Concerns about Mayor De Blasio's (slow) response after imam killed

Mayor Bill De Blasio speaks next to young family members of one of the victims during the funeral service of Imam Maulama Akonjee, and Thara Uddin in the Queens borough of New York City, August 15, 2016. — Reuters pic
Mayor Bill De Blasio speaks next to young family members of one of the victims during the funeral service of Imam Maulama Akonjee, and Thara Uddin in the Queens borough of New York City, August 15, 2016. — Reuters pic

NEW YORK, Aug 16 — In the hours after an imam and his assistant were shot dead on a Queens street Saturday, several elected officials rushed to the scene.

They sought to reassure the community, amid fears that the two men were killed because of their religion, in a climate when anti-Muslim sentiment has been percolating across the nation.

Among the officials were the City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Democrat; the local councilman, Eric Ulrich, a Republican; and the only Muslim member of the council, I. Daneek Miller, a Democrat.

Mayor Bill de Blasio was not among them.

It took the mayor more than 24 hours to issue a written statement on the killings, and a full two days before he addressed the community, during funeral prayers for the two men yesterday.

The mayor, a Democrat, received applause during his short speech, not far from the imam’s Ozone Park mosque, which seemed to soothe some of the unease over the pace of his response.

But the episode underscores a question of judgment for de Blasio that his predecessors also faced: When does a situation warrant a mayor’s presence?

“It’s good to see the mayor here today, but I couldn’t believe it took him so long,” said Md Shimul Hasan, 36, who attended the funeral prayers, expressing a complaint that was repeated by several others present.

“It’s been days already.

“We’re in mourning.”

The imam, Alauddin Akonjee, 55, and his assistant, Thara Miah, 64, were shot after leaving Akonjee’s mosque around 1:50pm Saturday.

A day later, the Queens borough president, Melinda Katz, and the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, both Democrats, visited the neighborhood and held a news conference near the mosque.

Eric F. Phillips, the mayor’s top spokesman, said that “within hours” of the shootings, de Blasio’s senior Muslim community liaison, Sarah Sayeed, was at the mosque, and she remained in the community over the weekend, including meeting with the victims’ widows Sunday.

Phillips said the mayor was immediately briefed about the situation, and he stayed in touch with the police and his community affairs team over the weekend.

“The situation was far too fluid and unknown in the immediate hours after these killings for it to be productive to have the mayor himself on-site,” Phillips said, adding that as the mayor’s spokesman he released City Hall’s initial response to the shootings Saturday night, in an emailed statement to reporters saying that de Blasio was monitoring the police investigation.

The mayor did not talk to members of the victims’ families over the weekend, Phillips said; the only phone call that de Blasio made to a Muslim leader was to Miller.

(He said the mayor called him Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.)

Phillips said the mayor marched in the Dominican Day Parade in Midtown Manhattan on Sunday, then left for Connecticut to visit relatives.

The mayor did not talk to any other Muslim leaders or to members of the victims’ families during the weekend, Phillips said.

William T. Cunningham, a political strategist and former adviser to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, said “If the mayor was in the city on Sunday for a parade, I’m a little surprised that his staff didn’t think it was important to get him out at least to touch base with community leaders in that part of Queens.”

“This is what mayors really get paid for,” he added.

“They get paid for the weekends and the nighttimes when there’s a tragedy. A lot of people expect the mayor to be there, to be on the scene.”

To be fair, Bloomberg, a billionaire who was often out of town, met fierce criticism in his third term when the city was hit by a snowstorm while he was away.

Mayor John V. Lindsay, who had his own problems with snowstorms, won praise for going to Harlem after the assassination of the Reverand Martin Luther King Jr.; his presence was credited with helping to avert riots.

Yesterday, de Blasio was introduced to mourners as “our great mayor” and he received applause, especially when he vowed to bring the killer to justice.

Kobir Chowdhury, the president of Masjid Al-Aman, who took the podium after the mayor, mentioned that Mark-Viverito visited the neighborhood Saturday.

“We really appreciate her visit,” he said.

Miller said that in his calls with de Blasio over the weekend, they spoke about the need to be cautious in reacting to the double homicide, which many believe is a hate crime.

“I think that it was adequate,” Miller said about the mayor’s response.

“And if it was something otherwise, I would have called him personally to say you could do a little bit more.”

Late last night, at a news conference to discuss the investigation, de Blasio emphasised the extraordinary nature of the crime.

“It’s a very rare thing to see a cleric killed,” he said. — New York Times

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