As the Missouri city of Ferguson resembles an apartheid warzone in the wake of a fatal police shooting of an unarmed man, an inevitable compare-and-contrast exercise is underway by New Yorkers who are still grappling with the death of Eric Garner at the hands of a police officer on Staten Island.
Mayor de Blasio was put to that test by a reporter yesterday -- and he rejected any parallels between the two situations.
“I think we have a very different reality here,” de Blasio said.
“I’m not an expert on Missouri but we have a very different reality obviously. We, for decades and decades, have had the tradition in this city of respecting and properly managing peaceful protest and the right of people to express themselves, and I give the NYPD a lot of credit and I give the people of this city a lot of credit.”
But peaceful protests haven’t always been handled like so much kumbuya by the police here; there are plenty of protesters who were unfairly rounded up and arrested during demonstrations at the Republican National Convention in 2004 and Occupy Wall Street in 2011. And a different generation of protesters still remembers the utter incompetence of the police in their handling of the Columbia University protests of 1968 or the Stonewall Riots of 1969.
While the Tompkinsville neighborhood of Staten Island certainly didn’t erupt into flames after Eric Garner’s death, de Blasio is skipping some other important pages in the city’s recent history.
Names ranging from Eleanor Bumpurs to Amadou Diallo to Abner Louima are painful monuments to massive mistakes made by the NYPD. And New York has had its share of civil unrest; the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights was ripped apart by rioting in 1991 while large parts of the city descended into flames and anarchy following a blackout in 1977.
Yes, we haven’t tear gassed or shot our protesters with rubber bullets recently, but it’s important to continue to push for the highest levels of training for the city’s 35,000 police officers on the street. Their job is one of the hardest and most dangerous in the city – but a mistake by just one of them can harm the entire force. Two decades of amazing progress in fighting crime could almost be undone in one disastrous night.
It’s important to realize that nightmares like Ferguson are already part of our city’s recent past -- and they could be part of our future unless the city and our police force continue to be run with vigilance and intelligence.