How Trayvon Martin case could tip New York mayor's race

William Thompson gave a fiery speech Sunday, invoking Trayvon Martin in criticizing a controversial New York police policy. Thompson is hoping to woo black voters who backed Anthony Weiner.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
New York Democratic mayoral candidate William Thompson speaks to the media at a labor rally in New York last week.

Seizing on the implosion of former congressman Anthony Weiner's campaign, mayoral hopeful William Thompson delivered a surprising and full-throated denunciation of New York’s “stop and frisk” crimefighting tactic Sunday, linking the polarizing police practice to the same kind of racial profiling that he said led George Zimmerman to shoot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.

Mr. Thompson’s impassioned public statement, delivered to a mostly black congregation at the Abundant Life Church in the Brooklyn borough of New York, was unusual for the cautious politician, who has previously taken more moderate stances on stop and frisk, a policy that allows city police to frisk people they think might be involved in serious crimes. Leaders of the city's black community, meanwhile, have been outspoken critics. 

In general, Thompson has avoided the heated topics of race, and that could partly explain his comparatively tepid support among black voters so far – a constituency Thompson needs in the upcoming Democratic primary. But Mr. Weiner's troubles come as an opportunity for Thompson. Black voters had been the strongest supporters of Weiner, and the main reason the former congressman had surged to the top of the polls before last week’s reignited sexting scandal.

One reason for Weiner’s popularity among black voters, many have pointed out, was his outspoken criticism of stop and frisk, a policy Thompson has said he would continue, with modifications, if he were elected mayor. On Sunday, however, the former New York City comptroller, who is black, dialed up his rhetoric considerably.

“How did the system fail?” Thompson said. “Here in New York City, we have institutionalized Mr. Zimmerman's suspicion with a policy that all but requires our police officers to treat young black and Latino men with suspicion, to stop them and frisk them because of the color of their skin. Six hundred thousand of them in 2011 – more than 90 percent innocent – are profiled as Trayvon was profiled.”

So far, the responses to Thompson’s bold foray have been exactly what the candidate must have hoped. The Rev. Al Sharpton, president of National Action Network in New York and a critic of Thompson’s views on stop and frisk, said the candidate’s statement was finally “on point.”

“I think this could be a game change in terms of turnout in the black community,” says Mr. Sharpton, who spoke to the Monitor by phone from an event in the White House. “I think that a lot of people wanted to hear him a lot stronger – a lot of them were conflicted, and I think this clarifies a lot.”

Sharpton, in fact, likened Thompson’s new aggressive stance to the mayoral campaign of 1989, when Sharpton was leading marches in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn to protest the killing of unarmed black teen Yusef Hawkins by a mob of bat-wielding white young men.

David Dinkins, who was running against then-Mayor Ed Koch, "had been pretty mum, and then Koch came out ... and said we should stop marching,” Sharpton said. “And then Dinkins, who had been pretty quiet up to then, said we have a right to march, and that what happened was a disgrace, and it gave him a moment.”

“So I think the Dinkinses and the Thompsons are not civil rights leaders, so you usually don’t discuss these things,” Sharpton continued. “But I think when times and events occur, they have to show leadership, and I think they did, and I think this will energize [Thompson's] campaign.”

Sharpton has not endorsed a candidate in this election so far, though he says he plans to do so before the Democratic primary next month.

In tone, Thompson’s speech was a remarkable departure from his previous views, which were among more the more conservative “law and order” positions in the campaign.

He has pledged to keep stop and frisk as a crime-fighting tactic, promising only to curb its excesses. And he has also opposed two controversial measures passed recently by the New York City Council: one that creates an independent inspector general to monitor the New York Police Department, and another that allows people to sue the department if they believe they have been illegally profiled by race.

On Monday, he clarified his position on stop and frisk, saying he still supports the law but wants to “make sure that government doesn’t institutionalize suspicion.”

“I would say that my position on stop-and-frisk still is the same,” Thompson said at a campaign event in front of City Hall. “It is the continual concern that I think I have said for not even months, but for years, that stop-and-frisk, while a useful policing tool, it has been misused and abused.”

“I think that the law is there; it’s just a question of making sure that that law is enforced, by the mayor and by the police commissioner, and that things are done correctly,” he added.

With the Democratic primary approaching, Thompson's political motives are plain, experts say. 

“The clear political assumption is that he came out to show the African-American community that he’s with them on a central issue,” says Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. “He hasn’t focused his candidacy around race or around him as the African-American candidate – that, I think, is part of who Bill Thompson is. But there is this possible strategic consideration: ... As the campaign gets closer to the finish line, most of the time you go back to what you perceive as your base voters, to make sure you can get them out and get them going.”

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