How to Survive a Cop Coup: What Bill de Blasio Can Learn from Ecuador

Greg Grandin

In the United States, the mildest attempt to shift policy debate away from security to inequality (class and race) leads to a cop insurrection and, as Corey Robin put it, Weimer Vibes—"and not the good kind." Comparisons have been made to the cop revolt in 1992 against mayor David Dinkins, who tried to set up a civilian review board to assess police brutality. Thousands of police, led by Rudy Giuliani, swarmed City Hall and shut down the Brooklyn Bridge. As the New York Times reported, "Asked why the department did not take stronger action to control the protesters, Raymond W. Kelly, the Acting Police Commissioner, said the size and vehemence of the protest had caught police commanders by surprise." Giuliani, denounced by Dinkins as a hooligan and an opportunist, rode the white resentment to make sure the city's first black mayor only had one term.

Bill de Blasio faces a more dangerous situation, in the wake of the murder of the two police officers and what seem to be calls to insurrection by the PBA. The constituency that fuels white police resentment is on the wane (just take a look at the demographics of Staten Island)—and being on the wane makes it even more dangerous.

But de Blasio has a model other than Dinkins he could follow. In late 2010, Ecuador's president faced down a cop revolt and won, emerging even stronger and more popular.

Nominally the police protest was about pay and grades, but it was led by cops with ties to a rightwing opposition party. Cops poured into Quito's streets, taking over the National Assembly building. Similar police protests spread to other cities, with police supporters blocking roads and shutting the country down leading Rafael Correa to declare a state of emergency.

Correa was the opposite of conciliatory: he headed straight to Quito's main police barracks. And just like the NY cops who turned their back on de Blasio last night, the cops in Quito engaged in symbolic action meant to delegitimize Correa. The president then launched a confrontational speech: he loosened his tie, opened his shirt, repeatedly pointing to his chest and saying: "you want to kill the president, here he is. Kill me, if you want to. Kill me if you are brave enough!" (a good example of how politics, in Latin America, is still Jacobin, unmediated and taking place in the public square). Tear gas was fired, with the cannisters nearly hitting Correa and his wife, who had to retreat to a nearby hospital.

Finance and resource-extraction capital were quick to try to leverage the crisis, with financial experts blaming the unrest on Correa's rejection of the logic of austerity. "The (government) finally realizes that maybe their current spending could not continue," said a portfolio manager at Federated Investors. Correa had already defaulted on billions of dollars in bond debt passed on to him from his predecessors. "Illegitimate," Correa called that debt. And Ecuador was at that moment also negotiating higher taxes on foreign oil companies.

The cop coup almost worked. A number of traditional left parties had by that point become alienated with Correa over a number of issues, and the urban "middle class" was almost buying the argument, pushed by oligarchic controlled media, that Correa was "authoritarian" and a "dictator." But the president's defiant stand gave his supporters time to organize counter-demonstrations. Most of the army, which extracted Correa from the cop-beseiged hospital, stayed loyal. And Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and the rest of South America made it clear they wouldn't tolerate Correa's ouster. Eight people were killed and nearly three hundred wounded in the police riot.

Serious tension continues to exist between Correa and Ecuador's grass-roots left in Ecuador, as Andrew Ross has recently written in The Nation. But Rafael Correa has a lot to teach, at least as far as how to survive a rightwing-police coup while at the same time retaining, and even extending, one's political and economic agenda (not to mention electoral popularity).

Considering that Giuliani and others associated with the NYPD regularly advises and trains Latin American police in the theory and practice of "broken windows" and "zero-tolerance," perhaps de Blasio should give Correa a call.