There would be those, certainly, for whom the expression “New York style” doesn’t have about it a ring of specialness. Not so the bulk of us who call the Big Apple home. There is, we know, a certain elan, a certain panache to New York style which is to be in no way construed as being lumped in with the rest of the pack. What most distinguishes true New York style is that it’s cool. Off-color stuff purporting to emanate from a New York source despoils our desired order. Like, upon Obama’s being declared re-elected to the presidency in 2008, we get word that a bozo identified with New York named Donald Trump calls for the citizenry to march on Washington. No less a corruption of true New York style is an African American man meeting his death while being arrested for allegedly selling “loosies” on Staten Island.
Accustomed as we are to gasping, seething with rage, etc over out-of-town instances of foul behavior from law enforcement types that come to our notice, we’re still prone, some of us, to draw an imaginary line between such bizarre occurrences “out there” and what our New York sensibilities hold to be the norm. This, despite knowing that there have been times when the police-civilian interaction in this town haven’t been all that cool.
It wasn’t a great day for New York’s finest last July 17 when officers on Staten Island decided to bust Eric Garner for, they claimed, selling “untaxed cigarettes” on the street. It staggers the imagination that petty crime on that level, if indeed crime was being at all perpetrated, could escalate to where a cop applies a chokehold that ends Garner’s life. A chokehold, the NYPD tells us, is a banned maneuver, so right out of the starting gate we have an officer pushing a lever that prompts us to question how suited was he for the job. Whether triggered by panic or by wanton disregard for the rules of engagement, the officer’s resort to a chokehold is indicative either of his being one of the “bad apples” the department has over the years grudgingly acknowledged to be in the manpower mix. Or inadequate training or whatever else caused him to not measure up when the acid test came.
From the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) came the predictable slant in a response: had Garner not “resisted arrest” the unfortunate outcome would have been avoided. Problem is, a conflicting version of what’s factual in circumstances like this doesn’t inspire today the confidence in outwitting the other guy that it did yesteryear. Not in this time of digital cameras in ubiquitous usage across the land. And damned if there wasn’t someone on spot to record how this altogether unnecessary turn of events went down.
Rev. Al Sharpton’s call for action and response strategy didn’t necessitate, for a change, his jetting off to a location well beyond New York. Garner’s death surely was justification for any and all avenues of protest, including the planned march across the Verrazano Bridge, if concerns over logistics and other public safety issues didn’t force a re-thinking of the bridge piece. Beyond their vigorous objection to the march on the bridge, one read, in the reaction of some Staten Island pols, a sense that they would much rather there was no protest at all, at least none that would further call attention to Staten Island having incubated this episode of egregious police misconduct. They are of course dead wrong, these outer-borough reps, if daring to entertain the notion that an aftermath framed by hushed tones and light stepping is all that’s required here. Not hardly. A person of color lost his life, clearly through the carelessness, or worse, of an arresting officer. It is no time for walking softly.
Mayor de Blasio has to simply let the chips fall where they may on this one. And as matters take their course, he needs be reminded that there’s a certain point after which the now obligatory line about “…investigation…so that this never happens again” becomes trite and meaningless. To lots of us, looking in from a distance on what unfolded in Staten Island on July 17, it would be difficult to understand any conclusion different from a cop having gone inadvertently or deliberately rogue, bringing about Eric Garner’s death. As for the mayor, to his credit, we have so far seen nothing from him that would lead us to believe he wouldn’t want to be the ultimate facilitator in the process of ensuring that justice prevails.
It’s not possible, of course, for New York to monitor and deflect everything that looks to be potentially compromising to its pace-setter image. We are too large, too disparate a collective to foolhardily go there. We can, however, remain dedicated to having the distinctiveness that is New York style continue in place, undiminished. When and if they do occur, the likes of the appalling Staten Island goings-on summon us to step up. No mimicking of many a travesty we can recall in this or that place far afield. This is New York. We’re better than that.