Politics & Government

Divider or uniter? New Yorkers recall Giuliani on race

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks at a Sept. 11 remembrance luncheon.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks at a Sept. 11 remembrance luncheon. Joe Burbank / MCT

WASHINGTON — As the pastor of a large church, former congressman Floyd Flake saw the positive effects in minority neighborhoods of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's crackdown on petty crimes.

"He did a phenomenal job of cleaning up crime in my neighborhood. The mayor responded extremely well to the community," said Flake, the pastor of the Greater A.M.E. Cathedral of New York in Queens and a former Democratic lawmaker who enthusiastically endorsed Giuliani for a second term in 1997.

But something has changed in Giuliani, Flake now says, and a mayor that New York Magazine once dubbed perhaps the only white politician who could get cheers in Harlem seemed to grow distant, even hostile, toward African-Americans.

"By the second term, I couldn't talk to him. Many people couldn't talk to him," Flake recalled. "He talked to almost no one in the African-American community. I don't believe he was accepting any counsel from anybody. It was like a war with him."

As the front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, Giuliani is presenting himself as a unifier who cut crime and restored a sense of civility to a hard-boiled city.

But many African-Americans recall Giuliani as a divider who exacerbated tensions by refusing to meet with African-American leaders — even elected ones — and stood solidly behind the city's police amid a series of violent, racially tinged incidents.

"There was a climate that police officers were willy-nilly violating civil rights with racial profiling and stop-and-search," said Michael Myers, the head of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. "It was a climate, a culture, the mayor could have changed, but he didn't. He has a 'however' record, very mixed, very disturbing from a standpoint of civil liberties and race."

Giuliani supporters say he's getting a bad rap.

They say that Giuliani's policies benefited poor minority communities that had long been taken for granted by the Democratic political machine that ran the city before Giuliani's election in 1993.

"History will read that Rudy Giuliani had an extraordinary tenure of reducing crime by historic proportion, reviving the local economy and bringing hundreds of thousands of jobs to the city," said Randy Mastro, who was Giuliani's chief of staff. "Some of the most profound effects were felt in the city's poorest and minority communities."

Rudy Washington, an African-American who was Giuliani's deputy mayor, said that Giuliani had good relations with the community, earning more than 20 percent of the African-American vote in 1997 in a heavily Democratic city.

"There was no race problem," Washington said. "All that stuff, it's from the usual suspects saying the same thing, and the press would run with it."

Giuliani supporters say that questions about race and him are a legacy of the bruising election battles he had in 1989 and 1993 with Democrat David Dinkins, who won the first election to become New York's first African-American mayor but lost the second.

New York always seemed perched on the racial edge in those years. Dinkins' term in City Hall was marked by a vicious yearlong boycott of a Korean greengrocer in Brooklyn by African-American activists.

Brooklyn's Crown Heights section — populated largely by Caribbean-American blacks and Orthodox Jews — exploded into three nights of rioting in August 1991 after a traffic accident involving a motorcade of a Hasidic grand rabbi killed a 7-year-old Guyanese boy. In retribution, an angry mob killed a 29-year-old Jewish student from Australia.

In 1993, Giuliani launched his second try at City Hall with the slogan, "One Standard, One City," a message that he wouldn't cater to special interests. He began his mayoralty in 1994 by rebuffing the Rev. Al Sharpton, a controversial African-American leader, after an incident in a Harlem mosque that involved police and Nation of Islam guards.

Stiffing Sharpton was one thing, but keeping elected African-American officials at arm's length was another, said Fran Reiter, another former Giuliani deputy mayor.

"That was one of his great mistakes as mayor," said Reiter, who supports New York Sen. Hillary Clinton for president. "The community he really didn't reach out to was Harlem. I believe he believed he could never win Harlem over because of his defeat of David Dinkins, so he didn't try. He felt it was lose-lose."

Former New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall said Giuliani wouldn't meet with him although he was a political fixture in the city and New York's only statewide African-American elected official.

"He did not show much sensitivity to diversity and issues in an urban setting such as New York," McCall said. "There was a sense in the city of polarization and alienation in the minority community."

That sense was heightened by three high-profile police incidents that solidified many African-Americans' belief that the New York Police Department had crossed the line with City Hall's blessing:

  • In August 1997, officers tortured and sodomized Abner Louima, a 30-year-old Haitian immigrant, with a broken broomstick in a Brooklyn police precinct bathroom.
  • In February 1999, four police officers fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo, killing the 22-year-old Guyanese immigrant, who they thought was a rape suspect. The four officers were acquitted on all charges.
  • More than a year later, an undercover narcotics detective police officer shot and killed Patrick Dorismond, a 26-year-old Haitian-American and unarmed off-duty security guard, after asking him if he had any crack cocaine.
  • In each case, Giuliani urged the public not to judge the police until the facts were known. In Dorismond's case, the mayor sought to sway public opinion by authorizing the release of the victim's sealed juvenile record and quipping that Dorismond wasn't an "altar boy."

    Dorismond had been an altar boy and had attended that same Roman Catholic high school that Giuliani attended.

    The Diallo shooting spurred massive protests outside New York's One Police Plaza. More than 1,000 people, including clergy, elected officials, former police officers and celebrities, lined up daily to get arrested in protest against what they believed was excessive racial-profiling by the NYPD.

    Flake said that Giuliani appeared unmoved by his story or his pleas for the mayor to make some overture to the African-American community in the wake of the Louima torture.

    In author Andrew Kirtzman’s book “Rudy Giuliani: Emperor of the City,” Flake reminded the mayor that prominent Harlem minister Calvin Butts accused him of being racist.

    “I won’t join Calvin and call you racist,” Flake told Giuliani, according to Kirtzman’s book, “because I just think you’re mean to everybody. . . . You’ve got a mean streak in you.”

    In response to the Louima incident, Giuliani established a 28-member Task Force on Police-Community Relations.

    Myers, a member, said that Giuliani appeared uninterested in the group. The mayor failed to show up at a Sept. 30, 1997, meeting that had been scheduled so he could hear from youths who claimed they’d been abused or disrespected by police officers.

    Mayor Giuliani attended a baseball playoff game at Yankee Stadium instead.