The brief video clip, widely circulated on social media and on the national news, seemed to capture a wanton act of police brutality: One police cruiser, and then a second, jolting into a crowd of protesters in Brooklyn, sending people sprawling across the street.
But Mayor Bill de Blasio’s conflicted response to the incident highlighted the challenges he has faced in managing a crisis rooted in issues he has long pledged to tackle in New York City: racial discrimination, police abuses and inequality.
At a news conference on Sunday, the mayor called for an investigation, but also took pains to try to explain the officers’ actions, saying that the situation “was created by a group of protesters blocking and surrounding a police vehicle, a tactic that we had seen before in the last few days, a tactic that can be very, very dangerous to everyone involved.”
He added: “And we’ve seen direct attacks on police officers, including in their vehicles.”
At different points in his tenure, Mr. de Blasio’s efforts to turn his campaign pledges into policy and practice have been stymied, often frustrating many in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, whose dissatisfaction with the mayor has mounted.
Several of his former aides took the remarkable step of voicing their displeasure publicly on Twitter, in addition to privately discussing the mayor’s actions in a separate thread, according to two people involved in those conversations.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the nation’s best known progressive leader, said “defending and making excuses” for the Police Department was wrong, and that the mayor would be better served by trying to de-escalate tensions in the city.
“Running SUVs in crowds of people should never, ever be normalized,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx, wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “No matter who does it, no matter why.”
New York City, like many cities around the nation, was convulsed with furious protests after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis on Monday; the demonstrations came as the city was still under lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 20,000 lives in the city.
By Sunday evening, more than 786 people had been arrested in New York City, according to John Miller, the city’s counterterrorism chief. Early Sunday morning, the police said 33 officers had been injured and 47 police vehicles had been damaged or destroyed, several of them set on fire. More than a dozen stores in Lower Manhattan were also looted.
Mr. de Blasio’s response seemed like a careful balancing act: trying to support police officers who have been subject to violence themselves while also acknowledging the police abuses, especially against black and Hispanic men, that he highlighted as a major campaign issue when he first ran for mayor.
As a mayoral candidate in 2013, Mr. de Blasio vowed to reform a Police Department that, under his predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, had prioritized using stop-and-frisk tactics against New Yorkers of color. Mr. de Blasio made his African-American wife, Chirlane McCray, and their children central to his campaign.
In one ad that was credited with winning over voters, his son, Dante de Blasio, tells viewers his father will “end a stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color.” (Mr. de Blasio would later echo the theme during his abortive run for the presidency, bragging that he was the only person on the debate stage who had been “raising a black son in America.”)
By the time Mr. de Blasio entered City Hall, the work of ending stop-and-frisk had largely been accomplished; under immense legal and public pressure, Mr. Bloomberg drastically reduced the use of the practice during his final months in office.
But two major crises involving the Police Department immediately tested Mr. de Blasio’s resolve.
That summer, police officers killed Eric Garner in Staten Island while arresting him for selling untaxed cigarettes. That episode was captured on camera, and Mr. Garner’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for protesters around the country.
A Staten Island grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against the officer who used a chokehold against Mr. Garner; Mr. de Blasio angered the police when he sought to empathize with the Garner family and their supporters, disclosing how he had instructed Dante “on how to take special care” when dealing with the police, and described his own private worry over whether his son was safe at night.
Less than three weeks later, a man traveled from Baltimore to Brooklyn, seeking retribution for Mr. Garner’s death. The man, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, fatally shot two police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, while they sat in their patrol car.
The head of the city’s largest police union said at the time that the mayor had blood on his hands. At the funerals for Officers Liu and Ramos, hundreds of rank-and-file officers turned their backs on the mayor.
The killings and their aftermath seemed to mark a turning point in Mr. de Blasio’s relationship with the police. He sought to mend those rifts, softening his rhetoric and meeting with union officials to find common ground.
To the anger of some of his supporters, he resisted calls to fire the officer involved in the Garner death, Daniel Pantaleo, only doing so five years later after a police administrative judge found Mr. Pantaleo guilty of violating a department ban on chokeholds.
After Mr. Floyd was killed in Minneapolis last week, Mr. de Blasio was quick to denounce the death, saying that the officers involved should face criminal charges. But when protests against the killing erupted in New York, he was slower to respond, offering no plan or action to quell the tensions.
“When Eric Garner was killed, there was outreach to the family and the community was updated with response tactics for peaceful protests,” said Rachel Noerdlinger, a former aide to Mr. de Blasio and Ms. McCray. “There was not this level of aggressive and illegal policing against protesters.”
Ms. Noerdlinger has not criticized Mr. de Blasio since she left his administration more than five years ago. After watching his news conference in Brooklyn late Saturday night in which he addressed the protests, she said she woke up “with this feeling in my gut of just disappointment.”
“New York City now looks worse than some other places with a nonprogressive mayor, quite frankly,” Ms. Noerdlinger added.
Freddi Goldstein, the mayor’s press secretary, said there was “no New York City mayor in modern history who has done more to reform the N.Y.P.D. and breed trust between police and communities” than Mr. de Blasio. She cited a reduction in arrests and implicit bias training.
“There is more work to be done, but you can’t ignore the progress that’s been made,” Ms. Goldstein said.
Yet for other left-leaning New Yorkers who had already become disillusioned with Mr. de Blasio, the events of recent days were nonetheless disappointing.
“This is not what we campaigned on in 2013,” said Rebecca Kirszner Katz, one of Mr. de Blasio’s top advisers on his mayoral campaign.
Jonathan Rosen, once one of Mr. de Blasio’s closest advisers, used two expletives on Twitter in reacting to the mayor’s comments on Saturday; the day before, he had longingly suggested that the mayor and police commissioner of Atlanta could relocate to New York.
Richard R. Buery Jr., a former deputy mayor under Mr. de Blasio who is credited with implementing universal prekindergarten, the mayor’s signature accomplishment, said in an interview that “too much of the response to the incident is “about what the protesters are doing wrong.”
“The problem here is that we know that if someone assaults the police, there is a reasonable expectation of justice and accountability,” he said. “What these protests are about are that the opposite isn’t true. If a black person is killed by the police, there can be no reasonable expectation that the police officer is going to be held accountable.”
William J. Bratton, Mr. de Blasio’s first police commissioner, said it was too soon to judge Mr. de Blasio’s handling of this current crisis.
Mr. de Blasio, he said, is in the unenviable position of having to face several profound challenges at once, including a pandemic, a severe economic decline and the uncertainties surrounding the presidential election.
“It’s like you have five, six, seven tornadoes all converging from different directions,” Mr. Bratton said.
Mr. Bratton also said it is “extraordinarily difficult” to campaign as a police reformer and then have to maintain alliances with reform advocates after taking office.
“He’s wrestled for six years with what is the right level of control,” Mr. Bratton said.
On Sunday afternoon, the mayor addressed one piece of criticism leveled from, among others, the City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, who asked on Twitter in reference to a video of police clashes with protesters in Brooklyn, “Where is the mayor?”
Just before 5 p.m., Mr. de Blasio appeared in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, along with Councilman Robert E. Cornegy Jr., talking to residents about their concerns. He later headed to Flatbush, Brooklyn, to do the same with Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte.
As Mr. de Blasio has grappled with the protests, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who frequently asserts his control over New York City, has appeared cautious about injecting himself into the fray.
While he called the videos of the New York City protests disturbing and condemned the violence, he stopped short of passing judgment on the officers’ actions, instead leaving it to the state attorney general to conduct a review and issue a report within 30 days.
“If that review looks at those videos and finds that there was improper police conduct, there will be ramifications,” Mr. Cuomo said. “That is not going to be a report that just sits on the shelf. This is a moment of reform.”
Luis Ferré-Sadurní contributed reporting from Albany, N.Y.