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Dec 22, 20

Middle-Class War: A Visit to Staten Island’s “Autonomous Zone”

A critical report on the so-called ‘Autonomous Zone’ on Staten Island resisting current lock-down measures in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and why understanding its politically far-Right and class nature is important.

Transmission rates are on the rise again in New York City. Hospital beds are filling, the temperature is dropping, and most have accepted a renewed lockdown to b                                                                                                           e a foregone conclusion.

But the talk of the town has been a humble pub on Staten Island’s East Shore pushing against the trend. As the transmission rate in the vicinity pushed it into the “orange zone,” Mac’s Public House declared last month it would not abide by a state-mandated closure but instead stay open with a “suggested donation” model intended to skirt business regulations. No such loophole existed, the State Liquor Authority swiftly declared, yanking their license. But Mac’s continued pulling brews and serving burgers—safely, they swore—even though the city was fining them thousands of dollars a day. On November 20, the bar decided to reject the authority of the government altogether.

A series of videos released a week later explained their decision, at times looking like something made by ultra-left squatters set to Buffalo Springfield. Patrons in tight black jeans strutted furtively in front of the bar in an area artfully marked with pink tape reading “AUTONOMOUS ZONE” as a voice-over taunted the sheriffs monitoring the videos as “foot soldiers of new-age dictators.” They were not COVID deniers or anti-maskers, a Judo/Jiu Jitsu gym-owner supporting Mac’s assured, but were simply “appealing to the public to let them know we need to support and feed our families, and we can’t do that unless we’re subsidized by the government. We have to keep our businesses open, otherwise we can’t eat.” Mac’s co-owner Danny Presti added that they were trying to make a “united front” of small businesses committed to fully reopening and refusing to close again, no matter what.

Two days after the video was released, a team of sheriffs arrived with a cease and desist order. When the bar’s owners did not comply, their lawyers and employees were heavily fined, and Presti was arrested.

Hundreds swarmed the quiet commercial stretch of Lincoln Road the next evening to support the autonomous pub and decry the mandates of Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo, and the actions of law enforcement. “Defund the sheriffs!” they chanted.

Much of the crowd had been rallied on the same social media groups that organized the pro-Trump caravans of October, including, SI Live reported, “30 Proud Boys.” Individual businesses bucking COVID restrictions had become causes célèbres for the right since a hair salon in Dallas refused to close in April. The owner of a restaurant similarly refusing to close in Portage, Michigan went viral when he interrupted a news report to explain himself: “We got a government who has taken the stimulus money, they gave it to special campaign donors, they gave it to special interests. They abandoned me and then put me in a position where I have to fight back… you could’ve given me money, I’d gladly walk away for 60 days and let this virus settle down.”

Despite the conservative connotations of anti-lockdown sentiment, the video from Michigan went viral among liberals and leftists who support a more robust stimulus. Conversations I had about Mac’s had a similar tone. Even if they were enmeshed with the far-right, Mac’s plight was the same as every beloved independent bookstore, microcinema, bespoke vegan café, or hole-in-the-wall Punjabi joint. The New York Times reported in August that “one-third of the city’s 240,000 small businesses may never reopen.” Already half a million jobs in such businesses had been lost in the city, they went on, leading to a negative feedback loop of decreased spending at the businesses that remain and rising unemployment.

Presti’s invocation of his starving family rang true to those whose unemployment checks are set to expire alongside eviction moratoriums. The paralysis of the city and state governments can be explained away by the inaction of Congress, whose politicking around the Presidential and Senate runoff elections has transformed a new round of stimulus talks with broad bipartisan support into a never-ending race-to-the-bottom of how little they can give and how long they can wait to give it. But that explanation only goes so far. While Presti and co-owner Keith  McAlarney focused their rage against the Democratic leadership of New York, they had never explicitly come out as Trump supporters, either.

I heard even more sympathy for Presti among lefty friends when sheriffs again tried to arrest him the next weekend. Although the city had successfully shuttered the bar’s entrance, the owners gained access through the neighboring vacant storefront. A packed bar cheered as the “re-occupation” of the Autonomous Zone was announced on Tucker Carlson Tonight. When Presti left his shift the next night, he was approached by two sheriffs who failed to identify themselves, Presti’s lawyer said, causing him to fear for his life. He ran to his car and drove away with one of his unknown assailants pinned to the hood.

The assault on an officer was used by opponents of Mac’s, including the mayor, as proof of their disdain for law and order. His release without bail was decried by the Legal Aid Society as evidence of the District Attorney’s racist double standard. But these charges of hypocrisy and Blue Lives Matter-like appeals did not kill the Mac’s movement. Another rally was called for the next weekend.

Wanting to ask firsthand why Mac’s meant so much to people, whether opposition to the Democrats and sheriffs also extended to antipathy towards the Republicans and NYPD, and what they really meant by autonomy, I decided to attend. As I rode the ferry from Manhattan and then biked 40 minutes south, I had no idea what I would find at the heart of the island borough I had never really visited. Perhaps these would be the callous deplorables the media showed them to be, or perhaps I would find something more like how they portrayed themselves in video—a neighborhood bound together to protect their local watering-hole in defiance of the State, with the political signifiers their struggle has attracted being far less important than the community itself.

The Sunday afternoon rally was much smaller than the last, with only about 70 in attendance at its peak. Prominent in the crowd were a row of bikers wearing black and green leather, some larger men in Trump hats stoically carrying Trump flags, and an energetic older man in a blazer, sweatpants, and beret waving a sign that compared Mac’s to the Irish Republican Army. The owners and speakers lined up behind a barricade within the autonomous zone, which now extended to the vacant storefront next door.

The most well-known face of the lineup was Scott LoBaido, a Staten Island “patriot artist” and possible mayoral candidate known for painting pro-police, pro-Trump, and American flag murals around the island. The autonomous zone concept was his idea, and one he still championed. He proposed a day of action in which every restaurant and bar in the borough stayed open in defiance of the state, something like an inverted general strike. “This is no longer Mac’s Public House,” he announced during his brief remarks. “This is a house of resistance!”

Other speakers included Heshy Tischler, an anti-lockdown champion of the Haredi Orthodox Jewish community and City Council candidate who is allegedly behind a riotous mask-burning in Boro Park in October, and Leticia Remauro, a local Republican politician running for Borough President. “I wish we could have a world where everybody could live forever,” she said of the COVID restrictions. “But we’re sensible people.”

Perhaps stealing the show was John Tabacco, a local conservative activist and radio host who has helped turn the vacant storefront next to Mac’s into something of a clubhouse for conservative activists. Like LoBaido, Tabacco has been a conservative activist for quite a while. In 2011 he counter-demonstrated Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park with signs saying “$TOP KILLING NYC BU$INE$$” and “Occupy A DESK!” Calling himself a “member of the 53 percent” (referring to the percentage of the population that pays income tax), he told SI Live he wasn’t totally against Occupy’s mission of opposing bailouts to greedy corporations, but that their strategy of occupying a park was all wrong. (His championing of small business over finance capital may not have lasted long. He appeared on the Daily Show in 2013 to oppose even the tepid regulations of Elizabeth Warren.)

Tabacco’s speech stressed the social suffering caused by the lockdown, saying the “cure cannot be worse than the disease.” For standing up against the dictates of de Blasio, Staten Island had been portrayed in the media as New York’s “red-headed stepchild,” nothing but Trump supporters. He suggested the borough secede from the city. Restaurants and bars are being targeted in particular, he continued, because they are a largely cash business, and the government wants to control cash and eventually get rid of it in the process of making a fully digital world. That’s why they’re closing restaurants first. “We’re still analog!”

The speakers generally stuck to this script. They were not COVID-deniers but were fighting for  “common sense.” In this light, they tried to emphasize common sense critiques of the lockdowns. Domestic violence rose at an alarming rate this spring. The rates of poverty and violent crime had also risen exponentially. Their real concern, they emphasized, was that, motivated by fear, our society was willing to surrender certain rights and freedoms for a sense of security. This line didn’t sound too different from what you might expect to hear, in a different context, at a liberal or leftist rally, and honestly it was not too different from lines taken by some prominent radical European philosophers.

But if even their “common sense” appeal rang too much of culture war, that’s not to say it didn’t have a firm class identity. At every turn, the bar and their loudest supporters referred to their movement as by and for the small businessman. When they did talk about actual workers, it was either referring to a set of cultural signifiers so vague they could have meant the entirety of Staten Island, or purely paternally. LoBaido said his heart broke for the workers who without them would have no income for Christmas presents or rent.

When I asked after the rally if any of Mac’s workers were there that day, he admitted he hadn’t seen them, but insisted they had come to the previous rally and were generally supportive. Without knowing anything about those cooks and barbacks (I had never seen them speaking in Mac’s videos), I found it plausible that they supported the struggle. Even if Mac’s workers are “on the books”–eligible for unemployment–with stimulus details so uncertain it is reasonable to believe they’d prefer to keep working. So long as there is no independent movement of workers and tenants, their fate will be linked to that of business owners large and small, and the political influence they wield. “The worker need not necessarily gain when the capitalist does,” Karl Marx wrote, “but he necessarily loses when the latter loses.”

While restaurant owners are able to point to recent contact tracing data that shows only 1.4% of cases coming from restaurants and bars—compared to 74% from household and private gatherings—this does not mean restaurant work is safe and should go unregulated. The majority of New York City’s 300,000 restaurant employees are immigrants likely to live in close quarters with friends and family, often in neighborhoods some distance from their work. Hours for kitchen employees tend to be brutal—in my time working in restaurants, most would work double shifts five or six days weeks, often without a day off. With so few people taking up so many shifts, there often isn’t adequate replacement, leading cooks to work through injuries or illnesses. Even with mandatory posters informing workers of their rights to minimum wage, overtime, or sick days, kitchen workers often assumed they might run afoul with the boss if anything outside the norm were demanded. I often witnessed cooks, clearly ill with the flu, working for days on end as if nothing was wrong.

After the rally, I asked LoBaido if he saw anything in common with his conception of the autonomous zone and the one in Seattle that inspired it. He said it was symbolic, a matter of artistic expression to point out the hypocrisy of liberal governments permitting left-wing protest zones but shutting down businesses. Another rally participant, a nineteen-year-old from the Island’s North Shore, interpreted it the same way. He liked the autonomous zone concept because they were “using the left’s concept against them.”

I challenged LoBaido’s position that his movement had nothing in common with the left. Leftists had also called-out the stimulus funds going to the top and called for more help for workers and small businesses, along with a commercial and residential rent freeze. He paused to consider it, but said in the end there was nothing in common, because the left are violent and damage property at their protests.

There was also no indication of a distrust for law enforcement. Nearly every speaker stressed how much they respected the NYPD for being there. Some comments took jabs at the sheriff’s department, with one onlooker heckling them as “tax farmers,” but overall the isolated and ugly incident the prior week was contextualized as nothing compared to the Molotov cocktail-throwing, precinct-burning Black Lives Matter movement.

Another letdown was the lack of local vibe. I knew they would be Republicans, but I had at least hoped they would be neighborhood Republicans. Instead the handful of supporters appeared to have come from all over the borough and the rest of the tri-state area. One neighbor told me it certainly wasn’t the regulars. Reactions from passing motorists were mixed, with some honking in support and others heckling. One hurled a full-throated “Shut it the fuck down!”

Next, I spoke to a pair of evangelical pastors from Brooklyn who had set up shop along with Tabacco in the storefront. They told me they saw the autonomous zone as freedom of expression, much like their freedom of religion, and that they were together battling the coming New World Order. As they rambled on, I searched the dwindling faces in the crowd for someone who might give me any validation for my hopes that this was something more interesting than a culture-war battleground held by GOP politicians and wingnuts.

As the rally wound down, and the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right to Party” raged from the SUVs of the late-arriving caravan of Trump supporters in matching “FUCK YOUR FEELINGS” sweaters, I noticed one familiar face still outside–Keith McAlarney, the “Mac.” From videos, I had imagined he and Danny more thoughtful than the Trumpist conspiracy theorists and evangelicals that dominated the rally. They presented themselves as rational moderates who believed in the dangers of COVID but stood to lose everything. Perhaps, regardless of his personal politics, he could offer some kind of rapprochement to vindicate the display of GOP-machine wingnuttery I had seen so far.

He politely declined the interview for lack of time and asked me to talk to a middle-aged woman standing next to him instead, saying she had an equally important story for me to hear. She was a local yoga teacher and passionate activist against mandatory vaccinations. Her story was much like that of a woman who spoke earlier—her child had a negative reaction to a shot, igniting a lifelong mission to restore a religious exemption to the procedure. She told me her parents fled communism in Cambodia to make it to the United States and instilled upon her, from an early age, the dangers of socialism, which always led to communism. For her, it all boiled down to a rejection of the idea “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” The quote referenced the final scene of the 1982 film Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, where Spock sacrifices his life by entering a damaged engine room flooded with radiation to save the lives of the rest of the crew of the Enterprise.

Much of what I had heard that day similarly struck me as fear of the future, a reaction to a liberal society among people whose notion of “progress” was really a dystopian scheme. Such conclusions had led young radicals this spring and summer to reject law and policing and claim autonomous territory where they could discuss what their politics really meant and strengthen them for the fight ahead. If such discussions were happening at Mac’s Autonomous Zone, it could only be over beers inside, past the American flag and into the vacant storefront that owners, bikers and a few locals entered after the rally. I was hoping to get a beer before my ride back to the ferry, but Mac’s was really closed this time, one of them told me. Or maybe I wasn’t invited.

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Former editors of Race Traitor. Examining lives of “ordinary people,” among whom there exists the capacity to overturn the present mess and build a new society.

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