Why you should care

A mayor needs both the police and the population on his side, but civil unrest makes it hard to please everyone. 

The night of April 4, 1968, found New York Mayor John Lindsay at a Broadway musical. A plainclothes detective came down the aisle with a note to inform him that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. Since the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, America had been waiting for a conflagration to break out in its biggest city, and though the mayor’s press aide, David Garth, warned that going up to Harlem would be “a really bad idea,” Lindsay insisted.

“Somebody white just has to face that emotion and say that we’re sorry,” Lindsay told Garth, and so they went. In Harlem they found, in Garth’s later telling, “a mob that was so large that it went across 125th Street from storefront to storefront.” Garth was cowed. Lindsay was not, even though at 6 feet 5 inches he was a sniper’s dream. He had police open up barricades so protesters and mourners could move freely. He listened to people in the street, conferred with civic leaders, and even spoke to gang leaders his aides had been quietly cultivating for years to be on the lookout for racial violence.

“And the poor he spoke to who are so much more real than the rest of us, understood the truth of John Lindsay. And there was no riot in New York,” columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote then. The crisis saw Lindsay at his best — brave, decisive, charismatic — and it lifted him onto the national political stage, where he was already a member of the Kerner Commission on civil disorders. There, he (or rather, his assistants) coined the famous line that America was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Could Bill de Blasio, now the mayor of New York City, learn anything from Lindsay’s example?

Probably he already has. Even before grand juries failed to indict police officers in the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner on Staten Island, de Blasio had become a de facto leader on race and immigration, supporting municipal IDs and reversing discriminatory stop-and-frisk policies. After the Garner decision, de Blasio called for a massive retraining program for police officers, and under his watch, police response to protests has been firm but reasonable, a dramatic improvement over the heavy-handed, militaristic tactics their Missouri counterparts showed over the summer with the Brown protests.

New York mayoral candidate John Lindsay visiting Harlem, 1st June 1965. Lindsay waas elected mayor the following year.

John Lindsay visits Harlem in 1965. He was elected mayor of New York City the following year.

But as with Lindsay, other political monsters may lurk beneath the waters for de Blasio. While Lindsay was gaining national prominence for his civil rights support, he was losing the support of his own police department and of many New Yorkers, who saw him as a headline-grabbing grandstander. He spent a lot of political capital supporting the creation of a Civilian Complaint Review Board to investigate cases of police brutality, but he lost that fight and a lot of support from cops. In 1970, the Serpico corruption scandal would depress police morale just when the mayor, and the city, most needed an energetic and proactive force. Instead, many police were apathetic and would routinely skip their night shifts. “The attitude was, ‘screw Lindsay, and screw the Bronx,’” says one retired fireman who remembers them napping and playing cards at his firehouse. All of that fostered an “us vs. them” attitude between protesters and the police, and both groups were angry with Mayor Lindsay for supposedly supporting the other side.

De Blasio faces the same unenviable task of navigating between outraged protesters and a vocal, defensive police union.

Back then, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a wide disconnect between many poor neighborhoods and city officials. From roofs and windows, people so often hurled dangerous objects at police and firefighters that they nicknamed the practice “airmail.” Residents of poor, minority communities got so accustomed to police not even responding to calls for assistance that they called the fire department, who would at least scare off the thief trying to smash his way into your apartment, if not chase him down and arrest him.

To be sure, today’s New York City is far from the fiery, anarchic Gotham of the 1960s and ’70s. It’s looking at record lows for crime this year, not marching toward record highs, as it was in Lindsay’s day. But de Blasio still faces the same unenviable task of navigating between outraged protesters and a vocal, defensive police union that says its members feel “thrown under the bus” by de Blasio’s talk of historical racism and the need for police reform. A crisis can be an opportunity, as politicians sometimes like to point out. But there’s a big difference between scoring short-term points with the news media and building lasting alliances with citizens and police to create real reform.

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