Seven summers ago, when Donald Trump was still a punch line and the biggest scandal rocking the political world was Anthony Weiner’s stunning act of auto-destruction, New York City seemed to be on the cusp of a new era. After nearly 20 years of Republican and Republican-lite rule—under the autocratic Rudy Giuliani and the technocratic Mike Bloomberg—its residents were restless, desperate for change. As a cluster of long-simmering movements gained momentum, from the struggle to end the New York Police Department’s policy of stop-and-frisk to the Fight for $15 among the city’s lowest-paid workers, a candidate stepped forward to champion their cause.
Bill de Blasio was, in some respects, an unlikely champion—a liberal, not a lion—but he spoke of the city’s pain in words both moving and resonant. He lamented the inequality that strafed New York and bemoaned its descent into a “tale of two cities.” As The Nation wrote in our 2013 endorsement, “In placing the city’s roiling inequality at the center of his campaign, de Blasio has offered not only the sharpest description of the problem—what he called ‘the most urgent priority of our time’—but also the most forceful solution.”
De Blasio seemed to understand that addressing the city’s rampant economic inequality meant addressing its racial inequality. And this, in turn, meant ending the long reign of impunity by the country’s largest police force. While his immediate predecessor, the billionaire Bloomberg, had once boasted that he had his “own army in the NYPD,” de Blasio spoke the language of reform, and he spoke in a way that suggested he understood the long racist history of policing in New York. He denounced stop-and-frisk, the discriminatory policy that illegally targeted black and brown New Yorkers; he called for an independent inspector general to monitor the NYPD; and he promised to give the boot to Ray Kelly, the city’s longtime police commissioner and an unabashed booster of stop-and-frisk. As de Blasio told the National Action Network, “We are going to get on with a very, not only progressive, but aggressive agenda.”
Years later, as calls to abolish the police echo across the country, de Blasio’s early agenda may not sound like much. But in 2013, after decades of police impunity—of “Giuliani time” and “Throw ‘em against the wall” and the transformation of New York’s “finest” into the shock troops of the gilded city—the promise of reform arrived like oxygen across the city’s most vulnerable communities. Indeed, no one offered more thorough or forceful support for de Blasio’s campaign than the African American community, which has always suffered the vilest of all NYPD abuse and whose votes he cultivated through a mix of solid policy proposals and careful messaging. In a video that captured the hearts and hopes of many voters, de Blasio sent his biracial son, then just 15, into the spotlight to promise that his father was “the only Democrat with the guts to really break from the Bloomberg years.”
Seven years later, de Blasio has failed to live up to the promise of those words, failed spectacularly in recent weeks as tens of thousands of people came out to protest the murder of George Floyd and countless other black people—and were met by the pepper spray and batons of de Blasio’s police department. With brute scorn, the police battered protesters, kettled them, and in at least once instance, drove their cruisers into them. And the mayor, who had risen to power on a promise to fight for black lives, instead defended the police. He insisted the NYPD had respected the protesters and even blamed demonstrators for inciting the cops’ wrath. Then he imposed the first curfew the city had seen in 75 years.
For those who believed de Blasio’s 2013 promises—for those to whom those promises were made—his response to the most vital racial justice uprising in decades has been a stunning betrayal. “We once thought de Blasio was with us,” the Rev. Kevin McCall, a civil rights activist who organized a memorial for Floyd at the behest of Floyd’s brother, told The New York Times. “But he flipped the script on us.”
That script was not flipped overnight. In fact, what has made the betrayal of the past few weeks so bitter is that it’s not new. It’s merely the latest in a long line of disappointments that began even before de Blasio took office, when he announced he would appoint former police commissioner Bill Bratton to replace Kelly. As New York’s top cop under Giuliani and a committed evangelist for “broken windows” policing, Bratton hardly represented change. He was, rather, an exchange—a sop to calm the jelly-legged elites who fretted that de Blasio would take New York back to the “bad old days” of high crime and busted budgets. With Bratton, de Blasio signaled the terms of his mayoralty: When it came to reform, he would always keep a foot on the brake.
The years that followed Bratton’s appointment were, perhaps predictably, years of inconsistency. On the one hand, there was progress made on some of de Blasio’s promises. During his first month in office, he agreed to a set of court-ordered reforms to the city’s stop-and-frisk program—and during his first term, those stops began to fall dramatically, as did arrests. But people continued to be stopped by the NYPD, and they continued to be disproportionately New Yorkers of color; those targeted for “broken windows” infractions were also primarily black and brown.
Then in December 2014, the police rebelled. The proximate spark was the confluence of citywide protests over a grand jury’s refusal to indict the officer who murdered Eric Garner and de Blasio’s words of support for those protests, followed by a fatal attack on two NYPD officers. When police turned their backs on de Blasio at one of the officers’ funerals and then engaged in a weeks-long de facto work slowdown, the mayor never quite recovered.
For many, that marked the moment when de Blasio gave in to the police, retreating from reform, both in rhetoric and reality. In the years since, he has repeatedly refused to condemn acts of excessive force by the NYPD. He also refused to press for the firing of Garner’s murderer and even fought legislation making it a crime for officers to put people in choke holds, as one did with Garner. As Darius Charney, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights and lead counsel in the stop-and-frisk lawsuit, told The Intercept, “He has given all of his police commissioners pretty much carte blanche to do whatever it is they wanted to do.” Those commissioners, it should be noted, included two others after Bratton, both white, both chosen over strong candidates of color, just as Bratton was.
The mayor’s retreat on police reform is a wound that won’t readily heal for many New Yorkers—a reality that seems to be dawning on de Blasio. As outrage erupted over his response to the Floyd protests and with many of the mayor’s black supporters turning their backs, he has begun trying to recalibrate, pledging to reduce the NYPD’s $6 billion annual budget (though not by the $1 billion the City Council has requested) and signing a bill passed by the City Council banning police choke holds. These are first steps, but they are only that—incomplete, long overdue, and unlikely to satisfy. As de Blasio is perhaps learning, it’s a dangerous thing to campaign on the promise of progressive change and then fail to follow through. It punctures trust and, all too often, destroys hope, sapping people’s faith in the political process. Every now and again, however, it does the reverse. It reminds people that movements, not politicians, are the engines of transformation—and that the change they seek will always come, first and foremost, from their own demands. As the people de Blasio once claimed to represent head back into the streets, he would do well to listen.