MORE THAN RAGE
Advocacy radio journalist Paul DeRienzo
speaks out - and up - to better his neighborhood.
BY JONATHAN D. NULLER
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDREA BRASIAVSKV
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
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