NEW YORK—In July, before the chaos in Ferguson, Mo., an unarmed African-American man, Eric Garner, died after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold during an arrest on Staten Island. The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, and the local district attorney is moving to bring evidence to a grand jury to possibly indict the officer responsible. Garner was placed in a chokehold in the course of being arrested for selling cigarettes on the street, and a video of the arrest shows him repeating, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”
Unlike in Ferguson, the protests in New York against Garner’s death have been peaceful, with the NYPD accustomed to managing large crowds. The National Action Network has scheduled a march for Saturday in Staten Island, and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said on Wednesday he expects the march to be peaceful and mostly “self-policed.”
On Wednesday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio attended a meeting of local religious leaders to talk about improving community relations with police in the wake of Garner’s death. De Blasio asked Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York to convene the group, and they met at Dolan’s residence in Midtown.
“It’s their mission to save lives, to help heal wounds,” said de Blasio of the religious leaders. He said the meeting would have been impossible without Dolan, a “leader who has the respect of all.”
The meeting was set up before Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, but Dolan is a St. Louis native.
“Ferguson is heavy on my heart,” Dolan said. “We are very much aware of the flaws in New York, but we’re aware of the strong points, and we want to be a light to the world.”
To this point, most of the outcry against Garner’s death has come from local African-American pastors, most prominently the Rev. Al Sharpton. He came to Dolan’s meeting, along with several other prominent African-American leaders like Rev. Herbert Daughtry from House of the Lord in Brooklyn. The rest were prominent Catholic leaders, Jewish rabbis, and an imam. Notably absent were representatives from Staten Island churches, although the mayor said the group came together last minute and was not fully representative. Bratton and the NYPD chaplain joined the meeting, which stretched on for two hours. The mayor said after the meeting that it was only the first of many such get togethers. After events like Garner’s death, public leaders often reach out to community organizers but ignore religious leaders, he said.
“Faith leaders arguably have the greatest reach of any set of leaders,” de Blasio said. “We aren’t tapping into that enough. … We’re adamant about going on this journey with them.”
New York first lady Chirlane McCray, also present, said she had learned a lesson from talking to people in New York. “Who do they listen to, connect with?” she said. “Their clergy.”
“We believe in a God that can bring something good out of evil,” Dolan said after the meeting, holding a Bible. Rabbi Michael Miller of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, who came to the meeting after getting off a plane from Israel, said Dolan opened the meeting by reading Psalm 76.
“What came out of the meeting was the role of religion in New York,” said Miller. “The public sector and the spiritual sector need to work in partnership.”
The leaders and the mayor were light on the specifics of their plan going forward, other than to say they were building relationships with each other. De Blasio has given more attention to the role of religious leaders in the city than the previous administration.
When de Blasio took office this year, the tension between minority communities in the city and police was already high because of the Bloomberg administration’s stop-and-frisk policy, where officers disproportionately stopped African-American and Hispanic men. A district court ruled the policy unconstitutional, and de Blasio rolled the policy back. Better relationships between the police and community were a central theme of de Blasio’s campaign.