On Sunday, June 7, as the outcry over violent suppression of Black Lives Matter protests in New York City was heard round the world, Mayor Bill De Blasio rescinded the city’s 8 pm curfew implemented a week prior, and made his first overtures to appease protesters, including a vow to cut some funding to the New York City Police Department (NYPD). Immediately, Gov. Andrew Cuomo moved to cast himself as the champion of the resistance, demanding “we seize the moment” to achieve equality. But a week earlier, the governor and mayor were both on board for implementing New York’s first curfew in 75 years. The joint order was a rare point of consensus between the two most powerful New York politicians and reflected a consolidation of the political line of the Democratic Party: public outpourings of support and solidarity, but increasingly repressive moves to squash a protest movement which is growing too big and militant to control via the normal channels of cooptation and containment.
However, the consensus in New York was short lived, as the contradictions between national political strategy and the local reality continue to develop. At a press briefing, Cuomo threatened displacing the mayor to send armed National Guards in to suppress protesters, because the city had “not used enough police.” In the same speech, Cuomo also said,
On the protesters, they are outraged. And, by the way, I agree with them. What happened to Mr. Floyd was a disgrace, was repugnant to America, was repugnant to any good policing perspective, or strategy, or approach.
Prior to declaring the curfew, de Blasio and Cuomo had expressed a series of divergent messages. Cuomo, who seized on the pandemic to become a main face of the Democratic Party, performed long effusions of heartfelt support for George Floyd protests, in line with the Democratic players on the national stage, such as Nancy Pelosi, Amy Klobuchar, and most significantly, Joe Biden. De Blasio, on the other hand, played his cards close to the chest, wary of infuriating the NYPD as protests escalated. He even went so far as to defend the actions of two police cruisers that intentionally plowed into a group of protesters on May 30. “It is inappropriate for protestors to surround a police vehicle and threaten police officers,” he said. “That’s wrong on its face and that hasn’t happened in the history of protests in this city.”
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The initial difference between the governor and mayor is consistent with their responses to police murders in the past, and reflects larger contradictions within the Democratic Party as well as the significant political power of the police. De Blasio, who ran on a police reform platform, has actually never advocated for substantial police reform. He has, however, at several times in his tenure, set off the police by merely acknowledging the possibility of racism, such as in a speech after Eric Garner’s death, in which he said he taught his Black son to “take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers.” When two officers were shot shortly after, the mayor faced a semi-insurrection, with cops turning their backs on him at a funeral for slain officer Rafael Ramos, carrying out an unprecedented work stoppage, and issuing threatening statements from their primary union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), which stated at the time: “There’s blood on many hands tonight — those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protests, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day…. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.” Occasional tepid reform attempts, such as introducing a body cam program, have resulted in swift retribution from police unions. Rather than anger the police, de Blasio has generally opted to weather some political pushback for defending them.
For example, between 2014 and 2020, the mayor refused to call for the firing of Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who murdered Eric Garner by choking him to death after he was seen selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island. Garner’s last words “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement, but even after an internal NYPD court found Pantaleo guilty of “reckless assault” four years later, the mayor refused to call for him to be fired. The mayor and the governor have also disagreed on a piece of legislation to repeal Section 50-A, the “Police Secrecy Law” shielding the personnel records of police officers, firefighters and corrections officers. Cuomo, since 2019, has said 50-A should be repealed, and that officers’ disciplinary records should be open to the public.
However, Cuomo’s position on police reform is only skin deep, and merely reflects the current electoral priorities of the Democratic Party. Before 2019, Cuomo defended the NYPD more vigilantly than de Blasio did, often maneuvering to drive a wedge between the mayor and the PBA. In 2015, Cuomo went so far as to pin the deaths of two officers on the mayor’s “anti-police atmosphere”:
As leadership, we have to send a different signal. And the signal is “respect law enforcement.” I understand your civil rights, I understand freedom of speech, but I also understand the role of the police…. The police are right when they say there’s now an atmosphere, now an attitude that the police are fair game. They’re not.
Since 2019, from the vantage point of Albany, and with no direct oversight of the NYPD, the governor has been relatively free to make some non-binding declarations in accordance with a national Democratic Party strategy embracing mild police reform. The mayor, however, is in a very different position, often unable to embrace even the most moderate talking points of the national party, because the NYPD is right there, seemingly, with a gun to his head. De Blasio’s most obsequious attempts to pander to police leadership have even failed to appease the more vigilant union, the Sergeants Benevolent Association (SBA), which responded to the mayor’s statement after two officer deaths in 2014 by saying “the NYPD is declaring war on you!”
As protests for George Floyd grew in recent weeks, the mayor was once again caught between maintaining the reformist imagery of the Democratic Party and appeasing the NYPD. After mandating a little bit of restraint (specifically, prohibiting mounted police units from the protests), de Blasio rediscovered the ire of the NYPD when his daughter was essentially taken hostage by them, a story amplified by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “Last night the NYPD Sergeants’ union *publicly threatened the mayor’s daughter* while they held her,” she tweeted. After Chiara de Blasio was arrested at Union Square, the SBA released identifying information about her. On June 7, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Councilmember Ritchie Torres wrote in a joint letter to the city’s Department of Investigation that the timing of the release “suggests willful conduct calculated to inflict personal harm on the Mayor and a member of his family.”
As for the national Democratic Party, the trend shifted toward maintaining outward support for the motivation of these protests but emphasizing the danger of violent and destructive “agitators” which would “overshadow the reason we protest” according to Joe Biden, essentially orbiting President Trump’s more militant articulations. For Trump, the agitators are “thugs” or “antifa,” while the Democrats point toward white interlopers, anarchists and occasionally “Russians.” But as Trump threatens military action in the cities, the contradictions between national and local become more pronounced, and the reality of the local police comes more into focus.
Despite claims by progressive mayors over the last three years of “sanctuary cities” which would not enforce or collaborate with Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportation policies, most major police departments, including the NYPD, have continued to collaborate with ICE. While it is tempting to see the NYPD as some bloated, rogue militia, its coercion and intimidation of even fake reformer Bill de Blasio reflects larger trends in the U.S. Democrats have preferred to leave out this part of the picture, characterizing the problem as a “few bad apples” that can be removed. Cuomo, and other politicians who float a bit above issues of everyday police policy, can usually engage in this rhetoric unscathed. The mayor of New York City, who oversees the nation’s largest police force, however, is required by circumstance to abstain from such utterances.
As the protest movement expands, and discussion about the role of the police heats up on a national level, Democrats will make every attempt to co-opt the narrative, reframe action on the streets and funnel anger into talking points for electoral reform, pinning police violence on President Trump, and seeking to diminish growing awareness of the thoroughly exploitive, oppressive and white supremacist logic of the state. Trump, in turn, may lash out and unleash a whole new level of violent repression on protesters in the U.S., and the incursion of military forces into cities would likely further clarify the relationship between police violence and the essential repressive nature of the state overall. Immediate escalation, however, is being pushed for by the leaders of the Democratic Party. On June 2, Cuomo escalated the state and city contradiction after de Blasio rebuked the governor’s push to send National Guards into the city, floating the idea of “displacing the mayor” to attain control of the police in his response:
Can you displace a mayor? Yes. A mayor can be removed. It has not happened. I can’t find a precedent. But theoretically it is legally possible.
De Blasio, in turn, stood with the NYPD, stating through a spokesperson that the governor’s remarks “are offensive to the men and women of the NYPD, who are out there every night trying to keep New Yorkers safe. It would be nice if our officers knew they had the respect of their Governor.” In declining the National Guard, de Blasio stated, “When outside armed forces go into communities, no good comes from it…. They are not trained for the circumstances here.” De Blasio may be fearful of a situation such as what happened in Kent State University in Ohio, on May 4, 1970, in which deployment of the National Guard against antiwar protesters resulted in the murder of four students, further enflaming the movement. However, one may question if the police need much outside help to produce acts of wanton aggression and violence that impassions resistance. People around the world are already watching videos of the NYPD ramming cars into protesters, spraying tear gas point-blank into protesters’ eyes and pointing handguns at marchers.
The contradictions between local police departments, cities, states and the larger state exist throughout the country, but there are unique aspects at play in New York City. The size of the NYPD (38,000 active officers), a $6 billion budget, and an internal intelligence bureau which is an essential partner of the National Security Agency and CIA, means that the NYPD resembles something of a quasi-military. Departments historically have attempted to toe the line between being the repressive arm of capital interests and maintaining appearances of being “our” friendly neighborhood cop. The latter has been attempted through various forms of “community policing” initiatives. However, in New York City, where capital interests are very concentrated and class tensions consequently heightened, the police have been pioneers of a national trend toward shedding the pretense of “the nice cop” through heavy-handed tactics and surveillance policies.
The tug of war between Cuomo and de Blasio clarifies that, though local police operate under some different conditions, policies and leadership, they are really the frontline guards of a white supremacist capitalist state. Governor Cuomo, when politically advantageous, promises transparency and reform in the NYPD. But Mayor De Blasio’s mildest hints at reform have led to near rebellion by the police. As unrest mounts, and elected leaders scramble to appease protesters with a litany of promised reforms, we must protest local police violence as state oppression, not local aberrations solvable by empty promises of Democratic Party politicians.