It’s not easy being a progressive mayor when the same messages you campaigned on—racial inequality and police reform—become protest chants aimed at the establishment you now embody. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio dealt with it, over three days of Ferguson-inspired protests last week, by staying out of the public eye.
De Blasio’s silence is all the more notable because he’s been vocal about protests in the past. In January, when New York paid out $18 million to settle lawsuits stemming from wrongful arrests made during the 2004 Republican National Convention, de Blasio promised that things would be different under his watch. “We’re going to take a very different view going forward about how we respect people’s rights to express themselves,” the mayor said at the time. De Blasio also criticized former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s handling of the Occupy Wall Street protests, calling it “a very troubling precedent.”
Last week tested some of those promises but it’s still not clear how de Blasio will deal with unrest on a larger scale. The Ferguson protests were orders of magnitude smaller than the 2004 convention, which drew hundreds of thousands, and lasted only days while Occupy went on for months.
While the city practiced a generally hands-off approach to the recent protests in line with policies de Blasio has preached in the past, the mayor has avoided taking any credit for the change. It’s been Police Commissioner William Bratton leading the city’s official response to the demonstrations.
Against that backdrop, it’s hard to say whether it’s de Blasio or Bratton who’s most responsible for the change, or whether this was something they agreed on. So far though, with little violence and few arrests, it seems to be working. But it’s not hard to see how the new policies could backfire if the protests keep going. It only takes one delayed emergency vehicle held up by protesters occupying a bridge—or a credible claim to that effect—to put the mayor on the defensive.
Protests in New York started Monday, the night it was announced the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, declined to indict a police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black man.
Hours later, 1,000 people marched through the streets of New York. Demonstrators briefly shut down three of the city’s bridges, a move that tested the new police approach. Despite the size of the protests, only two arrests were made, one after an activist splashed Commissioner Bratton with a bucket of fake blood.
Come Tuesday, protesters employed the same tactic on highways and at tunnel crossings, trying to stop traffic and make their presence felt by average New Yorkers. Again marchers temporarily shut down of transportation hubs, and again there was little violence reported and relatively few arrests.
Police were giving the protesters “a little breathing room,” as Bratton put it. “As long as they remain nonviolent, as long as they don’t engage in issues that cause fear or create vandalism, we will work with them to allow them to demonstrate,” he said.
The city’s method for dealing with the protests seemed to operate on two axes: the mayor’s and the police commissioner’s, on political, one tactical. In political terms, the police honoring the right to assemble, intervening to break up protests only when they posed a safety issue or threatened the public interest—like cutting off roadways and disrupting commuters.
Tactically, the city took a bet that looks promising but hasn’t been settled yet. Too much “breathing room” can suck the oxygen out of a protest, depriving it of the confrontations with police and that can fuel a movement by grabbing headlines and sparking a sense of injustice and solidarity that draws more people to the movement.
When activists promised to disrupt the city’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade, tweeting out a #stoptheparade hashtag, it wasn’t the mayor who responded but Bratton. “We will not tolerate, under any circumstances, any effort to disrupt this parade,” said Bratton, who by that point, in de Blasio’s absence, had become the voice for the city’s official policy toward the protests.
Less than a hundred protesters turned out Thursday and the parade went on, with six arrests made and one summons issued.
By Friday, after three straight days of protests in New York, there was no significant violence or property damage and fewer than 20 arrests. Compare that to Oakland, California, where around 170 protesters were arrested in roughly the same period.
De Blasio may be hard to find right now, but so far the new approach seems to be paying off. And in absentia, he’s avoided having to choose sides. If he’d backed the protesters publicly, it could have cost him support from city workers who don’t want to see their bridges shut down, and further alienated a police force that already views him skeptically when it’s not outright hostile. But publicly siding with Bratton and the cops would have alienated the progressive base that helped the mayor win office and opened him up to even more protests aimed at him directly.
The Ferguson protests may well peter out, but it’s only a matter of time before de Blasio will be forced to make a highly public choice that will alienate one side or the other.
New York City now has its own closely watched grand jury deliberating over a highly controversial case—that of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died in a police chokehold on a Staten Island sidewalk in a July dispute over cigarettes.
The decision in the Garner case may be only days away. If the grand jury doesn’t indict, it’s almost certain that more protesters will take to the streets in New York. When that happens, the city may be able to maintain the balance its struck so far, respecting the right to assembly while drawing lines around claims on public space. At some point though, de Blasio is going to have to come out of the shadows and choose who he wants to piss off.