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De Blasio Caught in Middle as Lynch, Sharpton Trade Barbs Over Garner Death

By Jeff Mays | August 7, 2014 7:33am
 Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Rev. Al Sharpton dismissed criticisms from police unions surrounding the death of Staten Island man Eric Garner.
De Blasio Caught in Middle As Lynch, Sharpton Trade Barbs Over Garner Death
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HARLEM — The Rev. Al Sharpton wanted last week's controversial City Hall meeting to discuss the death of Staten Island man Eric Garner with Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner William Bratton and other clergy to be held behind closed doors.

But the mayor had a different idea, Sharpton said.

"He said: 'No I want to have an open meeting and let the press in for the first part of the meeting. I don't want no backroom meeting,'" Sharpton said during a rally Saturday at the National Action Network in Harlem, as he stood with Garner's mother and widow.

"I want to have a city where people can say what's on their mind and then I hear it and move forward," Sharpton said the mayor told him. A de Blasio spokeswoman did not respond to a request to confirm the conversation.

During the meeting, Sharpton sat next to de Blasio, who was flanked on the other side by Bratton, and issued sharp critiques of New York City police practices. Sharpton also made the controversial comment that de Blasio's teenage son Dante would "be a candidate for a chokehold" if he were not the mayor's son.

The meeting showcased the political tightrope de Blasio is walking with the Garner case as he looks to maintain his status as a progressive leader who successfully campaigned against abusive police practices while also being supportive of the NYPD and their efforts to keep the city safe.

During a press conference Tuesday, de Blasio spoke to both sides of the issue, saying at one point that he has "immense respect for the men and women of the NYPD" but also saying that "there’s no contradiction between doing your job effectively and respecting the people you serve."

"The mayor is trying to be both a coalition builder and an independent voice but it's not working," said political consultant Basil Smikle. "He runs the risk of looking like a puppet because you see one person in the form of Sharpton so prominently while others have been quiet."

Observers say the close ties between City Hall and Sharpton — whose former aide, Rachel Noerdlinger, is now chief of staff for de Blasio's wife Chirlane McCray, give some people pause.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Sharpton did little to dissuade critics who say he's been able to "determine the direction of justice in this city," by largely taking credit for de Blasio's mayoral win.

"We came out as a coalition against stop and frisk," he said. "We came out against some profiling. It determined the result of the mayor's election. We change laws and win elections. We don't worry about people's talk. The reason many voted for Mr. de Blasio is because he agreed with our policies."

Without additional feedback from other community activists, Smikle said the Garner debate has become a debate between Sharpton and police union leaders including Pat Lynch, president of the NYPD's Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.

"There is not as much outrage and a lot of the reason is so many political leaders are so invested in the administration or so afraid of the administration that they are not reacting," Smikle said.

Lynch and Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins held a press conference Tuesday to blast the mayor and his closeness to Sharpton as well as to defend Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who's been accused of using an illegal chokehold on Garner that resulted in his death.

"I do not believe [Sharpton] has credibility," Lynch said. 

"Sharpton gets to determine the direction of justice in this city," added Mullins. "It's completely wrong."

The union heads also accused de Blasio of shutting police advocates out of the roundtable meeting where they said Sharpton had no right to be, as well as saying he'd rushed to judgment by saying Pantaleo used a chokehold on Garner.

Staten Island Councilwoman Deborah Rose, the first African-American elected official from the borough, criticized Lynch's language, saying it was entirely appropriate for the mayor to have Sharpton at the meeting, which she also attended, given his history of advocacy in police brutality cases.

"Pat Lynch is doing the thing he's accusing Rev. Sharpton of doing: He's race-baiting and creating an environment for that kind of hate rhetoric to permeate," Rose said.

In fact, de Blasio wasn't the first mayor to bring Sharpton in after a police incident, as former Mayor Michael Bloomberg held a press conference with Sharpton at City Hall following the Sean Bell shooting.

Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, warned that de Blasio needs to be mindful that the racial rhetoric over Garner's death doesn't reach a tipping point.

"You don't want the kind of code language or barely-coded language that we saw between the police and City Hall during the Dinkins years and you don't want the city to be as deeply divided racially as it was during the Giuliani years," Sherrill said.

"It might be time for the mayor to dress people down and say that he won't tolerate anyone trying to divide the city," added Sherrill. "The mayor has to make it clear that the mayor is running the city, that his door is open and he consults with a full range of people."