Protesters ignore New York mayor, but he could be their best hope

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio angered many protesters by calling for a pause in demonstrations. But the move has ushered in a shift in tone from the mayor, which might help repair a fractured relationship with the NYPD.

Craig Ruttle/AP
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, visit a makeshift memorial Tuesday near the site where New York Police Department officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were murdered in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

On Christmas Eve, Mayor Bill de Blasio had a unique holiday request for New Yorkers: Give to the fund established to help the families of the two police officers shot in Brooklyn Saturday. "They need the help of all New Yorkers," Mr. de Blasio said.

Then, on Christmas Day, after learning of the arrest of a man who had been making threats against cops, de Blasio tweeted:

In fact, most of de Blasio's Twitter feed these days is about police, thanking them for setting a "terrific example" and remembering "our fallen heroes."

One week ago, this would have seemed unthinkable.

Last Friday, when de Blasio met with the leaders of the police protests, he was for all intents and purposes one of them. De Blasio became mayor last year in no small part because of his promises to reform a police department that many New Yorkers felt had spiraled out of control.

Now, he can't stop offering 140-character garlands to the very people he once told his mixed-race son to approach only with "special care."

The reversal is a political necessity. Accused by conservatives of creating an anti-police atmosphere before the killings, de Blasio had no choice but to shift toward greater sympathy for the best of the NYPD, embodied in slain Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.

But that shift could have longer-term consequences, both for de Blasio and for the police-reform movement nationwide that, until last week, looked at the mayor as perhaps its greatest hope. In the space of a single month, momentum for police reform has swung wildly between extremes, first with the Eric Garner grand jury decision, and now with the killing of Officers Ramos and Liu.

Where that pendulum comes to rest will affect whether police reform is possible going forward, and this past week suggests that de Blasio has been chastened to at least change the tone, if not the substance, of his message. 

Before Saturday, there was little doubting where de Blasio stood on issues relating to the NYPD. While de Blasio has usually been circumspect in his words, he has surrounded himself with some people who have made their antipathy toward the police well known.

His Brooklyn community affairs director once tweeted "[Expletive]. The Police," after police fatally shot a knife-wielding man in Times Square, the Daily caller reports. In addition, de Blasio's wife's former chief of staff – a key liaison to the black community – was dating a convicted killer who called cops "pigs" on Facebook.

The relationship between de Blasio and the police became so poisoned that some officers circulated a petition asking that de Blasio not come to their funeral if they were killed in the line of duty.

Now, de Blasio is making overtures to repair the relationship.

In all likelihood, the police who turned their backs on de Blasio as he visited the hospital where the slain officers were taken Saturday will not have been swayed by a few kind tweets. The visceral outpouring of anger from police and their supporters after Saturday's killings speaks to the depth of the antipathy.

But the ebb and flow of emotion that has surrounded de Blasio's relationship with police is in many respects simply a microcosm of the situation between protesters and police nationwide. Tensions between police and protesters in the St. Louis area broke out again this week, even though black leaders in the community said the most recent police killing of a black teen was nothing like the Michael Brown case.

In that way, New York has become a national crucible. If protesters and police are to find any common ground, New York might be one of the places where it is most possible. 

In calling for protests to cease until Ramos and Liu are buried, de Blasio might have lost the support of some of the men and women who have been staging "die-ins" and marches; many have ignored his plea. But out of necessity, he has carved out the beginnings of a middle ground.

Even before Saturday's killings, some 57 percent of New Yorkers wanted the streets to be cleared of protesters, according to a Dec. 17 Quinnipiac poll. This despite the fact that 67 percent thought the officer in Mr. Garner's death should have been indicted.

Clearly, public polls are not always the best way to measure a movement's worth. The civil rights protests, after all, repeatedly rebuffed calls for pauses. But politics – and policy changes – most often inhabit the middle space between opposing factions. 

For at least a week, de Blasio has tried to inhabit that place.

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