The tragedy of a Staten Island father, whose death at the hands of the NYPD was recently ruled a homicide, has sent unsettling ripples throughout the city. Apparently, the chokehold applied by the NYPD didn’t just cause the death of suspected “loosie” salesman Eric Garner; it also seems to have left the city’s liberal establishment with a weird case of collective amnesia.
A narrative has started to take shape that the reason civil rights activists have not taken to the streets in anger is that this new administration is somehow more sensitive to the concerns of the affected community. As the Observer’s Ross Barkan reported last week, “Rachel Noerdlinger, a former top aide to Rev. Al Sharpton, and now the chief of staff to Mr. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, believes wholeheartedly that minorities are willing to give Mr. de Blasio” some leeway before jumping to conclusions. Mr. Barkan quotes Ms. Noerdlinger, “I think more folks are going to probably give [Mayor de Blasio] the benefit of the doubt that he will respond fairly.”
In a New York Times article headlined, “Quick Action in Chokehold Case Has Shielded de Blasio From Ire, for Now,” mayoral aides credited Ms. Noerdlinger as “instrumental” in calming the nerves of communities of color.
A narrative has emerged. The reason the city has not erupted in a rage reminiscent of the mass arrests and civil disobedience that surrounded 1999’s “41 shots” tragedy of Amadou Diallo is that our new progressive mayor, who campaigned against the stop-and-frisk tactic, has differentiated himself from past mayors in terms of racial sensitivity.
Ms. Noerdlinger told the Observer that the reaction would have been much different had Mr. Bloomberg and former Police Chief Ray Kelly still been in office.
“Night and day, night and day. Bloomberg helped to be an architect of stop-and-frisk and some of the policies behind what went into Eric Garner even being … it would’ve been very different.”
But wait a second. We’ve seen this movie before. From some of the exact same screenwriters. A new mayor is applauded for showing sensitivity that his predecessor supposedly lacks.
When Sean Bell was killed by 50 shots in 2006, The New York Times ran a photo of Mayor Bloomberg embracing Mr. Sharpton and noted that “The mayor’s decision to meet with Mr. Sharpton and other black leaders was a stark turnabout from the approach of Mr. Bloomberg’s predecessor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who did not reach out to black leaders in the immediate aftermath of the fatal 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo … Mayor Bloomberg’s blunt assessment of events still under investigation was striking.”
Two years later, when the police who shot Mr. Bell were acquitted— exactly as those who shot Mr. Diallo had been—the Times editorialized: “Anger and disappointment are understandable now, but New York’s leadership has changed, and community activists need to absorb that fact before they attempt to heat up reaction. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly are trying to correct the conditions that led to the Bell shooting, changes that take time and good faith on all sides. Both men have kept a schedule of outreach to minority communities. Progress has been steady.”
A day later, an editorial disguised as news was headlined, “In Bell Case, Black New Yorkers See Nuances That Temper Rage.” The story noted that “In the aftermath of the verdict in the Bell case, many black New Yorkers reacted not with outrage but with a muted reserve, saying that the city felt like a less polarized place in 2008, nearly a decade after the Diallo shooting and with a different mayor and police commissioner.”
Got that? The new mayor deserves a break because he replaces a mayor who was less sensitive on matters of race.
In October 2005, the Times’ Jim Rutenberg wrote a thumb-sucker on Mayor Bloomberg’s first term, describing the mayor’s early efforts to reach out to civil rights leaders: “It impressed Mr. Sharpton sufficiently enough to defuse the potential for a very adversarial relationship. Mr. Sharpton, in fact, has credited Mr. Bloomberg’s early entreaties with helping to set a new tone for race relations in the city.” Later, the story noted that “the current police commissioner [Ray Kelly] enjoys considerable standing among blacks and Latinos … and polls show that many New Yorkers believe that racial tensions are low.”
The death—the homicide—of Garner is a tragedy. It should never have occurred. Those responsible must be held accountable and this page will revisit the issue to ensure that occurs.
What is not helpful in confronting this problem is a short memory. Blaming Mayor Bloomberg—or Mayor Giuliani, for that matter—for the violence displayed on occasion by the police department or in reaction to the police department only serves to obscure the problems at the root of that violence.
Mayor de Blasio should be judged by the degree of accountability to which he holds those responsible, not by the “gestures” and “tone” supposedly set by those in his administration. For one dead 43-year-old father in Staten Island, gestures and tone weren’t enough.