Joseph Lentol has been the New York State Assembly Member for Brooklyn’s District 50 (which includes Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Fort Greene) since 1983. He is also Chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Codes, tasked with reviewing criminal justice legislation. He previously served as Assistant District Attorney in Kings County before he began holding elected office in 1972.
I spoke with Assemblyperson Lentol over the phone on October 19th.
JC: So I wanted to get your thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street protest. I’m wondering what you think of them, and if you’ve spoken with any participants?
JL: I certainly have been thinking about it a lot. Unfortunately, I haven’t spoken to anyone and I didn’t realize until Amy [Cleary, Lentol’s Communications Director] told me that you suggested it was a Greenpoint resident who was the person who was pepper-sprayed by the police department. By the Deputy Inspector, I guess. And later featured in the Daily News and New York Times articles.
So I guess the first thing I can say is that I’m really proud of what they’ve done down on Wall Street because they’ve exercised what we consider to be the founding fathers’ gift to us, which was a democracy and the first amendment in action. So this is what the founding fathers believed in and wanted to promote when they founded a country and adopted a constitution.
So some two hundred and fifty years later, it still holds true.
I have received dozens, if not hundreds of emails on the topic and answered all of them and even spoken to several participants. Or people who are interested, I should say. My sense of it is that these people are frustrated. They are well meaning and they are peaceful. And they’re right.
The most interesting thing that I can tell you about is that there’s almost like a cyclical situation that seems to occur in the history of the United States of America. Where we have come across a situation like this. For example, in the 1900s we have the Robber Barons. John D Rockefeller and all of the industrialists that wanted to take what they could get from our economy, and did. And they created all of the Trusts. And then several later the Trust Buster, Teddy Roosevelt, who wasn’t even from my party, came along and he was the Trust Buster. And that kind of was a correction, at the time, when the Trusts were broken up. And not to far along later you had Wall Street again rearing its ugly head in the Great Depression, when the stock market collapsed and again, there were a lot of greedy people who were taking advantage. A lot of rich people getting richer and poor people getting poorer and what resulted was the Great Depression. And the New Deal had to come along to take us out of that. And that was a correction.
We established a lot of policies in the New Deal that would be a correction so that people would be able to enjoy some prosperity. And they did! For a lot of years, through the 50s and the 60s America a pretty good country, at least economically. In other ways it wasn’t.
JC: So do you see the OWS protests as a reaction against economics in the country, exclusively?
JL: This is the same kind of situation where you’re having a correction. We’re seeing a correction in action. Where a lot of rich people have taken advantage of the poorer people and have gotten their way. Either with government or their way with the economy. And the bankers that people down on Wall Street are complaining about have gotten their way. And now it’s the people’s turn to try and bring about a correction because the people are the ones that are suffering. Kids can’t pay their student loans, they can’t get mortgages, they can’t borrow money from the banks, and they’re fed up and tired of it. They can’t get a job! And something has to give, somebody has to do something.
It’s not simple to come up with an answer of exactly what to do, and think that’s why their message is a little bit foggy and you don’t understand why they can’t come up with a concrete message. But you know, they’re out their in the wilderness because that’s what this is. It is a wilderness. And they don’t know, necessarily, where the problem lies or how to correct it. And an administration in Washington that’s trying to deal with, and we’ve got people on the other side who take a different view of how to deal with it, and as a result there is inaction and gridlock.
JC: So how you been down to the OWS demonstration? Have you seen it?
JL: No, I haven’t, but I plan to go. But I haven’t seen it. And I’m sorry that I haven’t, but I haven’t gotten there.
JC: I’m sure you read about the pepper spraying on the 24th, and then the many arrests several days later on the Brooklyn Bridge. Why do you think that city is responding in this way?
JL: Well, let me preface that by saying that by and large, I think that for a protest of this size and scale the mayor and police commissioner who control the NYPD have been in my opinion fairly supportive of the first amendment rights of the protestors. And the mayor has expressed that. I know that deep down he may have misgivings about keeping them there in the park, but I think he genuinely believes that people have a right to protest. Tempers wear thin, passions run high, anger is misdirected. And I think that’s what you’re seeing with the police department problems.
And it happens in all demonstrations that I’ve seen over the years. It’s one of the lessons that we learned in history and that’s why we have the Citizens Complaint Review Board. And now the situation is a lot different than it was in those days. You know, like the Vietnam War protests and other protests that happened in the past. Because people have videophones, they have cameras. It’s much easier to sort out what happened at these incidents. I wasn’t there, I don’t know what happened when all of these incidents took place, so I can’t really condemn, having not seen it firsthand. But I hope that if there was police brutality that it’s is dealt with swiftly and a just conclusion is reached. And if there was not police brutality, that the officer’s names be cleared, as well.
Above all, I believe that these incidents should not infringe upon people’s right to protest and dampen the message that the protesters are trying to create.
JC: One of the issues OWS is dealing with is homelessness, perhaps particularly because the homeless are a part of the movement and life in the park. You have been working for years on the homeless problem in Greenpoint. With what you know about OWS, do you think they offer solutions to the problem?
JL: The homeless problem is certainly related to what’s going on on Wall Street. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. You know, if you don’t have a house, you don’t have a mortgage, you don’t have a job, and you can’t get a loan – so what are you gonna do, live in the street or live in your car? The homeless problem is related to what’s going on. We’re gonna see a lot more of it if the present situation is allowed to continue and the protesters aren’t successful, in my opinion.
The city is only interested in the big picture. All of the homeless that they have to deal with. And they want to put them in as many mass shelters as they can, rather than really trying to deal with the solutions to the problem, which are the causes of homelessness. And creating affordable housing for people to live in. Because, you know, at the rate we’re going you know the city was very good, they built a lot of luxury houses but where do the poor people live? There aren’t any services for a lot of Polish speaking people that have a lot of problems in this neighborhood. And the city is not concentrating on that, they’re concentrating on the big picture of homelessness and just trying to warehouse them away so that nobody sees them. And that’s not the answer to the problem, we’ve been doing that for thirty years. And it hasn’t solved the homeless problem, has it? All it does is make it worse. …Either they don’t want to solve the problem or they don’t care.
JC: There is an Occupy Brooklyn movement. There’s been two GA’s. What do you think of that? And what you might think of an Occupy Greenpoint movement?
JL: I think it’s great. I think that an Occupy Greenpoint or Occupy Brooklyn, as long as it was peaceful and law-abiding, I think the many people in Brooklyn could benefit from sharing in the ideals that the Wall Street folks are fighting for. We have high unemployment here, some of the highest poverty rates, and a great need for services. And I believe that needs to change.