A Mayor Under Siege

They say you can't fight City Hall. In New York, you can't even get near the door. That's because Rudy Giuliani, the city's hard-nosed mayor, closed the building to the public last year and barricaded himself inside, in what he says is an effort to thwart terrorists. But last week the mayor's fortress seemed more like a bunker. Across the street a thousand people--including Jesse Jackson and the actress Susan Sarandon--had been arrested to protest the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant shot 19 times by police. Giuliani's long-enviable approval ratings had hit an all-time low. His police chief was taking flak for jetting off to the Oscars during the crisis, and the governor was publicly telling Giuliani, a fellow Republican, to get his act together. By late last week, the mayor had agreed to add more minority cops to his aggressive Street Crime Unit--but that didn't stop some protesters from comparing him to Hitler.

How had Giuliani--national symbol of safer streets and an early favorite for the U.S. Senate--allowed a local tragedy to turn into a prime-time crisis? The mayor said his enemies were using Diallo's death for political sport, and in some cases he had a point. After all, murders are down 70 percent under Giuliani, and the rate of fatal police shootings is lower than in such cities as Chicago and Dallas. But after two high-profile incidents in minority neighborhoods--first the beating of a black man whom officers allegedly sodomized with a plunger, and now this--Giuliani went on the defensive. Refusing at first to condemn the four cops, he said instead: "We all have to wait and react to facts." Seven weeks later the officers are about to be indicted for murder--and Giuliani's leadership is on trial.

The mayor has been quick to take credit for New York's "zero tolerance" policing--and now he's taking the fire. The backlash began in 1997 with Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, whom four cops allegedly tortured by shoving a plunger into his rectum and mouth. "It's Giuliani time," one of the cops was said to have announced. Louima later rescinded that part, but the false quote reflected a growing sense in minority neighborhoods that the mayor was responsible for the cops' anything-goes attitude. The mayor responded by convening a blue-ribbon panel to suggest changes in the department, then mocking its criticisms as trivial.

Resentment was still simmering on Feb. 4, when Diallo, who sold tapes and compact discs from a street stand, was shot in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building. Plainclothes cops from the Street Crime Unit fired 41 times. The killing plunged black neighborhoods into despair and outrage, but Giuliani refused to criticize the cops. He reached out to Diallo's family, but the gestures of good will were eclipsed by his announcement, on the day that Diallo's body was flown back to Guinea, that officers would now be issued deadly hollow-point bullets.

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Why the apparent insensitivity? It may have had something to do with the Rev. Al Sharpton--a marquee name on what Giuliani's critics call the mayor's "enemies list." Giuliani sent a car to retrieve Diallo's mother at the airport and offered to pay for the burial. But she barely had time to unpack her things at the swank Stanhope Hotel on Fifth Avenue before Sharpton had arrived to take control and send the cops home. The way Sharpton remembers it, he was called to the hotel, and when he arrived Diallo's mother told him: "I know who you are. I know what you do. Would you get these police away from me? They killed my son."

Giuliani tried repeatedly to see the family, to no avail. He stopped in at the funeral at a Manhattan mosque but was jeered. At one point Diallo's mother kept the mayor waiting in a hotel lobby for an hour, only to stand him up. While Giuliani seethed, Sharpton began organizing daily protests, blocking the doors at police headquarters. The mayor called the demonstrators "silly" and ordered their arrests. It was a miscalculation. Scenes of black protesters being taken away in plastic handcuffs persuaded a formidable lineup of mainstream black leaders--people like former mayor David Dinkins and U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel--to join Sharpton's daily crusade.

Next came legions of gays and lesbians, lawyers and even 15 rabbis. As Giuliani maintained his stony facade, refusing to meet with black elected officials from the city and state, Sharpton blossomed into an unlikely hero. "Reverend Al, I'm not with you on everything," said one white construction worker who shook his hand, "but I sure as hell am with you on this one." By the second week of protests, activists were already planning a nostalgic "Freedom Summer '99" to restore civil rights in New York as they once had in Birmingham, Ala.--casting Giuliani in the role of Bull Connor.

It's an unfair comparison, and hypocritical. After all, few of the white liberals who love to hate Rudy have complained about falling crime rates, and most voted him back into office. And the drop in violence has been most beneficial in black and Latino neighborhoods, where the vast majority of crimes occur. But the random traffic stops and street frisks in poor neigh-borhoods have at times stretched the boundaries of civil liberties. While crime has plummeted, civilian complaints have soared almost 40 percent since 1993; in the past two years, more than 45,000 have been stopped and searched, but 37,000 were released without charges. In that time, the amount the city has paid to settle charges of police abuse has doubled.

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Fear of crime is down; fear of the cops is rising. Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx borough president, says his 20-year-old daughter was stopped in her car, and the officers never flashed a badge. "I've always told her that if strange men get out of the car and approach her, hit the gas pedal," Ferrer says. "If she had, we could've been reading about her." Giuliani and his police chief, Howard Safir, are now re-evaluating the need for all the searches, an aide says. But, says the mayor, "this is about the best that urban policing gets. With all the problems, there hasn't been a group of people in America who've figured out any way to do it better."

By last weekend, Giuliani was at last trying to contain the damage. Safir announced that 50 minority cops would be added to the Street Crime Unit in place of white officers, and the entire unit would be put into uniform, so people know who they are. In addition, Giuliani was finally meeting with elected black officials, and he admitted he had made a mistake in not doing so earlier.

But the mayor's political Achilles' heel--the same stubbornness that made him a brilliant prosecutor--had done its damage. "He only knows one speed and one direction--right over you," says a city official. Even one of Giuliani's supporters, Liberal Party head Ray Harding, admits, "Dale Carnegie wouldn't hurt." Giuliani isn't likely to change, and as long as he stays walled up in Fort City Hall, he probably won't have to. But running for Senate--especially against the likes of Hillary Clinton--will be a tougher task if he can't put the Diallo controversy behind him first. And if Giuliani isn't careful, he'll have to add another name to his alleged enemies list: his own.

A Mayor Under Siege | News