From Dinkins to Adams: What progressives see in New York’s 2nd Black mayor

The condition New York City was in some 30 years ago was pretty similar to today: racial tension, crime concerns, economic pressure. So for many, David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, was a welcome change at such a contentious time — unseating three-term incumbent Ed Koch. Some 12,000 people showed up at City Hall Park to see Dinkins sworn in.

“I stand before you today as the elected leader of the greatest city of a great nation, to which my ancestors were brought, chained and whipped in the hold of a slave ship,” he said then, according to The New York Times. “We have not finished the journey toward liberty and justice, but surely we have come a long way.”

Dinkins’ single term as mayor was marred by his response to the 1991 Crown Heights riots, in which the death of a 7-year-old Black child prompted days of rioting and clashes between Black and Jewish residents. Still, Dinkins took up the cause of public safety, hiring thousands of police officers in the face of a budget deficit and launching the “Safe Streets, Safe City” anti-crime program, which placed more officers on street patrols.

It’s this same complicated focus on public safety that seems to characterize Eric Adams, who was elected the city’s second Black mayor on Tuesday, defeating Republican Curtis Sliwa. In Adams, the city’s next leader will be a Black progressive with moderate policies who has built his platform, in part, on straddling the line between police accountability and tough-on-crime rhetoric (crime in New York actually decreased in 2020). He has focused his public addresses on his own experiences with law enforcement: He’s an ex-NYPD captain who endured police violence as a teen.

Adams has opposed the “defund the police” movement, holding that hiring more Black officers and targeting gun violence could address police brutality. With that, it’s unclear what Black New Yorkers could expect from a self-described “pragmatic moderate” as mayor at a time when Black communities everywhere are calling for an end to racist police violence.

“There are people out there who are worried,” Anthony Beckford, president of Black Lives Matter Brooklyn, said of Adams. “Some people call him a progressive moderate, a centrist, some people call him a democratic conservative. There’s a lot of factors that play into politics. He can’t label himself as the ‘Black people’s mayor,’ as much as us in the community wish he could.”

A 1993 state report commissioned by then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo concluded that Dinkins’ response to the unrest in Crown Heights was inadequate. In addition to discrepancies by the investigators, prosecutors and the judge involved in the case, the report said Dinkins was slow to respond to days of rioting and failed to adequately question how his police commanders were handling the unrest, all while Black and Jewish communities accused the mayor of taking sides.

Adams’ win comes decades later, as Black and allied progressive communities have called for an end to police violence through defunding the police, dismantling police departments, and redirecting law enforcement funding to social services, particularly in the turbulent months after George Floyd’s death on Memorial Day 2020 in Minneapolis. Even as abolitionists have held that they are not proposing that authorities abandon communities to violence, elected leaders have cited rising violent crime rates as reason enough for police budgets to remain intact.

“He covers his bases where he says Black Lives Matter, but he also sort of pivots to what I would argue is this more conservative talking point that resonates with a lot of voters” said Christina Greer, associate political science professor at Fordham University and author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream.”

Greer added: “His insider-outsider status as a police officer was very beneficial because we know Black voters tend to be more moderate, and not necessarily progressive. The conversation about defunding the NYPD did not necessarily ring true for a significant portion of Black New Yorkers.”

In the June Democratic primary, Adams won over Black, Latino and low-income voters from New York City’s neighborhoods outside of Manhattan, defeating progressive darling Maya Wiley, a civil rights litigator and former lawyer for Mayor Bill de Blasio; and former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia. Black residents made up 34 percent of the assembly districts Adams won, which includes Harlem, the Bronx, and South Brooklyn, according to Bloomberg.

“I am you,” Adams said early Tuesday after voting at P.S. 81. It’s a slogan meant to capture his history as a former police officer (he spent 22 years in law enforcement in New York), a victim of police violence and an activist — he co-founded 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care to combat racist police violence from within the NYPD.

Adams’ proposal includes hiring more minority officers, prioritizing community relationships with police, and more training. “The debate around policing has been reduced to a false choice: You are either with police, or you are against them,” Adams said on his campaign website. “That is simply wrong because we are all for safety. We need the NYPD — we just need them to be better.”

According to Adams, this posture doesn’t conflict with his concerns as a career-cop-turned-politician who was “beaten by police in the basement of a precinct house at 15.” With that, experts say it’s hard to tell just what kind of leader Adams will be: Will he take seriously calls for radical changes to policing? Or rely on familiar reforms that have proven ineffective?

“If you listen to some of Eric Adams’ rhetoric, it’s like, every Black person has that uncle who says ‘Black lives matter, but we have to talk about Black on Black crime.’ That’s a Black conservative talking point and a white conservative talking point,” Greer said.

“That’s what makes some people nervous. On the one hand, you see him working with progressive Democrats, and on the other hand you see him working with Republicans. When he starts to put together his Cabinet and his commissioners, that will give us a window into the kind of governance we’re in for.”

Adams has decades of political experience in New York, joining the state Senate in 2007 and becoming Brooklyn borough president in 2013.

“Eric Adams is a very savvy politician,” Greer said. “His understanding of the entire five boroughs is what gave him an advantage.”

Adams’ proposals include climate change, housing assistance, public transportation and the economy, but his public addresses have seemed to focus largely on public safety and supporting small businesses. So all eyes have been on the self-proclaimed “Biden of Brooklyn” as he, like the president, will be tasked with addressing public safety at a time of racial reckoning and calls for radical changes to policing.

Beckford said he has met with Adams and plans to offer to have a member of the social justice organization sit on one of his mayoral committees. He praised Adams for the ways he has attempted to connect with Black communities in the city, but acknowledged that there are “things we don’t see eye-to-eye on.”

“I support defunding the police, and I know he’s not a supporter of that,” Beckford said — Adams has alleged that the “defund the police” movement wasn’t started by Black people but “young affluent white people.

“I’m totally against plainclothes officers,” Beckford said. “We call them the ‘bullies of the street’ — they act like they don’t have to adhere to NYPD patrol guidelines. They jump out of their cars and harass and blatantly brutalize people.

“My main focus and the focus of BLM BK is to make sure that he’s there for the people, that whatever our demands are he’s willing to at least bring the people to the table to listen to them. As he governs, I want him to not only hear our voices, not only see us, but continue to understand and listen to us.”

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