A Year After Garner’s Death, de Blasio Attempts a Balancing Act

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NEW YORK, NY - JULY 18:  New York Mayor Bill de Blasio enters a news conference to address the recent death of a man in police custody on July 18, 2014 in New York City. The mayor has promised a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Eric Garner after he was taken into police custody in Staten Island yesterday. A 400-pound, 6-foot-4 asthmatic, Garner (43) died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a conveinence store for illegally selling cigarettes.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Mayor de Blasio during a press conference for Eric Garner last July.Photo: Spencer Platt/2014 Getty Images

Hours after a grand jury refused to indict anyone in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, Mayor Bill de Blasio traveled to Mt. Sinai United Christian Church in Staten Island. In a moment of pain and anger for the city, the mayor delivered calm and comfort — but also set off controversy by describing how he’d felt compelled to “train” his son, Dante, to be careful when encountering police officers.

De Blasio returned to that same church last night to make another Garner-inspired speech three days before the somber first anniversary of Garner’s death. And though the atmosphere this time was less fraught, the challenge for the mayor was both the same and more difficult: to mourn with the audience in front of him while ministering to the larger, more fragmented secular congregation that is the city at large and to try to reduce some of the tensions he’d stoked with last year’s speech.

Much has happened since de Blasio last spoke at Mt. Sinai, of course. The mayor’s comments about his son set off a furious reaction from the city’s police unions, a confrontation that escalated at the end of December 2014 after the shootings of two cops in Brooklyn. De Blasio and police commissioner Bill Bratton have been mending relations ever since — a process complicated by the national furor over racism and the police killings of Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and other black men.

Last night, de Blasio expressed his sympathies for Garner’s family, but instead of the “profoundly personal” remarks the mayor delivered last year, he tried to keep the focus on the policy progress he believes the city has made. De Blasio repeated many of the points he’s been making for months — citing the reductions in stop-and-frisks and in civilian complaints about the police, coupled with the increased use of body cameras and the retraining of the force — as evidence that his administration is changing and improving police-community relations. At times, his vision of what the final product will look like strained for the utopian: “It’ll be like the village we all come from in our ancestral past.”

De Blasio’s critics complained that his speech on the night of the non-indictment lacked balance, that he’d villainized cops as a group, seeming to cast them as the repository of “centuries of racism.” The mayor’s full remarks were more nuanced than many of the subsequent headlines. Last night, though, de Blasio tried to make it clear that he’s not taking sides, that his goal is bringing cops and communities closer. To help send that message of evenhandedness, Reverend A.R. Bernard and Cardinal Timothy Dolan were enlisted to speak at Mt. Sinai. This time de Blasio did not mention Dante, and instead of leaving it at “Black lives matter,” as he did last December, last night the mayor gestured in additional directions: “All lives matter … Also, we should say, blue lives matter.”

Reverend Al Sharpton, who is an adviser to Garner’s family, was on the Mt. Sinai program, too. The Rev remains a polarizing figure; he and the mayor have been allies, yet in some ways they are also competitors when it comes to racial politics. Sharpton stuck to the unity playbook last night. But his presence was a reminder that it’s going to take more than oratory for Bill de Blasio to deliver real change.