Mayor Bill de Blasio appealed for calm and peaceful protest Wednesday night as he signaled deep empathy with those angered by a grand jury decision not to indict an NYPD officer in the death of Eric Garner.
"It's profoundly personal to me," said de Blasio, reminding New Yorkers of his own 17-year-old biracial son as he addressed community members at a Tompkinsville, Staten Island, church where the Garner family worships.
Recounting a meeting not long before with Garner's father, who was "in unspeakable pain," the mayor said, "I couldn't help but immediately think what it would mean to me to lose Dante. Life could never be the same thereafter."
De Blasio, elected last year with strong support from black voters upset at police conduct they viewed as too aggressive, spoke of his own efforts to reshape police relations with minority communities. He pointed to a federal investigation and an internal inquiry by the NYPD on how Garner died after being placed in an apparent chokehold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo.
The mayor stopped short of voicing a direct judgment on the grand jury decision. Other officials who accompanied him did not hold back.
"Make no mistake, your eyes did not lie," said Public Advocate Letitia James, the city's highest-ranking black elected official.
"Every New Yorker has seen the video," James said, "and the Garner family has the right to understand why there was no indictment today, why the indictment we witnessed with our eyes should not be judged by a jury."
She called on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to appoint a special prosecutor in the Garner case and on Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan to petition a judge to unseal the grand jury records.
De Blasio -- who had originally planned to attend the festive lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree Wednesday night -- met with clergy and local officials at Mount Sinai United Christian Church, blocks from the scene of Garner's fatal encounter.
De Blasio said his efforts with Police Commissioner William J. Bratton to transform the NYPD "will take time, but that is not in any way an excuse or unwillingness on our part to do anything but the fastest change we can."
Embracing the slogan "black lives matter," he said somberly, "We are dealing with centuries of racism that have brought us to this day. That is how profound the problem is."
About his son, he said, "Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers that he may face" as a young man of color "because of a history that still hangs over us."
"We've had to literally train him as families had all over this city for decades on how to take special care in any encounter he has with police officers, who are there to protect him," the mayor said.
With demonstrators already filling the streets as he spoke, de Blasio said, "If you really want to dignify the life of Eric Garner, you will do so through peaceful protest, you will work relentlessly for change. You will not sully his name with violence or vandalism."
Garner's father, Ben, told him, de Blasio said, that "Eric would not have wanted violence. Violence will not get us anywhere." That was Ben Garner's sentiment, too, de Blasio said, and "I found it noble."
But de Blasio also discouraged complacency. "Anyone who believes in the values of our country should feel called to action right now," he said.
City Councilwoman Debi Rose (D-Staten Island), who represents the district where the confrontation took place, said she was shocked, angry and "profoundly disappointed" at the grand jury decision. The panel "looked through a different lens and didn't confirm the injustice that so many of us saw and hoped would be corrected by today's decision," she said.
Mount Sinai's pastor, Bishop Victor Brown, who advises the Garner family, said "justice took a hit tonight," but warned against senseless violence.
He welcomed calls for sweeping police reforms in the city and nation, and added, "Our efforts do not represent a blanket repudiation of the police department, for there are many fine and upstanding individuals."