The New Identity Politics of Eric Adams

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Twelve years later, Adams governs in the style of this methodical police officer. He is “practically pragmatic,” he says — sometimes to the point of being ad hoc or reactive, as if he is following point A to point B to point C, wherever it may take him. In February, 40 days into his term, he wrote a speech about Jayquan McKenley, an 18-year-old rap artist who lost his life to gun violence in Brooklyn. The speech was about the system that “failed” McKenley, but it led Adams to explore the social media-driven world of “drill rap,” where posts have “bled out into violent real-world confrontations,” he said. He told reporters he had spoken about drill rap with his son, Jordan Coleman, a 26-year-old filmmaker and artist, and floated the idea of banning it altogether, much as Twitter had banned Donald Trump “because of what he was spewing.”

Except Coleman and his dad never discussed McKenley. Jordan had shown his dad videos of another drill rapper, Pop Smoke, back in 2019. “I’m like, ‘Dude! That was three years ago,’” Coleman told me. “You cannot ban a genre of music, Dad!” Soon after, rappers expressed alarm at a mayor threatening to eliminate (as if he had the power to do so) an entire form of music. Meanwhile, the father of Jayquan McKenley, the focus of the mayor’s initial speech at City Hall, was saying that Adams had inaccurately described his son as a struggling student. (Actually, McKenley’s dad told the Daily News, when Jayquan was living with him in North Carolina, he had done well in school. And this was true, but when Jayquan returned to New York, the mayor’s office said after reviewing city data, he had a long string of absences on his record.) Adams said he had written the speech based on city information, and had spoken with McKenley’s family before doing so. But he didn’t want to get in a back-and-forth with a grieving father. “What we don’t want to happen is the attempt to distort the spirit of what I’m saying,” Adams told a reporter of the father’s complaints. Five days after the speech, the episode drew to a close during a late-night meeting with drill rappers in City Hall. They agreed to collaborate with the mayor on preventing gun violence. Days later, an aide said, Adams flew McKenley’s father to New York on his own dime to get dinner with him, putting him up in a hotel.

On the one hand, the speech produced something of value in the end. On the other, it was a dizzying weeklong ordeal, exemplary of the kind of governing style that has been shaped by crisis after crisis, beginning with the killings of two police officers, Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora, a month into his tenure. “You have physically lost your brother,” Adams told Rivera’s family at the funeral in January, “but you have gained me as your brother.”

Adams entered the police force in 1984, after an early mentor, reverend and civil rights leader Herbert Daughtry, encouraged him to change the system from within. In his 30s, he became president of a Black officers association before founding his own group, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. Adams was quick to criticize the department, often for the cameras. “It’s pretty obvious to me that he was not very well liked within the ranks of NYPD leadership,” said Clayton Powell, the former assemblymember. “Because unfortunately, there’s that blue wall of silence and he just ran right through it and spoke out about police misconduct.”

The anger didn’t dissipate with time. Around 2005, Adams passed the test to become an NYPD captain. Norman Siegel, a First Amendment lawyer who has been friends with the mayor for 30 years, went to 1 Police Plaza to celebrate with the Adams family. At the ceremony, a senior NYPD spokesperson at the time came up to Siegel and asked why he was there. “Eric just became a captain,” Siegel replied. “It’s really a major accomplishment.” In response, the NYPD spokesperson started tearing into Adams. Siegel was aghast. “Can’t you just for a moment go over to his mom, at least,” he suggested to the NYPD officer, “and say, ‘You must be proud of your son,’ or something like that?” But no, Siegel recalled. “He couldn’t even do that.”

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