Some liberals have expressed disappointment in New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on a platform of reforming the NYPD, saying he has failed to turn his rhetoric into significant action. Yet in the past few weeks police officials have decried his "revolution" and launched a media assault against the Mayor, with a few holding him personally responsible for the deaths of two officers this weekend. What explains the discrepancy?
The contentious relationship between police unions and Mayor de Blasio is, in many ways, parallel to President Obama's skirmishes with the military and the intelligence community. Policy alone cannot explain the animosity directed at these elected officials -- as happens so often in our postmodern era, we must look to the politics of the persona.
Obama and de Blasio both built movements around inclusion. Just as candidate Obama presented himself as the man who could reshape our 21st century national identity in the image of its more progressive "better history," Bill de Blasio encouraged voters to unite in opposition to economic stratification that was pitting borough against borough and neighbor against neighbor. His landslide victory among all key demographics showed his "tale of two cities" theme had resonated with three of every four New Yorkers.
"There are little pieces of everybody in me," Senator Obama said in 2006. At a time when the country seemed ready to divide along socioeconomic lines, the biracial Chicagoan was able to unify much of the electorate by being a figure upon whom many groups could project their own identities. He embodied change just by being on the ballot.
A similar dynamic is at work in the case of Bill de Blasio. Emphasizing his multiracial family and personalizing issues of social and economic inequality has allowed him to capture the support of an Obama-esque coalition of people who never had access to the halls of power. Further, like Obama, he projects a masculinity that is empathic and introspective -- anathema to the patriarchal attitudes that dominate hierarchal institutions like the police.
When Mayor de Blasio first spoke about the non-indictment of the police officer who killed Eric Garner, he placed the case in a personal context:
Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers that he may face. A good young man, law-abiding young man who would never think to do anything wrong. And yet, because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face, we've had to literally train him—as families have all over this city for decades—in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.
The opposition also took a turn for the personal. New York City's largest police union created a form letter that members could send to the Mayor and the City Council Speaker, requesting the pair not attend the officer's funeral should he or she die in the line of duty. The union said officers felt as if they had been "thrown under the bus,"
and said the Mayor instead should have been encouraging parents to teach their children "to comply with police officers, even if they feel it's unjust."
Therein lies the fundamental split between the Mayor and the NYPD -- it is the clashing of egalitarian and authoritarian mindsets. There was no tipping point in their relationship. Bill de Blasio was hated by the police from day one.
Officers who have threatened the Mayor and who have abused their power must be relieved of their duty. Yet the work must go further than that. What is needed is a cultural shift in how we understand law enforcement. Police officers must be people who understand that they are agents of the people and work for our elected officials, not against them. Mayor de Blasio has, willingly or otherwise, become an icon for these efforts. And that's why he has drawn the wrath of those invested in upholding the status quo.