought to tie New York to Israel, while other speakers celebrated Israeli conquest during the 1967 war. Cuomo specifically attacked the movement to boycott Israel, invoked the September 11th attacks to justify Israeli policy while misleadingly tying them to Palestinian uprisings, and cited New York’s Jewish population as a justification for his views on what is clearly a foreign policy matter. In doing so, Cuomo not only dehumanizes the Palestinian population that makes up a significant portion of his own constituency, but also erased the long-standing tradition of dissent on Israel within the U.S. Jewish community.
Outside this morbid celebration, a small group of Palestinians and supporters held a counter-protest marked by Palestinian flags, one of few apparent signs that the colonization of Palestine is not a dead letter. Groups like American Muslims for Palestine, Al Awda New York, Samidoun, the New York City Students for Justice in Palestine, Jews for Palestinian Right of Return and others mobilized a small but passionate group of supporters as they protested what was little more than a grotesque celebration of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
This tale of two parades is remarkable in that it is very much a microcosm of politics in a state that is often reduced to little more than a bastion of liberalism. In an America in which Donald Trump is the standard for what does and doesn’t constitute progress, it is easy to miss the deep-seated differences that characterize the politics of a supposedly left-leaning state.
But the demonization of Oscar Lopez Rivera on the one hand, and the mirroring, unbridled whitewash of Zionism on the other, tell the story of the limits of liberalism in New York. While Cuomo felt comfortable lecturing the Puerto Ricans among his constituents when they chose to celebrate someone widely viewed as a hero, he had no qualms celebrating the unbridled state violence and regime of apartheid that Israel has carried out against the Palestinian people in violation of even the lowest standards of international humanitarian law. Indeed, whether he is marching at the parade, reaffirming his support for Israel during the 2014 Gaza Massacre, or penalizing boycotts of Israel, Governor Cuomo has made it very clear which communities count — and which do not — in this supposedly liberal bastion.
And the response is mutual. While establishment press has sought to aggressively downplay the growth of Palestine solidarity, the Palestinian community in New York and its allies continue to make inroads where Cuomo has exited. For example, the National Lawyers Guild, which has condemned Cuomo’s attempt to repress solidarity with Palestine, has been outspoken in its support for Lopez Rivera. Similarly, Samidoun, a group focused on Palestinian prisoners rights that spearheaded the counter-rally against the Celebrate Israel Day Parade, has long considered Lopez Rivera and Puerto Rican dissenters to be allies against unjustified U.S. aggression. As Cuomo shuns Puerto Ricans and Palestinians alike through his parade habits, perhaps there is an opening for greater unity and blossoming solidarity among communities that remain excluded from New York’s establishment politics.