ROME — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his family are wrapping up a whirlwind vacation in his ancestral homeland of Italy, complete with cheering crowds, paparazzi and, yes, even proof Italians do eat pizza with a knife and fork.
But the city he is returning to on July 27th is still roiled by the death of a suspect in police custody after he was put in an apparent chokehold. The videotaped scuffle threatens to reignite distrust of the New York Police Department in minority communities, a long-standing problem that de Blasio has vowed to improve.
De Blasio, who has monitored the situation from Europe, now faces, according to one ally, “a defining moment,” and his response will be closely watched by minority groups that were a stronghold of support and a police department adjusting to the post-stop-and-frisk era. Upon his return, the mayor will meet with his senior staff to be updated on the investigation and is expected to address it publicly early next week.
“It’s a critical time,” said Jamie Chandler, a Political Science Professor at Hunter College. “He has put a lot of emphasis on improving police and community relations and that won’t happen overnight. How he handles this will be important.”
On July 17, the day before de Blasio was set to jet to Rome, a video emerged of police confronting the 43-year-old Garner for selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street.
The video shows Garner, who is black, placed in an apparent chokehold by a white officer and is knocked to the ground. Garner, an asthmatic father of six, repeatedly screams, “I can’t breathe!”
An hour later, he died. An official cause of death has not yet been determined.
The next day, as the story dominated city headlines, de Blasio appeared with Police Commissioner William Bratton at a hastily called news conference. The two men noted that chokeholds are barred by the NYPD and expressed their condolences to Garner’s family.
A short time later, de Blasio announced that he was postponing his departure by a day. That night, he worked the phones, calling African-American community leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, pledging a thorough investigation. The next day, he, his wife and their teenage children left for Rome.
“He can go because he has the people’s trust. People think he’ll do the right thing,” said William Eimicke, a Public Affairs Professor at Columbia University. “Has the city gone berserk? No. No one is happy about this, but the city isn’t burning.”
There have been rallies on Staten Island and at City Hall. At one, there were calls for Bratton to resign. At another, several City Council members urged de Blasio to keep his word about helping black and Latino men who felt unfairly targeted by the police tactic of stop-and-frisk, which allowed officers to stop anyone deemed suspicious.
“This administration, make no doubt about it, was elected in large part from the black community and the Latino community precisely because of what they said about how they would deal with police-community relations,” said Jumaane Williams, a councilman from Brooklyn. “This is a defining moment.”
Some angrily pointed to the juxtaposition of the mayor’s trip with Garner’s funeral. But de Blasio made clear he valued the time with his family, who hadn’t vacationed together in years.
Their trip began in Rome, where the de Blasio family walked the ancient streets, met with officials and sampled the local cuisine. De Blasio met with the secretary of state of the Vatican and urged Pope Francis — who was not in town — to consider visiting New York.
From there, it was on to the beautiful island of Capri, where there was no escaping the paparazzi: A video of the mayor and his 16-year-old son piloting a speedboat soon emerged online.
The highlight of his journey was a pair of stops in the small Italian villages where his grandparents once lived. The family was hailed as royalty, with banners hung on buildings, cakes decorated with their names and thousands of people crammed on the streets.
“I thank you for the gift of love and faith that sustains us,” de Blasio told a crowd at Sant’Agata de’ Goti. “We will use that strength each day.”
There was also one inevitable photo-op. Six months ago, de Blasio took heat for eating a slice of his city’s famed pizza with a knife and fork instead of using his hands like most New Yorkers. He defended the decision by saying that is how pizza is eaten in his ancestral homeland and, sure enough, was photographed eating it that way again in Naples as his daughter laughed.
The moment was greeted by the tabloids back home with an expected level of forgiveness. Tweeted the New York Daily News: “You’re still doing it wrong.”
By Frances D’Emilio and Jonathan Lemire. AP writer Colleen Barry in Milan also contributed to this report.