While the city’s attention has focused over the last month on the appointments and overtures of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the evil eleventh-hour machinations of his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, the deaths of two citizens at the hands of the police have barely been noticed.
There’s been faint response to the fatal shooting by police of Juan Mendez, 38, shot in Washington Heights, or to the shooting of Georgy Louisgene, 23, at the Vanderveer Estates in Brooklyn on January 16. While some witnesses backed up the cops’ version of the confrontation—that Louisgene was told to drop a knife and hooked dowel and didn’t—others disagree. Louisgene was shot in the groin, arm, side, buttock, and back.
Though Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has spoken about the Louisgene shooting and Bloomberg called it “tragic” at a press breakfast with black journalists, what’s strange is that the usually instantaneously responsive and always vocal Reverend Al Sharpton has been quiet.
On January 21, five days after Louisgene’s death, the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Public Policy Forum at the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network was filled to overflowing well before the event began. The seats were packed with faces made familiar over years of meetings, demonstrations, and rallies, most of them black, many Latino—including a delegation from Vieques come to thank Sharpton for his support and give him the island’s flag—and a few whites. The room also boasted an unprecedented number of elected officials (and wannabes) and the merely famous.
There was plenty of media too, jammed against the walls clutching notebooks, standing on chairs, manning cameras and mics in the back rows, and frantically guarding seats intended for women and elders, the better to see the stage. In addition to a celebration of Dr. King’s life and legacy, the ostensible keynotes were presentations by State Comptroller H. Carl McCall and former HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo, Democratic rivals for the gubernatorial nomination.
But there’s no question that the focus of attention and crackling anticipation in the packed house was the visit from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Presiding over all was Reverend Al, body slimmer, hair trimmer, and exuding an optimistic confidence perhaps attributable to the exit, after eight long years, of Rudy Giuliani. Hot as the temperature was in the room, the temperament was cooler, absent the angry heat that results when a mayor disses, disappears, and disrespects vast numbers of the city’s citizens. For the first time in years, Reverend Al wasn’t leading his troops in a mass action and media war against a mayor who seemed to exult in spreading insult and alienation. It’s not yet clear exactly who he is, but it’s clear who he isn’t. For that day, it was enough.
Tributes to Dr. King mentioned both his accomplishments and what remains to be achieved. It was a positive crowd, except for the eruption of a chorus of boos when Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr. said, “Tonight, I’m doing the invocation at the Roy Innis celebration.” Apparently the crowd was aware of both Innis’s history as a right-wing opportunist and the fact that one of the Innis evening’s honorees—and, as it turned out, a no-show—was Rudy Giuliani. Then, to a standing ovation, Assemblyman Jose Rivera introduced Al Sharpton and Michael Bloomberg, joined by former mayor David Dinkins, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott.
“Sorry it took so long. I had to have them pat the commissioner down before he came in,” the reverend said to roars of laughter. Sharpton spoke briefly of all that had changed as a result of Dr. King’s work and all that still needs to be done to make this a truly equitable society. “When they attacked the World Trade Center, we all died together, and we’re going to have to learn how all of us can live together,” he said.
Bloomberg’s remarks were brief and to the point. He praised Dr. King and promised to return to the NAN every year if invited. “The best day in my life is tomorrow,” the mayor said. “And I want to make sure that is true for all 8 million New Yorkers. I’m gonna try to do it, and I appreciate your help. Thank you very much.”
Then the stage emptied to applause and another standing ovation as the mayor, the reverend, and their respective entourages made their way toward the exit, shaking hands and smiling all the way. Even though the gubernatorial candidates were yet to come, it was clear that the main event was over: The mayor and the reverend had shared space respectfully and without animosity. After only three weeks on the job, Bloomberg seems to have figured out what Giuliani wouldn’t: There’s no win in needlessly antagonizing citizens, particularly when, like Sharpton, they have a constituency and know how to work the media.
On the reverend’s side, it’s hard not to wonder if Sharpton didn’t calculate the value of silence against alienating the seemingly kinder, gentler new mayor in the first days of the political honeymoon. Perhaps this explains the lack of response to the deaths of Louisgene and Mendez. After days of phone tag, the Voice was unable to get a comment from Sharpton by press time.
Maybe what Bloomberg and Sharpton are after in these early weeks is a foundation for communicating about the inevitably tough days ahead. But those times may already be here. And after eight years of being on the receiving end of Giuliani’s contempt, it’s tempting to believe that being in neutral is a win, that civility without substance is a victory. It isn’t.