“This Is My New BFF.”: or Why the Worst Part of the Inauguration Day Was When a Homeless Girl Was Used as a Political Prop

c/o politicker.com

You remember yesterday, right? You weren’t sleeping all day, were you? Or just barely getting through the morning, peering out at the world through bleary eyes? No, you were probably up bright and early so that you could watch the inaugural proceedings as New York’s 109th mayor was sworn in, along with a new public advocate and city comptroller. But just in case you weren’t wide awake and you didn’t hear the speeches by Harry Belafonte or Rev. Fred Lucas Jr. or Bill Clinton or Public Advocate Letitia James or even de Blasio himself, never fear. We were wide awake and watching it read about it later in the day and watched it online so that we could tell you everything important that was said. You’re welcome, you guys. Happy new year.

There was no doubt that de Blasio’s inauguration would be an interesting one. After all, we were bearing witness to regime change here. Everyone has been joking for the past two months about de Blasio’s New York, but now it was really here. And it didn’t seem so threatening, really, because look at all those familiar faces up on the dais! There’s Governor Andrew Cuomo and his girlfriend Sandra Lee (of Kwanzaa cake fame)! And there’s former President Bill Clinton! And possibly future President Hillary Rodham Clinton! And famous actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte! This was going to be a great day of togetherness and inclusion and unity and torch-passing and all sorts of good stuff, right? Ha. Wrong. So, so wrong.

Instead what we got was Harry Belafonte talking about how New York is now a “Dickensian” city where the skyrocketing incarceration rate set a dangerous precedence for the rest of the nation. Never mind that this isn’t actually true, and that the city’s incarceration rate has dropped by a third under Bloomberg, even while it’s risen in other parts of the country. And then the Reverend Fred Lucas gave the invocation and called New York a “plantation,” leading to a brief flare-up of twitter outrage (the very best kind of outrage because it’s so, so fleeting). Uncommented on, however, was the fact that Lucas also referenced New York as being “a city set upon a hill, a light shining in darkness,” which is a biblical reference that was famously employed by none other than Ronald Reagan. So I’m not sure what’s weirder? That the majority of the speakers at the inauguration were lambasting former mayor Bloomberg as he sat right there, stone-faced, on the stage with them? Or that one of Reagan’s favorite allegories was invoked? Hard to say, really, though I guess if I had to pick the worst moment at the inauguration, it would definitely be when Tish James informed the crowd that Dasani Coates, the 12-year-old girl who was recently profiled in a New York Times article called “Invisible Child,” was her “new BFF.”

Yeah, that’s right. As James railed against the social and economic inequalities that pervade this city, young Dasani stood there, hand-in-hand with the new public advocate her new BFF, as…what exactly? A symbol of everything wrong with the Bloomberg administration? An emblem of the fact that New York’s homeless population has ballooned in the last twelve years? A convenient political prop for a woman who would lie later that day about being the one responsible for Dasani’s story being told in the Times at all? All of the above? Yes. That’s it. All of the above. And as excited as I am to be welcoming a more progressive presence into City Hall (and as thrilling as it is that we finally have an African-American woman elected to a citywide office), the incredibly divisive rhetoric at what is not notoriously an overtly political day felt pretty shitty and like the worst kind of pandering. Because, frankly, as much as de Blasio ran on his progressive credentials, he also worked in the administrations of Andrew Cuomo and Bill Clinton, both of whom are famously centrist Democrats. In other words, we really have no idea how progressive this guy is actually going to be…after all, the choice of Bill Bratton as head of the NYPD wasn’t exactly revolutionary, now was it?

The reality is that there are many systemic problems that the de Blasio administration will need to work on, and two of the biggest are the homeless shelter system and the public school system…both of which have major issues that are reflected in the plight of Dasani and her family. But Dasani is just one child, and using her as a political prop to signify everything that was wrong with both the Bloomberg administration and the division between the haves and have-nots in this city is just as ridiculous as ignoring her existence. I mean, I highly doubt that James and Dasani are going to be hanging out making those rubber loom bracelets with each other on the weekends. Besides, Dasani doesn’t need a BFF. Dasani—and her brothers and sisters, and countless other children like them—need a public safety net that will provide for them when their parents can not. Dasani doesn’t need to be paraded around for one day. She needs a home and a safe school environment and a strong foundation from which she can build a life. That’s what this administration can give her. That’s what they should try to give her. And giving her that does not necessitate parading her around, as if she was just a symbol, instead of a child.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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  1. One way to show how excited you are about having our first woman of color in citywide office is to report on a single thing of substance that she said, instead of exclusively complaining about the optics. James said so much that was either shocking or thrilling (depending on your POV) that to ignore it, while praising the broken barrier, makes me wonder who exactly is being used as a prop here.