New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio gave a poignant and powerful speech on Wednesday in the wake of a Staten Island grand jury's decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who put Eric Garner in a chokehold that led to his death in July. His remarks preceded a night of protests throughout the city that blocked traffic on the city's West Side Highway, prompted "die-ins" at Grand Central Terminal, and inspired hundreds of protestors to march through the streets chanting "I can't breathe," Garner's last words.
De Blasio's speech is unlikely to blunt criticism of the "broken windows" policing approach that may have played a role in what happened to Eric Garner — or in the simmering distrust of police in Ferguson, Mo., where teenager Michael Brown's death sparked riots and national protests. But de Blasio's words, as well as his decision to cancel a bill signing and an appearance at the Rockefeller Center tree lighting event to instead head to Staten Island, stood in stark contrast to the public officials in Ferguson who often seemed absent as the crisis unfolded there.
In the speech, de Blasio spoke of the fear too many young people have of police. He sent a signal to those angry on social media, in their homes and in the streets, by echoing the line "black lives matter" — a refrain from the protests "that should never have to be said," but that "our history, sadly, requires."
And, movingly, de Blasio shared his own personal story: the challenges of raising a biracial son in communities where distrust of the police has only grown. "We've had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers," de Blasio said.
He spoke of the worry, and the very real pain, of being that parent today. Again, he made his remarks personal while also repeating that his concerns are shared by millions of other families. "Was Dante safe each night? There are so many families in this city who feel that each and every night. Is my child safe? And not just from some of the painful realities — crime and violence in some of our neighborhoods — but are they safe from the very people they want to have faith in as their protectors?"
That ability to empathize may be a unique advantage de Blasio possesses. It's a "rhetorical strength," as the New York Times wrote, that made him appear to be "trying to preside over the day's events, rather than to steer them." His wife is African American, his children are biracial, and he can speak about the fear and challenges of parenting them with a credibility that many other elected leaders cannot. And he used that perspective to great effect, speaking as a father and sharing words that had the power to resonated with grieving, angry families.
Whatever goodwill his speech engendered will not, of course, be enough to quiet critics who question the policing approach that is associated with the police chief he hired, William Bratton. De Blasio campaigned on ending the police department's controversial "stop-and-frisk" tactics, and brought on Bratton a year ago this week to help him do so. But many see the controversial "broken windows" approach, which has police aggressively go after small crimes in order to prevent bigger ones, as part of the problem. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) has called it "just a cousin to stop-and-frisk."
At the very least, de Blasio should initiate a critical review of the real effectiveness, versus potential damage, of policies that focus on petty crimes. And he should ensure that Bratton's earlier call for a "fundamental shift in the culture of the department," as well as his promises to rid the force of officers "who [are] 'brutal,' who are 'corrupt,' who are 'racist,' who are 'incompetent,'" are followed up by palpable changes.
De Blasio's speech was poignant because it was personal, credible and empathetic. He demonstrated that he understands this is a time of searing pain for many communities. It was the right speech for the moment. But the next one needs to outline accountable action in reforming a police department that is still much in need of real change.