By ROGER FRANKLIN, Herald Correspondent
NEW YORK - Cody Knox was doing a brisk business near the Brooklyn Mall when Michael Bloomberg killed him.
Actually, the fingerprints of New York's billionaire mayor and dilettante politician were not on the blade that ended the 17-year-old dealer's life. But considering that the murder was a direct result of Hizzoner's proudest initiative, he is very much an accomplice.
As far as the cops can tell, Cody spotted members of rival pushers, tried to run but went down hard as his attackers piled on. With one hand clutching the overstuffed garbage bag of contraband he had been peddling, he did not put up much of a fight before the knife found his throat.
That was pretty much it for the aspiring artist and "all-round good kid", as his mother described him at the funeral. The trail of his blood indicated that he struggled to his feet, lurched around the corner and crumpled on the footpath of Brooklyn's busiest shopping district.
Beyond hope when the ambulance arrived, the medics could do no more than cover the corpse, wait for the cops to finish and haul the young man's remains away.
A few years ago, before former Mayor Rudy Giuliani reminded the police how to do their job, teenage casualties of dealers' turf wars were so common that the city's newspapers treated the incidents as filler items. Another black or Hispanic kid blown away? So what. The drug trade is lucrative and competitive, so people commit murder to control it.
Cody did not quite fit that old mould, however.
It was not as though he peddled crack or heroin, his mother noted.
"It's unbelievable he had to die like that," she said between sobs, "over cigarettes."
Nor is Cody the only victim of Bloomberg's zealous crusade against tobacco, which he slapped with a US$3-a-pack sin tax earlier in the year, about the same time smoking was banned in every one of the city's bars. When you consider that the mayor made his billions by starting a financial news service, the consequences of his campaign are deeply ironic. You would think a former Wall Streeter could grasp the danger in encouraging the law of supply and demand to get seriously out of whack.
Start with simple arithmetic and geography. In New York, a pack of smokes sells for between US$6.50 and US$9, depending on brand and where you buy it. Across the Hudson in New Jersey - a 10-minute drive when traffic is light - you get change from US$5. And if an underground entrepreneur is prepared for a longer haul, there are Indian reservations where Camels and Marlboros are only US$3, since Native American territory is exempt from taxes.
Head to any of those destinations, load up with butts and make tracks back to the Big Apple. Summon a posse of neighbourhood kids, offer a cut of the profits, and turn them loose with the merchandise.
Thanks to Bloomberg's war on nicotine, that's how easy it is to turn a very big and very quick dollar.
So far, at least three cigarette vendors have paid with their lives. One was executed on the roof of his Bronx tenement, another gunned down on his beat. Meanwhile, as the gangs fight for their franchises, human life is not the only thing being destroyed.
Call it trust or, if you want to get fancy, the social contract that is supposed to bind civic leaders to the citizens they represent. When Giuliani came to office, no sane New Yorker placed much faith in the cops, who saw little point in making arrests when petty felons were back on the streets before the paperwork was finished. Law-abiding residents noticed that criminals and public nuisances were being given a pass and came to the reasonable conclusion that only suckers toed the line.
Red lights? Run 'em! A little reefer to unwind on the stroll home from work? Light it up on Fifth Avenue! If you pass a cop, he'll make a point not to catch the whiff.
Giuliani ended that by forcing the police to make arrests - the first thrust of his strategy for a better New York. The other was rooting out corruption. Restaurant owners found it easier to bribe health inspectors than exterminate the rats and roaches in their kitchens. Things were so bad, even elevator inspectors were demanding tributes.
Giuliani rooted out the worst thieves on the city's payroll, scared the rest straight and dispelled growing public cynicism. He could not expect average New Yorkers to behave, he said, if City Hall did not pull up its own socks.
Then came Bloomberg. Desperate to plug the fiscal hole left by September 11, his inspectors have been writing tickets like bookies. Any tactic is fair game, it seems, if it fills the budget gap.
Merchants have been fined for cluttering their storefronts with more signs than a formerly forgotten bylaw permits. Parking tickets have been doubled, to US$110. An idler sitting on a milk crate was fined for misusing it. A couple of weeks ago, a man carrying a bunch of party balloons was ticketed when one of them burst. The offence: noise pollution.
And then there is the anti-tobacco offensive, which is corroding faith in officialdom while doing little to generate revenue, since on-the-books sales have shrunk as taxes increased.
Last week in Brooklyn, not far from where Cody Knox was killed, "butt-leggers" were offering cut-price, untaxed cartons to Christmas shoppers. Not a penny was going to City Hall - and not one of the buyers seemed troubled to be supporting a criminal enterprise.
"**** Bloomberg," said a buyer called Angelo, who pushes paper for a living at a nearby courthouse.
"I should be guilty because I don't let him rip me off? **** him!"
By ROGER FRANKLIN, Herald Correspondent