A Tale of Two Cities

Text by Daryl Khan | Photos by Robert Stolarik

“Government must focus on the needs of families, must be the protector of neighborhoods and must guard the people from the enormous power of monied interests. Now, my friends, it can be done, but not by elected leaders alone. It requires average New Yorkers who simply refuse to allow their community’s voices to be stifled. It’s their spirit that I intend to sweep into City Hall. A spirit that shouts that all boroughs were created equal and that all our residents matter! So, let’s be honest about where we are today. This is a place that in too many ways has become a tale of two cities. …”

—Then-candidate Bill de Blasio announcing his mayoral candidacy in front of his family’s clapboard house in Brooklyn

If you had bought a beer for a protester or police officer last Friday and asked about the state of tensions in New York, they probably would have said they couldn’t imagine things getting any worse. In the weeks since a Staten Island grand jury failed to indict the officers involved in Eric Garner’s choking death, protesters and demonstrations had brought sections of the city to a halt.

Ferguson, Missouri, where a grand jury chose not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing an unarmed teenager in August 2014, birthed a postmodern civil rights movement. This movement was born out of frustration and organized more around social media hashtags than the philosophical ruminations of Thoreau or Gandhi.

Eric Garner’s death did not capture this growing movement’s political imagination until December 3 when the grand jury failed to indict the officers responsible for Eric’s death.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s frank comments that he had to teach his son how to handle encounters with police officers resonated with some parents of black and Latino children. Police officers saw a leader who couldn’t trust his own son with the police department he is charged with overseeing and quietly seethed.

The resentment coarsened during the height of clashes with protesters in the street when he visited officers undergoing new training. Officers said the mayor failed to say anything to the officers whose morale had reached a low point after weeks of overtime and constant criticism.

Ismaaiyl Brinsley’s ruthless killing of officers Rafael Ramos, a 40-year-old father of two, and Wenjian Liu, a 32-year-old newlywed, plunged the city into what one mourner described as a “dark place.”

In his first public comments since the shooting, de Blasio called for a moratorium on protests and demonstrations out of respect for the slain officers, but organizers bristled at the idea.

Now, before the officers have been buried, the call for more protests has become even louder. Organizers promised to bring their demands to end police brutality to Times Square just as the rest of the world has its eyes fixed on the ball drop.

When he announced his candidacy Bill de Blasio was a longshot city councilman who promised to restore a progressive sense of mission in City Hall. He famously invoked Dickens’ novel to highlight what he and many other activist Democrats considered Dickensian conditions for the many New Yorkers who live in the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods and housing projects.

Today de Blasio’s vision of “two cities” seems prescient: Except instead of two cities on the brink of coming together, it feels as if they are two cities on the brink of war.

See more photography by Robert Stolarik


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