NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, Mayor de Blasio, & Reverand Al Sharpton (Rob Bennett, Mayor's Office)
Last week, an acquaintance asked me whether the problem in our American democracy today is the state of our politics, or the state of our government. The question admittedly stumped me. While there are definitely major challenges in both realms, the actual distinction is critical, and one which we're quick to overlook, which can lead to inefficacy in both realms. And perhaps nothing illustrates this slight better than New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's recent challenges in dealing with the Eric Garner tragedy.
In purely definitional terms, the Greek root of the term "politikos" is "of, for, or relating to citizens." In other words, politics encompasses the actual activities associated with how citizens influence the policies and actions of a government. Thus politics, despite the partisan labels modern society attaches to the term, is citizen-centered. Government, on the other-hand, refers to the actual body that makes the policies and enacts them. Thus, the question essentially becomes whether more effective politics, or citizen engagement, leads to more effective governance, or whether more effective governmental institutions will lead to better results for citizens.
Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Islander who died after being placed in a chokehold by a police officer attempting to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes, was victim of faulty governance practices. Justifiably, the aftermath of his death has focused on the police policies that allowed such an incident to happen. Namely, critics argue, so-called 'broken-windows' policing, promoted extensively by Police Commissioner William Bratton, is inherently racist, and police focus on low-level criminal offenses in a way that disproportionately targets minorities.
De Blasio is an organizer at heart, and ran a successful mayoral campaign largely because he understands politics so well. He understood that the electorate had tired of a third Bloomberg term, he understood that stop-and-frisk had become a racist policing tactic, and he understood that economic inequality was becoming the defining issue for a generation. He spoke to these as a consummate political being, promising to bring people together, to influence the bodies that made these policies. De Blasio mastered the politics of the moment in New York City.
The transition from politics to governing has proven challenging. But interestingly, de Blasio has attempted to merge the two constantly - every policy becomes a campaign. His first major move was to push for universal pre-kindergarten. Before long, "UPK" pins were commonplace throughout the city, and Albany rallies seemed to happen weekly. Although he did not get his tax on the wealthy passed to pay for it, he did get funding for his pet project. In a similar mold, de Blasio's push for the Democratic National Convention to be held in Brooklyn, which he claims would spur economic activity in the region, has included designing Nets jerseys with the names of delegates on the back - and, naturally, new DNC NYC 2016 pins. There is nothing inherently wrong with these campaigns - UPK is now happening (great), and the convention might come to Brooklyn (disputably great).
But this approach will not always work, and it has not worked with the Garner case. Immediately after returning from his vacation to Italy, de Blasio's political instincts kicked in, and he held a public roundtable with both Bratton and civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton at City Hall, ostensibly to show that police and civil society could work together in the aftermath of the death. But neither would have any part of it. Sharpton ripped into Bratton, and Bratton seemed completely unsure of his role at the podium.
In the days since, de Blasio has continued to stammer. First, he came to Sharpton's defense, saying that the reverend "had been active and productive" on police policies for decades. When a report then came out saying he would side with Sharpton over Bratton, potentially ousting his commissioner, de Blasio responded with vigorous defense, calling the notion "idiotic" and asserting that Bratton is "the finest police leader in the United States." Meanwhile a wide-scale rally is planned on Staten Island to protest the police policies - a rally de Blasio certainly would have attended while running for Mayor.
Civil society is coalescing around the Garner issue, in a way that shows politics at work. This engagement, in a city that just had its lowest electoral turnout since World War II, is undoubtedly positive. But the way that de Blasio can move forward is by actually responding to the politics of the moment with concrete policies, demonstrating a willingness to create police policies that will both protect and respect New York City's citizenry. The mayor's expansion of the Gun Violence Crisis Management System is a step in the right direction of governance over politics and he should take it to every city precinct. The sole act of creating a political stage, and attempting to bring foes to the table, does not work. New York City's citizens are getting more political. But they need a leader to not just play politics, but rather, to govern.
Scott Warren is the CEO and co-founder of Generation Citizen, an national non-profit based in New York City dedicated to empowering young people to be active citizens.