By Jonathan Lemire Associated Press
NEW YORK — New York City’s mayor and archbishop convened a round-table meeting of police and minority community leaders on Wednesday to diffuse tensions between the groups, days before a march to protest the death of a black man placed in a chokehold by a white police officer.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said he hoped the meeting — which appeared noticeably less tense than a previous gathering after the death of Eric Garner — will help a city grappling with the renewal of a long-held distrust of the police in some of New York’s minority neighborhoods.
“We want this to be a transcendent moment for the city,” said de Blasio. “We’ve experienced tragedy in the death of Eric Garner. But this was not about a single incident or being mired in the past. This is about a purposeful and consistent effort forward.”
Garner was confronted by police on Staten Island last month for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. In an arrest captured on cellphone video, he was placed in a chokehold — a tactic banned by the police department —by the white officer and can be heard repeatedly screaming “I can’t breathe!”
Garner died a short time later. The city medical examiner ruled the death a homicide and the Staten Island District Attorney announced Tuesday that the case is going to a grand jury.
The summit, the plan for which was first reported by The Associated Press, came at a time when relations between police and communities of color are being scrutinized nationwide due to Garner’s death and the violent clashes between police and demonstrators after the shooting death of an unarmed black Missouri man by a white officer.
It was also a high-stakes moment for de Blasio, who has been placed in precarious political position by the controversy surrounding Garner’s death. He ran for office pledging to keep the city’s crime rate low but also vowed to improve relations between communities of color and the police.
He first convened a conference on the Garner death last month at City Hall, sitting between Police Commissioner William Bratton and the Rev. Al Sharpton at the dais, only to draw criticism from all sides. Sharpton assailed de Blasio for not doing enough to help minority communities, while the police unions raged at the mayor for placing the outspoken civil rights activist on the same level as Bratton.
The mood seemed far more hopeful this time. Each speaker — which included leaders from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths — took pains to praise the NYPD, while Sharpton contrasted the gathering to the violence in the streets of a St. Louis suburb after the shooting of Michael Brown.
“While we still have challenges, we have changed and grown,” said Sharpton. “The problem still exists— but we can solve the problem.”
Sharpton will lead a march in Garner’s name on Saturday on Staten Island. Though he relented on his initial plan to block traffic on a major bridge, he said he plans to lead hundreds of people from the site where Garner was killed to the Staten Island District Attorney’s office.
“Religion in this great city is a cause of bringing people together, it’s a bridge,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the leader of the city’s Catholic community, who called the meeting at the mayor’s behest. “The city has seen something somber. But God can bring something good out of that.”
Brown, 18, was shot to death after a brief standoff on the street. The killing has led to nightly protests, many of which descended into chaos, and images of police using tear gas on the demonstrators have been on newspaper front pages around the globe.
Brown’s family is also expected to attend Saturday’s march, Sharpton said. He and Bratton vowed that the demonstration would not descend into violence.