Understanding the history of New York’s "forgotten borough" puts the Eric Garner case in an important context: suburbia.
Last Wednesday, after a Staten Island grand jury decided against indicting police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the killing of Eric Garner, a quote from the August 8 edition of the New York Times quickly resurfaced. In the piece, which was written almost a month after Garner’s July 17 death, right around when legal proceedings were getting underway, the Times had spoken to Joel Berger, a New York City civil rights lawyer. Berger explained that the criminal justice system is often ill-equipped to handle questions of police brutality. This is, the Times wrote, “particularly true in places like Staten Island, where support for the police is so strong.”
“There’s always the possibility, Staten Island being Staten Island, that they won’t indict,” Mr. Berger said.
Staten Island being Staten Island? The Washington Post ran this quote before digging into the data on New York City’s “forgotten borough,” which indeed confirmed that Staten Island is one of the metro’s whitest and most conservative regions. “The pro-police stats that show why Eric Garner’s killer got away with it,” ran a headline on Daily Dot that also used the quote. Berger’s prescience got some attention on social media, as well:
Still, Staten Island is part of a city that recently elected one of the more progressive politicians in mainstream politics. Is it really that much of an outlier?
First, the Washington Post gets it right on demographics, though it fails on the follow-through. According to the 2010 Census, 64 percent of Staten Island is non-Hispanic white; 10 percent is black. That’s a pretty stark divergence from the demographics of New York City at large, which is 33 percent non-Hispanic white and nearly 26 percent black. The island is also indeed more conservative than the rest of the city, particularly in local and state-level politics. (It just re-elected this guy, who threatened to throw a reporter off a balcony on camera and will also stand trial for 20 counts of fraud, federal tax evasion, and perjury this month.) But given that we can't be sure who served on Officer Pantaleo’s grand jury trial (and indeed, are unlikely to discover that in the future), to draw conclusions about the jurors based on Staten Island's ethnic and political makeup is to make too many assumptions.
It is true, however, that the borough is also home to many cops: According to urban historians Daniel Kramer and Richard Flanagan’s history of Staten Island, 22 percent of residents work for the city government as cops, teachers, firefighters, and so on, compared to just 15 percent of New Yorkers. The borough also shows unparalleled support for the police: An August Quinnipiac University poll [PDF] found that 73 percent of Staten Islanders approve of the way the New York City police are doing their job, compared to 53 percent of city residents. “A majority of people don’t understand what officers face on a daily basis,” a retired Staten Island police detective told the Times Thursday in a piece appropriately titled “Outcome of Eric Garner Case Bares a Staten Island Divide."
So why is Staten Island so different from the rest of the city? And then, perhaps more crucially: What does that have to do with what happened to Eric Garner?
First, you need to know that Staten Island is geographically and, arguably, culturally closer to New Jersey than the rest of New York City. There are three bridges that connect the borough to Chris Christie’s domain; only one, the Verrazano, spans the Narrows between Staten Island and Brooklyn. It’s also important to note that the Brooklyn-Staten Island connector was built in 1964, a good 36 years after the first New Jersey bridge was completed, though the borough had already been part of the larger city for nearly 70 years. And Staten Island is still not connected to New York City’s sprawling subway system (though it does have a ferry).
Staten Island is also an island of homeowners in a city of renters, which undoubtedly affects its politics. Kramer and Flanagan, the historians, note that 71 percent of Staten Island’s housing is occupied by homeowners, leaving 29 percent to renters. In New York City at large, those ratios are almost completely reversed: 34 percent are homeowners, and 66 percent are renters. Staten Island is also dominated by families, with 56 percent of its households headed by married couples, compared to 36 percent in NYC.
The island’s development history explains some of these numbers. Its population, which exploded after the completion of the Verrazano, became increasingly composed of ex-Brooklynites in search of suburbia-lite: larger homes, green lawns, a garage. There was a racial component to the Staten Island exodus, too. The opening of the Verrazano coincided with a wave of violent civil disturbances. In July of 1964, the killing of a 15-year old black teenager by a white off-duty police officer sparked six days of riots in the majority black neighborhoods of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. These events had a deep and lasting impact on the racial geography of New York City, not least because many Irish and Italian Brooklynites decided to abandon their apartments for a newly accessible borough. As Kramer and Flanagan write, “‘White flight’ … is one of the primary causes of the [Staten Island] population boom after the opening of the Verrazano Bridge in 1964.”
Does that story sound familiar? It should. The story of Staten Island mirrors the story of so many major American suburbs. It happened in New York City and Detroit and Minneapolis and Philadelphia and Los Angeles and in nearly every other major city in this country.
“Staten Island numbers, in terms of partisanship and ideology, match up pretty well with the rest of the country,” Flanagan told public radio host Brian Lehrer in 2012. “It looks pretty ordinary.”
“Staten Island being Staten Island” is an attractive thought, particularly to New Yorkers, because it allows them to imagine that what happened to Eric Garner occurred in a somewhat farther away, vaguely distant land. If Staten Island is truly just a little more racist than the rest of the city, then that at least offers an explanation in this case. But the data, of course, show that police brutality is a nationwide problem, one that's compounded by just how poorly the authorities keep track of how often they injure and kill. Staten Island isn't the New York exception; in all probability, it's the rule.