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Unrest hastens de Blasio's loss of control


NEW YORK — Mayor Bill de Blasio faced thousands of people packed into Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza Thursday afternoon to speak for 85 seconds about the racial unrest cascading across New York City.

The boos that greeted him subdued a bit during his perfunctory remarks, only to crescendo as he wrapped up and handed the microphone to New York State Attorney General Tish James.

It was a remarkable scene, masked only by its brevity.

If the past few months have devolved into a steady loosening of de Blasio’s grip on the city — his handling of a deadly coronavirus marred by administration infighting — the last five days of citywide demonstrations have accelerated that fallout.

And Thursday afternoon’s appearance showed the mayor is losing goodwill among the very people who overwhelmingly elected him, on the very issue that elevated him in a crowded field of candidates in 2013.

“I got two black sons and I’m afraid when they go out. I call them every day to make sure they’re safe,” Donna Clinkscales, a 60-year-old longtime New Yorker, said during a Black Lives Matter march over the Brooklyn Bridge, following the Cadman Plaza gathering.

She said she voted for de Blasio, as did most black New Yorkers who cast ballots in the 2013 and 2017 elections, making her part of his most reliable base of support. But on Thursday Clinkscales said she has lost faith.

“He hasn’t done anything for police reform. He keeps supporting the policemen, and they’ve shown, time and time again, that they don’t care,” she said.

De Blasio would disagree.

He insists his tenure has been defined by reform: The advent of neighborhood policing, a reduction in arrests and the settling of a lawsuit over the use of stop-and-frisk, a practice a federal judge deemed unconstitutional under former Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

“To a number of people asking questions, to certain advocates and to elected officials it may not matter that we’ve made a consistent series of changes while keeping crime down,” the mayor said during a press briefing Wednesday. “But I know everyday New Yorkers. They want police reform. They want a different relationship between police and community. And they want crime kept down.”

“That’s a lot to combine, but the NYPD has done it,” he added.

He has promised more reform, starting with a conditional repeal of a state statute that shields police disciplinary records from disclosure. In fact de Blasio’s team broke from past administrations in its stricter interpretation of the law, setting up the problem he is now calling to resolve.

As city protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis grew violent, de Blasio tried to maintain this balancing act: Adhering to concerns in black and Hispanic communities about policing tactics while meeting the demands of the 36,000-member force that he needs to keep crime down, a central part of his legacy.

“It will not be about words in this city, it will be about change — change in the NYPD,” he told those gathered in Cadman Plaza. “It will be about the change that you can see and believe ‘cause you will see it with your own eyes.”

De Blasio has spoken in sweeping terms about race relations and policing since his first campaign for mayor, at times sounding like a candidate instead of the power center of City Hall.

He spoke candidly in December of 2014 about the challenges of raising a biracial son and advising him on how to respond in police encounters. But he was cowed later that month, when two police officers were murdered and scores of cops turned their backs on him at the funerals.

Aides say he was indelibly marred by the incident.

Since then, he has appointed two more white male police commissioners, stopped short of embracing an unconditional legalization of marijuana and waited five years to fire the officer whose killing of an unarmed black man in July of 2014 was the catalyst for the discord. (He blamed the delay on inaction by the U.S. Department of Justice.)

“He fundamentally is caught in a tension between the movement progressive brand he ran on and an inherent cautiousness, an inherent conservatism and a deep deep-rooted fear of a perception that the city could descend into chaos like he saw during the Crown Heights riots under [David] Dinkins,” Jonathan Rosen, a former adviser, said earlier this week.

He is not the only former aide to express dismay.

Patrick Gaspard, one of de Blasio’s oldest confidantes, tweeted a video of himself marching on Wednesday and wrote: “Until there’s a curfew against racist policing. Until there’s a curfew against mass incarceration. We’re going to march because these streets are our hall of justice. Make people in power uncomfortable.”

And Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a former de Blasio ally, said during the Cadman Plaza rally, “This is supposed to be the progressive beacon of this country and we are failing. We have the wrong president. We have the wrong governor. And we have the wrong mayor.”

In recent days de Blasio has defended the NYPD, condemned protesters whom he says are out-of-towners looting stores across the city and instituted a curfew. On Thursday he said he had not seen widely disseminated video of officers forcefully clearing a crowd of peaceful protesters.

The disconnect between the present-day de Blasio and the candidate who promised unprecedented police reform boiled over as former employees signed an open letter expressing their disillusionment with him.

And several members of a task force set up to focus on issues nonprofits are facing during the Covid-19 pandemic skipped a Tuesday call with city officials, in part to stand in solidarity with demonstrators.

“How the NYPD responded to the protests over the weekend really concerned many of us,” Wayne Ho, chief executive of the Chinese American Planning Council, said in an interview.

Much of the racial tension that has simmered throughout de Blasio's mayoralty came into focus when the city released data showing the disproportionately damaging impact of Covid-19 on black and Latino New Yorkers. Donovan Richards, a City Council member previously aligned with de Blasio, got into a pitched fight with the mayor over the high death rate in his district in Southeast Queens.

The mayor took some of that criticism to heart, tasking civilians with enforcing social distancing after data showed racial disparities in arrests accompanied by viral videos of aggressive policing.

One former aide, who asked for anonymity, attributed the dissonance to de Blasio’s desire to appease both sides of a fight, which often leaves everyone unhappy — in this case police officers versus protesters.

“A really strong case of a politician who misdiagnosed why he was elected, and then didn’t really revisit the analysis,” the aide said, in explaining de Blasio’s impulse to appease outer-borough white New Yorkers who identify as working-class and do not support him politically.

The mayor now faces the dual challenges of guiding the city through the continuing pandemic and addressing the issues underlying the hostility erupting at demonstrations.

As he navigates that rocky terrain, Democratic politicians who have mostly kept a lid on their concerns for years are openly attacking him as they seek higher office.

Council Speaker Corey Johnson plans to pass legislation banning chokeholds, which the mayor has opposed in the past.

Council members have been threatening to withhold approval of the annual city budget unless dramatic cuts are made to the NYPD, whose $6 billion allocation has grown by roughly 16 percent under the de Blasio administration (though many members approved those increases in years past, including a big bump in police headcount in 2015.)

A few allies are sticking by him.

A.R. Bernard, the influential pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, defended his response to the protests and said the mayor and police commissioner are seeking help from clergy leaders throughout the city.

“The mayor has done, I think, the best that he can given the circumstances,” Bernard said in an interview. “We don’t expect things like this when we’re in leadership positions, and when they come, we try to navigate them carefully.”

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