I covered New York politics for 15 years, and I saw some awfully tense moments between the police and Democratic politicians. But there has never been anything remotely like the war the cops are waging right now against Mayor Bill de Blasio for the thought crime of saying something that was completely unremarkable and so obviously true that in other contexts we don’t even bat an eye when someone says it. And for that, the mayor has blood on his hands, as Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association head Pat Lynch said Saturday evening after the hideous assassinations of two NYPD officers?
Let’s rewind the tape here. On Dec. 3, in the wake of the Staten Island grand jury’s refusal to indict in the case of the police homicide of Eric Garner, de Blasio gave a press conference at a Staten Island church. He spoke of the need to heal and so on, the usual politician’s rhetoric, and then he uttered these words:
This is profoundly personal for me. I was at the White House the other day, and the president of the United States turned to me, and he met Dante a few months ago, and he said that Dante reminded him of what he looked like as a teenager. And he said, I know you see this crisis through a very personal lens. I said to him I did. Because Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years, about the dangers he may face. A good young man, a law-abiding young man, who would never think to do anything wrong, and yet, because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face—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 who are there to protect him.
Dante de Blasio, as you surely know, is a mixed-race young man of 16 who looks black and sports a large, ’70s-style afro. Does anyone seriously think that his father should not have told him what he did? Come on. We all know the odds (actually, we don’t, more on which later). We hear every prominent black man in America who has a son and who decides to talk about this publicly—football players and actors and others—say exactly the same thing. We’ve heard it hundreds of times. Are these men lying? Are they paranoid weirdos? Of course they aren’t. They are fathers, describing to the rest of us what I thought was a widely acknowledged reality.
Is it somehow jarring to some people that the father who spoke these words is not black but white? I bet that has something to do with it. Do we accept black fathers saying this, because we grant them the presumption of speaking from experience, which we don’t grant the white de Blasio? This may be how human brains, or some of them, are wired. But it makes no sense. All you have to do is look at the kid and you’ll see what Hizzoner means.
Or is it that it’s fine for de Blasio to talk however he wishes to his son, but that because he is the mayor and the leader of the police he should not have said so publicly, especially at a tense moment? All right, this is slightly more understandable. But only slightly. Certainly, this response would be understandable and even justified if de Blasio had in fact attacked the police. But he did no such thing. He said he’s trained his son to “take special care” in dealing with the police—who, he added, “are there to protect him.” Where Pat Lynch and Rudy Giuliani heard a slur, millions of his constituents—black, brown, and even a few white like him—heard him representing, in terms that were, from their point of view, sadly their reality.
Not long ago, ProPublica, the website that does hard-nosed, empirical investigative journalism, undertook an extensive study of federally collected crime data on 12,000 police homicides over 22 years. The site found that young black males are far more likely to be shot by cops than young white males. Four times more likely, or eight times, or 10 times? Try 21 times more likely—31 per million as opposed to 1.5 per million for whites. This isn’t some liberal conspiracy. These are the numbers as reported to the government by police departments themselves.
And now we can’t even acknowledge this plain truth? Astonishingly, it appears we can’t agree on it. Right around the time de Blasio spoke, Marist was in the field with a poll asking people whether they think police treat whites and blacks differently. Here are some answers. In each case, the “yes, differently” number comes first.
Overall: 47-44Whites: 39-51Blacks: 82-14Latinos: 53-38Democrats: 64-29Independents: 44-48Republicans: 26-64
So two decades’ worth of statistics tell us that black men are killed by police at 21 times the rate white men are, and yet half the public has persuaded itself that police treat blacks and whites no differently. And it’s controversial for a mayor with a black 16-year-old son to say something so obvious—indeed, what every parent of a black son has to say.
And that’s dividing the city? And Pat Lynch, by speaking of officers’ blood on the steps of City Hall and urging his cops to sign an online petition that de Blasio not attend their funerals should they be killed in the line of duty, is doing... what? His behavior is divisive to the point of savagery. He is actively trying to make the people who follow him not only despise de Blasio but despise and oppose any acknowledgement that police can be faulted in any way, that black fear of police has any basis in reality. If Al Sharpton did the same with regard to police departments tout suite, which he does not anymore—he denounced the murder of the two cops immediately—he’d be drummed out of society.
Still, de Blasio should find ways to rise above all this. That’s part of the responsibility that comes with being mayor. But he should not back down from what he said. We always insist, after all, that we don’t want our politicians to lie.