Why de Blasio Defends the Police

In a city reliant on real estate capital—and thus, on policing—even a self-professed liberal mayor is still, ultimately, a law-and-order mayor.

Joshua Leifer
June 22, 2020
de Blasio
Defaced images of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio near Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, June 14th, 2020, Photo: Joshua Leifer

AFTER WEEKS OF TENSE STANDOFFS between police and protesters during the past month’s Black Lives Matter protests, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has consistently defended the NYPD from accusations that they have treated demonstrators with excessive force and wanton brutality. Even as graphic videos of police violence circulated widely on social media—NYPD officers using their SUVs to ram protesters; officers beating and shoving protesters to the ground—de Blasio insisted that the police had shown “tremendous restraint.” When police attacked demonstrators in the Bronx after the 8 pm curfew, arresting roughly 100 people, the mayor repeated the lie—spread by NYPD leadership—that the presence of dangerous “outside agitators” had necessitated the forceful response. Asked by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer how de Blasio could justify so many well-documented instances of violence, the mayor bristled. “Respectfully,” he said, “I’m not hearing objectivity in your question.”

De Blasio’s deference to the NYPD cuts against his image as a champion of progressive causes, which he has cultivated throughout his career. He has frequently spoken about his multiracial family (particularly his son, Dante) to suggest a personal commitment to addressing racial inequalities. He campaigned for mayor on police reform and the promise to end stop-and-frisk—a policy that allowed the NYPD to temporarily detain, question, and search civilians at will—and even deployed his son in a campaign ad in which Dante affirmed his father’s commitment to ending “a stop and frisk era that unfairly targets people of color.” 

Given that history, the mayor’s recent defense of police violence provoked a mix of outrage and disappointment among his supporters and staff. On June 9th, several hundred current and former city employees under de Blasio marched from City Hall to Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn—the mayor’s home turf—where, just a few days earlier, he’d faced a crowd of turned backs and boos during his speech at a George Floyd memorial event. The New York Times reported that “many of Mr. de Blasio’s longtime black advisers and supporters have abandoned him.” Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, who has sparred recently with the mayor on Twitter, told the Times, “I believe he uses his proximity to blackness without giving the reform that he said he was going to give.”

Yet de Blasio the politician has never been a radical. Whatever his personal commitments may be, his professional political formation is the product of the Clintonite Democratic Party of the 1990s—a time marked by the Democrats’ rapprochement with finance and real estate capital. De Blasio served as a regional Housing and Urban Development (HUD) director under President Clinton. He managed Hillary Clinton’s 1999 campaign for Senate. And while he ran for mayor in 2013 on promises to fight the city’s “inequality crisis” and close the gap between “two cities,” this was more a clever campaign gambit than a paradigm shift. Describing de Blasio’s politics in an interview, housing policy analyst Samuel Stein quoted the late Tom Waters, a housing organizer and scholar who died from Covid-19 earlier this year: “De Blasio’s political talent was finding the true center.” De Blasio, Stein told me, simply “realized that the center of the party was to the left of where people thought it was.” 

It is hardly surprising, then, that de Blasio’s administration has been more inclined to moderation than structural change. “His entire politics,” one former staffer told me, “is just a gesture at the word transformation.” Viewed in this light, de Blasio’s handling of the recent protests appears not as a break with his prior political commitments, but as consistent with them. As he has done before, the mayor has sought to triangulate, this time between the imperatives of neoliberal city governance (reassuring investors and developers that the city is safe), and the opposing demands of both protesters and the police. But as is so often the case with liberal pragmatism, the result is genuflection to the most right-wing, reactionary forces on the political terrain. Which, in New York City, means the NYPD.

From his first day in office, de Blasio signaled that whatever reforms he pushed would remain within the conventional political limits his predecessors had set—particularly when it came to real estate and policing. He hired former Goldman Sachs executive Alicia Glen as deputy mayor for housing, charged with overseeing development initiatives as well as the public housing authority. Housing justice advocates frequently criticized Glen, who remained in the de Blasio administration until last April, for pushing private-development-focused policies that exacerbated gentrification and accelerated the displacement of low-income New Yorkers and people of color from their neighborhoods. Glen also played an instrumental role in arranging the deal to bring a new Amazon headquarters to Long Island City—which included $3 billion in government incentives to the tech giant (the deal was successfully blocked by a coalition of progressive groups last February). 

De Blasio’s first police commissioner was none other than Bill Bratton, who’d previously led the NYPD under Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s, as well as the police departments of Boston and Los Angeles. Bratton was one of the earliest, and most fervent, adopters of the “broken windows” theory of policing—premised on the idea that harsh enforcement and punishment of seemingly minor crimes would prevent more severe crimes from happening. (Bratton has since made a lucrative career as a consultant, promulgating the virtues of “broken windows” around the world.) In practice, broken windows policing led to the over-policing of communities of color to stop-and-frisk to a huge spike in arrests, all feeding a swelling carceral state. Bratton and other proponents of “broken windows” credit the tactic with enabling the city’s post-1990s “renewal”—in other words, for making the city safer for real estate development. Yet there is little evidence that “broken windows” is what caused crime to drop. 

The mayor has never repudiated “broken windows”—or as he and other proponents call it, “quality-of-life policing”—even as police commissioners have changed. (The current NYPD chief, Dermot Shea, is the third to serve under de Blasio.) On the contrary, he has repeatedly defended it. Upon Bratton’s departure in 2016, de Blasio insisted that “broken windows” was “still the right approach.” During a 2017 interview with activist DeRay Mckesson, de Blasio said that while “broken windows got a bad name,” he thought “the underlying principle” was right. A 2018 ACLU survey reported that under de Blasio, immense policing disparities persist between lightly policed communities and heavily policed communities, which are disproportionately low-income communities of color, despite the formal end of stop-and-frisk. According to the ACLU, heavily policed communities continue to experience “extreme physical force from police” at rates many times higher than lightly policed ones. 

There is perhaps no event that better illustrates de Blasio’s commitment to “broken windows” than the case of Eric Garner, suffocated to death on video by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in July 2014. Garner had allegedly been selling untaxed loose cigarettes—a textbook broken-windows-type offense—when NYPD officers attempted to arrest him, putting him in the chokehold that ended his life. De Blasio never called for Pantaleo’s firing: not after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, and not after the Justice Department declined to bring federal civil rights charges against him. Anticipating a wave of protests after the grand jury result in early December 2014, he did give an emotional speech about Dante and the fear of police violence. “This is profoundly personal for me . . . I couldn’t help but immediately think what it would mean to me to lose Dante,” he said, all while refraining from denouncing commenting on the non-indictment or calling for Pantaleo’s firing.  

Just two weeks after the mass demonstrations against Pantaleo’s non-indictment, de Blasio faced yet another protest—this time from the NYPD. On Saturday, December 20th, two officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were killed by Ismaayil Brinsley, ostensibly as revenge for Garner’s death. In the immediate wake of the Pantaleo grand jury, de Blasio had sought a middle ground between outraged progressive activists and the NYPD. Now, he was facing a revolt from his own police department. The NYPD leadership had seen de Blasio’s post-grand-jury speech as unfair criticism; after the December police killing, they viewed it as nothing less than fuel for attacks on cops. “There’s blood on many hands tonight,” Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), told press the night of the shooting. “That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.” Hundreds of cops turned their backs on the mayor during his speech at Liu’s funeral that January. The NYPD began a work slowdown that cut arrests in the city by half—an attempt to use the specter of rising crime as retaliation against the mayor (the tactic failed; crime did not go up).

The deaths of officers Liu and Ramos marked an inflection point in de Blasio’s administration. De Blasio had run up against the hard, reactionary edge of the police bureaucracy. The winter of 2015 confirmed that he would never sway the NYPD leadership. He’d tried to find the center, but this time it turned out not to be where he’d thought. He would have to adjust.

So when de Blasio claimed during the recent George Floyd protests that the police had shown “tremendous restraint,” he was not exactly lying. The PBA and Sergeants Benevolent Association (SBA) were demanding they be allowed to use tear gas, rubber bullets, and mounted units against the protesters, as police had in other cities. De Blasio said no. His defense of the police, who managed even without more technologically advanced means of brutalizing protesters, was part of the bargain for making them stick to bikes and truncheons. For de Blasio, this was a pragmatic compromise—the middle position between a liberal commitment to respectable protest and the instinctive authoritarianism of the NYPD.

Still, it would be naïve to think that de Blasio’s attempt to rein in the cops was motivated solely by concern for the protesters’ well-being. The real estate industry accounted for more than half of the city’s total tax revenue in the last fiscal year, and De Blasio understands that among the responsibilities of the urban mayor, one of the most important is to ensure the city remains desirable to real estate capital and investment. The police are one of the mayor’s instruments for doing so—they act as the shock troops of gentrification, clamping down on behaviors that might scare off developers. The recent protests have come at an already fraught time for the mayor. His delayed response to Covid-19 has cost tens of thousands of New Yorkers their lives and brought the city to the precipice of a budgetary crisis. The New York Times editorial board is already braying for harsh austerity measures—“the mayor,” they wrote, “needs to get serious about belt-tightening.” With the finance and real estate industries spooked by the pandemic, de Blasio can hardly afford the appearance of ungovernability. 

This concern cuts both ways. Excess police violence also undermines a sense of a city’s governability; it frightens developers and wealthy potential residents. The police, in their libidinal glorification of violence, don’t typically understand this, and so the task of moderating their violence falls to the mayor. For de Blasio, instituting a draconian 8 pm curfew after instances of looting was a way to signal, to capital as well as to his critics, that he was serious about protecting property and the city’s governability from the threat posed to it by the protests. De Blasio was likely operating according to the same logic by making sure that there would be no front-page photos of the NYPD shooting tear gas through glass storefronts in SoHo. 

Within the paradigm of neoliberal city governance, even a self-professed liberal mayor—not just de Blasio, but also Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, Minneapolis’s Jacob Frey, and Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot—is still, ultimately, a law-and-order mayor. By the standards of this paradigm, to which de Blasio has hewed throughout his career, his handling of the recent protests appears less as a personal failure than a governing success: the protests have tempered into gentle marches, bike rides, and vigils. As long as de Blasio can maintain a sense of calm in the city to mollify developers and investors, he will be able to avoid conceding to any significant reforms. The mayor called off the curfew not because of the police violence it led to but because mass defiance of the curfew raised questions about his ability to govern. The specter of civil disorder is one of the few forms of leverage social movements have over state power. Protesters will once again need to call the city’s governability into doubt if they are to achieve the change they desire.

Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.