NEW YORK - Mayor Bill de Blasio, a liberal Democrat who vowed to bridge New York's divides over race and wealth, is struggling to balance the need for policing and unfair treatment of black people following a grand jury's decision not to indict a white police officer in the chokehold death of an unarmed black man.
De Blasio, of Italian descent and married to a black woman with whom he has two children, defused a first night of protests across New York City on Wednesday with a balance of restrained policing and by showing he was listening, political experts said.
De Blasio's initial comments following the decision, that the outcome was one "many in our city did not want," showed angry and disappointed New Yorkers that he shared their feelings, said David Birdsell, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the City University of New York's Baruch College.
"When you think about what sparks violence in these situations, it's that notion that you're just washing up against the rocks of bureaucracy with no hope of changing that shoreline," said Birdsell. "What de Blasio showed is that there's somebody there listening."
Not all New Yorkers were as impressed by de Blasio's words.
Patrick Lynch, the head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association police union, said he believed that de Blasio had failed to support police after the decision. "Police officers feel like they have been thrown under the bus," Lynch said.
More demonstrations are expected in the coming days as city residents vent their anger over the death of 43-year-old Eric Garner in July and the decision by the grand jury in the borough of Staten Island.
"There's a difference between saying we should respect our officers, which of course we should ... versus the reality that so many parents have felt that unfortunately their child might confront unfair treatment," de Blasio said on Thursday when asked to respond to Lynch's comments.
The mayor delivered a strong call for retraining city police.
De Blasio made his reaction to Garner's death personal by referring to his son Dante, saying he has been warned by his parents to take "special care in any encounters" with police officers. "The fact that he was able to take that pain and personalize it in the context of his own family ... was enormously important," Birdsell said.
Admittedly, experts said, the course of protests in the days ahead in New York could change, as organizers assess strategies, people's emotions sink in. "Who's to say?" said Birdsell. "But I think that's so much less likely because of the response on the first night."