Advocacy radio journalist Paul DeRienzo speaks out - and up - to better his neighborhood.



A little more than most civic-minded Lower East Side residents, Paul DeRienzo likes to make his voice heard. He has shouted his opinions at community board meetings, marched for causes he believes in, attended a fair number of demonstrations. And sometimes he has suffered for his involvement: His scalp once needed seven stitches after he was clubbed by a policeman pursuing protesters; another time he was thrown in jail after a flag-burning demonstration.

DeRienzo, thirty-four, puts himself on the line not only as an activist but more importantly as a radio reporter for WBAI (99.5 FM). An advocacy journalist since 1982, DeRienzo sees his job as giving voice to a whole segment of the community whose concerns and complaints might otherwise go unheard. This means, for one thing, that he is often a leading player in the stories he seeks out with his microphone. A former squatter, he has served as a lookout man for squatters breaking into abandoned buildings has distributed pro-squatter literature and even got himself kicked out of a community board meeting for becoming too vociferous about a real estate development proposal.

It also means that, as a reporter, maintaining objective distance from his subject matter is not one of his high priorities. Journalists, he said in an interview, "have an interest in making sure that history is written from an accurate point of view, and not the point of view of the people who want to throw the people out of the neighborhood." He tries not to become part of the story, he said, sitting in a lounge at WBAI in jeans, black sneakers, and a black leather jacket. But sometimes it's too much to ask. "If I'm angered enough, I'll speak out, because I live in the neighborhood," he said. "Sometimes you get dragged into the story whether you want to or not.

I'm a human being, too."

Not surprisingly, such an attitude has hardly made him popular among city officials, some of whom consider DeRienzo's activism a mild form of urban warfare. "He's been inciting people. He's been confrontational and doesn't allow much dialogue," said Lisa Kaplan, a member of Community Board Three, whose members DeRienzo occasionally excoriates in public for expending more energy coddling housing developers than providing shelter for the poor. "I don't think he's helped the squatters' cause at all."

And, as he readily admits, his political stance hasn't made his reporting job very easy, especially when he is interviewing officials at City Hall. "I usually can only get one good interview from whoever the chief guy is at any one time," he said. "As soon as they hear the tone of my questions and the story I do, they never want to talk to me again."

Housing activists, though, love him. "When we want to get the word out, we call Paul," said Fran Luck, one of the founders of the group, RAGEON!, an acronym for Revolt Against Gentrification Erasing Our Neighborhood!

A thin man of medium height with thick brown hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and a mustache, DeRienzo was born in the Bronx in the late 1950s and said his political memory began in second grade, the weekend JFK was shot. "Everybody in the Bronx was panicking and crying, and I had strep-throat." In junior high he remembers being "a snot-nosed kid in the anti-war movement" and in 1974 he left for the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He majored in political science and history, and began writing stories for the school paper. One was a front-page exclusive on a violent Nazi-communist campus clash; the paper's editor superimposed a swastika dripping with blood over DeRienzo's words. But there were campus complaints about leftist reporters, and DeRienzo was booted off the staff.

Returning to the East Coast in 1978, DeRienzo took a job at a New York publishing firm and eventually moved to the Lower East Side. At work he had his cubicle, his radio, and his telephone, and he listened to the talk shows-mostly Dennis Bernstein's politics show on WBAI- while filing receipts. One day Bernstein mentioned he needed a volunteer to help teach writing to inmates at Riker's Island prison, and DeRienzo called him up. The work led to further assistance on reporting projects at WBAL

Journalism didn't begin to pay off until 1982 when DeRienzo was covering a May Day demonstration in Tompkins Square Park and was struck from behind on the head by a policeman. He promptly sued and collected a $17,500 check from the city. The money allowed him to pursue freelance writing projects and travel to Central America, where, among other things, he took a picture of Manuel Noriega shaking hands with Daniel Ortega. Then he followed "Rock Against Reagan," a national tour of music groups that ended up participating in a flag-burning demonstration at the 1984 Republican Convention in Dallas, which got him two days in jail for disturbing the peace, he said.

Back in New York, DeRienzo joined an anti-apartheid group, and his coverage in 1986 of a demonstration against South Africa Airways at LaGuardia Airport led to his first news report for WBAI. He began to cover the squatter movement for the station when land speculation and rising rents drove more low-income citizens to take over abandoned buildings. In 1987, between apartments, DeRienzo became a squatter himself for six weeks and helped a group on Eighth Street fix walls and put up joists. (He now lives in an apartment near Tompkins Square Park.)

That same year WBAI hired DeRienzo to engineer Contragate, a syndicated radio program that covered the congressional investigation of the Iran-contra scandal. After the hearings, the show became Undercurrents, a half-hour review of national and international events that won its producer, Robert Knight, a Polk journalism award in 1990 for coverage of the Panama invasion, including an interview with Noriega, which DeRienzo helped set up.

As a news reporter and an occasional host, DeRienzo fits in comfortably at WBAI, a listener supported station that features a wide variety of alternative viewpoints. "He gets things that are happening before they hit the mainstream," said Amy Goodman, the station's news editor.

His decisions on reporting often are determined by the amount of rage building up in his spleen. Lately, topics have ranged from the disposal of syringe needles by medical clinics on the Lower East Side to a critical appraisal of Republican Representative Bill Green's "yes" vote on the Gulf War to the testing of chemical weapon antidotes on GIs without their consent. His main focus, though, is on land issues. "The control over land by the indigenous people," he said, "is the main struggle of our era, whether it be in the Persian Gulf or the Baltic States or the Lower East Side." In May 1989, he filed a report on an incident involving a group of squatters at 319 East Eighth Street who poured their urine bottles on a demolition crew and then tore down the scaffolding the crew had erected.

DeRienzo's style of life can be as anarchic as his political outlook. To supplement his part-time salary at the radio station, he teaches English to Brazilian, Polish, and Japanese immigrants, and follows up on freelance reporting opportunities as they arise. If something newsworthy happens, his schedule changes accordingly. "I'm like a kid," he said. "I leave things open."

Typically, he wakes up at 6 a.m., arrives at the WBAI studios at 7:50 for Undercurrents, returns to the Lower East Side to teach English from 10 a.m. until I p.m., and then spends the afternoon freelancing or doing other chores for the station.

One recent morning found him at WBAI's nineteenth-floor office near Penn Station, setting up the tape machines and turntables for City Politics, a show he occasionally hosts. Hanging on one wall was a 1960s election poster for Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin (who ran for mayor and city councilman, respectively.) A shock of brown hair drooped over DeRienzo's eyebrows as he searched around for an album. At air time, he returned to the soundboard, adjusted his headphones,, pushed his glasses up the ridge of his nose and went on the air with "Inner City Blues" by Gil Scott-Heron: ". . . Crime is increasing. Trigger-happy policing. Panic is spreading. God knows where we're heading."

"We're going to talk about the crime in the South Bronx, the eviction of squatters," DeRienzo announced after the music ended. He then turned things over to Reverend Frank Morales, a street minister on the Lower East Side and former squatter, who had witnessed the eviction of a group of Central American immigrants. "So tell us what you saw on Tuesday . . "

Morales recounted what he termed an "attack" by "Mayor Dinkins' military assault squad" on a building in the South Bronx. He said the squad had placed "snipers on all the rooftops nearby" and brought in an exotic-looking, high-tech telecommunications vehicle to watch over the police as they evicted the tenants. DeRienzo broke in to say the truck had been present at a prior eviction. "That was what they call the FEMA truck," he said, which stands for Federal Emergency Management Agency, a bureau that DeRienzo said was coordinating activities with the city's Anti-Terrorism Task Force office at One Police Plaza.

The truck's presence made sense to Morales. "The squatters, the homesteaders, are viewed as terrorists," he said.

After a couple of minutes of banter, DeRienzo stopped. "Let's open the phones," he said. The phone bank lit up. "You're on the air. . ."

"Yes," said an older man in a raspy voice, "I'd like to say to all the new immigrants . . . get involved in union organizing, get involved in community organizing, get involved... If the police harass you, there are ways through publicity to harass the police. Because the police do many things they don't want the press to know about. Let the pres\ know ...

After the show, DeRienzo was walking down the hallway with Morales when the receptionist shouted that he had a call. Grabbing the receiver, he listened for a moment, then blurted to Morales, "They're demolishing the South Bronx building. Right now." Attorneys from the Tompkins Square Legal Defense Committee had filed for a stay order on the demolition. "The judges rarely hear these things," Morales said. "They usually throw them out on a technicality or dismiss them."

On the way to the elevator, DeRienzo grabbed his jacket, a tape recorder, and a microphone, and said regretfully that if the person from the Bronx had called only a few minutes earlier, he could have helped mobilize some opposition over the air. Soon, they were on a number two subway rumbling north into the South Bronx. "They've probably set up scaffolding around the buildings," Morales said. "The workers are probably just sitting in the truck eating their lunch."

From the subway stop, it was a quick walk through rubble-strewn lots to the site. There was no scaffolding up, because the contractor had just learned the demolition was postponed for a day. The police had set up blue wood barricades on the street in front of the condemned building to keep spectators back. A paddy wagon and several squad cars were parked across from the entrance. Some of the Dominican families, who had been living in the building for more than a year, were carrying furniture and plastic paint buckets of food.

"To put all that work into a building and then see it demolished," DeRienzo said angrily. He headed toward a group of people who were standing outside the barricade and found Fritz, a gray haired Hispanic resident, whom he brought close to a wall to get the microphone out of the wind. "What happened? Describe what happened," DeRienzo said.

Some people from the city government had broken into the building in the middle of the night, Fritz said, and warned the residents to get out because it was going to be demolished. "There were thirty-six families here. Thirty-six!" he exclaimed in heavily accented English. "And all those people did not bother anyone. They go out, they come home, go to work, having a decent life, you know." Fritz threw out his arms. "Nobody has the right to disturb the peace. The police, they are the ones disturbing- it. We might have to go open more buildings, and prove it to them tha they cannot touch us."

After a couple of more interviews, DeRienzo packed away his microphone and walked back toward the train. "I've been to too many of these things," he said. "This really pisses me off." He knew what was next for the squatters: "They're given temporary shelter. The city calls them apartments-never saying they're apartments in a druginfested shelter."

Some days DeRienzo feels his reporting makes a difference; on other days it all seems futile. He finds it heartening when squatters like the group on the Lower East Side can put up successful resistance; he claims he doesn't lead the charge against the police. "I don't think I play a role in the organizing," DeRienzo said. "That's done by the squatters and the people on the Lower East Side themselves."He just brings the microphone.

STREETS : The Magazine of the Lower East Side -Spring 1991
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