Playing with fire: Bush clashes with New York's finest

It seemed a smart move to hold the Republican Convention in Manhattan, around the anniversary of 11 September. But the heroes of that day have other ideas. David Usborne reports
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The Independent US

Was it a fireman or a policeman who yelled so disrespectfully? It doesn't matter, because they have the same gripe. When Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, emerged from a community meeting in the West Village a few evenings ago, he was met by this: "You stink! You're garbage!"

Was it a fireman or a policeman who yelled so disrespectfully? It doesn't matter, because they have the same gripe. When Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, emerged from a community meeting in the West Village a few evenings ago, he was met by this: "You stink! You're garbage!"

Almost three years after the firemen and the police officers of this city became national heroes in the bedlam and bloodshed of 11 September - and on the eve of the Republican National Convention here - they find themselves today under a state of virtual siege. They no longer feel honoured, but rather abandoned. The Fire Department's image, meanwhile, is further being buffeted by a tawdry firehouse sex scandal.

It is Mr Bloomberg they mostly blame, however, for their diminished standing. For two years now, the finest and the bravest of the Big Apple have been working without contracts with the city. Negotiations over a pay rise have fallen apart and tempers are badly frayed. The Mayor, pleading a budget crunch, is refusing to budge from an offer of a 5 per cent wage increase over three years.

For weeks, the police and firefighters' unions have been making the Mayor's life as uncomfortable as possible, sending members to picket him at his every public appearance and even organising late-night vigils outside his house. The West Village event was just such an occasion. The man shouting at the Mayor this week was accompanied by about 200 others all trying to get his attention.

Now they intend to disrupt the Republican Convention as well. There will be pickets outside Madison Square Garden on each of the four days of the gathering, which will culminate on Thursday with the formal nomination of George Bush as the party's 2004 presidential candidate. Nor have they ruled out wildcat strikes or so-called "blue flu" sick-outs, with officers failing to show up for work.

This hardly means that the planned security blanket around Madison Square Garden will unravel. The Police Department has promised to deploy 10,000 officers to protect delegates from threats ranging from anti-Bush anarchists to al-Qa'ida terrorists. The unions know that to endanger lives or wreck the convention because of a pay dispute would be political foolishness.

None the less, this is not the kind of atmosphere the Republicans were expecting when they made the counter-intuitive choice of New York as the venue for the convention. The city is overwhelmingly Democrat, but the party's strategists saw a perfect opportunity to salute the firefighters of the city, in particular, who lost 343 men when the twin towers fell.

Meanwhile, bringing Mr Bush to New York was meant to remind voters of what many consider to have been the most powerful few minutes in all of his first term - when he grabbed a bullhorn while standing atop the smouldering mound at Ground Zero and promised to avenge those who had perished.

None of this seems like such a good idea any more. The party is wary of being accused of trying to exploit the tragedy for political gain. Huge protest rallies and scattered acts of civil disobedience are expected across New York. A poll released on Thursday showed that one New Yorker in 10 plans to flee town next week, and about the same number expect to join at least one anti-Bush demonstration.

Now, New Yorkers have a new way to remind Republicans of one of their main complaints with Mr Bush, the Iraq war. Unveiled a few blocks north of the Garden is a giant digital "clock" showing the mounting cost of the conflict to American taxpayers. The architects of the sign set it ticking at $134.5bn (£75bn) on Wednesday and it will continue to notch up at the rate of $177m a day or $122,820 a minute. It has been put there by an advocacy group called the Billboard Project, together with the Centre for American Progress, a liberal think tank founded by John Podesta, a former chief of staff for Bill Clinton.

Thus, plans to have Mr Bush return to Ground Zero next week have been scrapped, and it may be that he will only be in the city for a few hours on Thursday, the convention's last day. The White House may try to engineer a quick visit by the President to a New York firehouse to show him "bonding" with the heroes of 11 September. But even that is looking uncertain.

The firemen themselves are not interested in bonding with politicians just now - unless they can help to get their pay deal. At a press conference on Tuesday before City Hall here, union leaders - with widows of officers killed in the line of duty at their side - revealed that they had written directly to President Bush asking him to intervene in the pay battle.

"It may have escaped your attention that New York City's police officers and firefighters - the heroes of 9/11 - are engaged in a bitter contract dispute," it said, saying the unions were making a "personal appeal for your help and support in the effort to correct what has become a perennial injustice". To their disgust, the White House swiftly responded that it had no intention of getting involved.

Union leaders defended bringing the widows to the press conference - a tactic that seemed to some observers, including public relations experts, to be an even more transparent exploitation of the events of three years ago than anything the Republicans have dared.

"They're here to echo the struggles that they had when their husbands were alive working as police officers and firefighters," said Steve Cassidy, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. "That struggle is more difficult now than ever before."

"It's time to give them what they gave to all of you," declared Marge Darcy, whose police officer husband, John, died in 1967. Angelica Allen, whose husband was among the firemen lost in the World Trade Centre, insisted that those still serving deserve more than what Mr Bloomberg is offering. "I think he should try a little bit harder because after all not everybody can do this job and people's lives are on the line," she argued. "I think risks should be associated with the reward."

For Mr Bloomberg, the stand-off is only adding to the headache that the convention has suddenly become. Attempts to persuade New Yorkers that it will only bring good things to the city are looking increasingly threadbare. It hardly helped when his own controller's office forecast last week that the convention will end up costing the city about $309m (£172m) in lost revenues and security costs. Hundreds of businesses in the convention zone are opting to close for the week and hundreds of thousands of residents will vanish. And an expected spike in hotel and restaurant reservations from the 15,000 delegates, their guests and reporters has failed to materialise.

The Mayor can only pray that his disgruntled police force - which is bigger, by the way, than all but 19 of the world's standing armies - can keep a lid on the expected protests, kicking off with a 250,000-strong anti-war march past Madison Square Garden tomorrow that could spiral into confrontation because of a city edict, backed by the courts, that the marchers should not assemble for a rally afterwards in Central Park.

Mr Bloomberg is determined that that march and others as well as promised acts of civil disobedience by numerous activist groups should not degenerate into the kind of violence visited upon Seattle in 1999 during the World Trade Organisation summit, or indeed upon Chicago during the Democratic Convention in 1968. The only worse outcome than that would be a new terror attack.

But even if control is maintained on the streets, the rancour felt by his police officers - call it the NYPD blues - and his firefighters will give the convention a sour taste. Notwithstanding that, however, he is showing no signs of relenting to the pressure from the unions.

"We are not going to be intimidated," the Mayor said after he and his neighbours were disturbed half of a recent night by pickets outside his house on East 79th Street near Fifth Avenue. "I'm not going to do a labour deal because people are yelling and screaming." He added: "[It] isn't going to accomplish anything, other than keeping them up late at night. I slept very well."

Nor, for that matter, do the unions seem in the mood to buckle or succumb to the flattery that will doubtless be sent in their direction inside the Garden. The disagreement, which, under a recent court ruling, will go to binding arbitration after the convention, is his fault, not theirs, they insist. "The Mayor has created these tensions with his unreasonable and unacceptable contract offer," argued Mr Cassidy.

His counterpart at the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which represents the city's police officers, Patrick Lynch, warned that the battle can only intensify as the frustration in the ranks grows. "What we're afraid of is we won't be able to control our members as we move forward," he said.

But the fire and police personnel are also risking alienation from the wider public by refusing to mute their compensation complaints as both the convention and the third anniversary of the attacks draw near. It does not help that their standing among the public is not what it was just after the attacks.

The black eyes for the Fire Department began at the start of year when an alcohol-fuelled New Year's Eve brawl at a Staten Island station house brought disgrace and suspensions. Then came revelations about what appears to have been a sex orgy in a Bronx firehouse a week ago.

At the centre of the latest scandal is a woman who first complained that she had been gang-raped by firefighters at the Bronx station, then said the sex session had been consensual and has now reverted to her rape version. However, she has also told investigators that she has had sex with between 200 and 300 firemen in the city since 11 September 2001, many of them married. She is also married but separated. She has now has been sent into a psychiatric ward for evaluation. But the damage to the department is spreading fast; already the Fire Commissioner, Nicholas Scoppetta, has sacked four of his firemen and more firings are likely to come.

With all of this going on, how can the Republicans hope to conjure back that halo of heroism that was unquestionably due to the firefighters in the wake of 11 September? With the bravest standing on picket lines outside and tabloid headlines about sex among the hoses, that will be a hard trick to pull off. Yet, the producers of the convention will doubtless try. There will be video tributes to the myriad acts of selflessness at Ground Zero and there will be speeches too, most notably, a speech by Rudy Giuliani.

Mr Giuliani may be the Republicans' best hope of extracting hope and honour from the mess of recrimination and short memories next week. He has been given a primetime slot and it will be his job to remind the nation of the extraordinary acts of bravery and compassion that marked the weeks after the attack. His credentials for this task are questioned by no one. Even though he will be at odds with many elements of the policy platform - his moderate, even liberal, tendencies include sympathy to gay marriage, commitment to tight gun control and support for abortion - he remains admired across the country for his handling of New York's darkest hours.

But all the rhetoric in the world will do nothing to answer the plea now being made by the firefighters and the police officers. Indeed, if Mr Giuliani manages to rehabilitate their image and to cast them again as the nation's heroes, their question to Mr Bloomberg will become only more acute. If we represent everything that is so good and patriotic and brave about this country, where is our reward?