An Old Friend Remembers David Dinkins

An Old Friend Remembers David Dinkins

By Tom Robbins
New Yorker

If there is a photo of the former New York City mayor David Dinkins campaigning, or walking up or down the City Hall steps, it is a good bet that Arnie Segarra is in the picture, usually close on Dinkins’s heels. He is the tall, slim man with a mop of dark hair, a jutting chin, and handsome face that looks like it may have taken a few punches. He might be holding an umbrella over the mayor’s gray curls, or a thick clutch of briefing papers. Segarra’s formal title was Special Assistant to the Mayor. These days, he would likely be referred to as a body man, the guy who makes sure his boss has what he needs, and who clears a path to make sure that there are no surprises.

Dinkins and Segarra first met in 1967, when Segarra was working in City Hall as a community liaison for Mayor John Lindsay. A colleague suggested that he should get to know Dinkins, a Howard and Brooklyn Law School graduate who was serving in the New York State Assembly. Segarra, who is Puerto Rican and who started out as a community activist in East Harlem, said that he recognized a kindred spirit in Dinkins. “He understood this city. He told me he wanted to work for the city as a whole, to be a voice for the unheard, the hidden figures,” Segarra, who is seventy-eight, recalled last week from his apartment in the West Village, where he is riding out the pandemic. That was the start of fifty-three years of friendship, which ended last month when Dinkins, who served a single term as New York City’s mayor, from 1990 to 1993, died at age ninety-three.

New York’s first Black mayor was few people’s notion of a militant. He was dapper and soft-spoken, courteous to a fault, a man whose mornings began with a round of tennis and whose evenings often included a black-tie event. A former marine, he had a habit of greeting almost every man he encountered as “buddy.” The reforms that Dinkins put in place—housing for the homeless, longer hours for libraries, schools, health clinics, and recreation centers—enhanced the quality of life for all New Yorkers. But hostility from those who resented the presence of a Black man in the city’s top office remained an occupational hazard. “The hate messages would pour into City Hall,” Segarra said. “He was always under that pressure, but he dealt with it with civility and compassion.”

Dinkins served for almost a decade as city clerk, a largely ceremonial post but one that still provided opportunities to improve the circumstances of those denied equality. In the early nineteen-eighties, Segarra said that he was visiting his friend at his office, in the Municipal Building, when Dinkins took a call. “He gets off the phone and says, ‘Come on, we’re going up to Mount Sinai hospital.’ ” At the hospital, Dinkins led Segarra down a corridor to a room where nurses were huddled outside. Segarra recalled, “They start telling Dave, ‘Don’t go in there, this patient has aids. You could get sick—you could die.’ ” Dinkins was undeterred. The patient and his male partner, Segarra recalled, had summoned Dinkins to marry them. This was one of Dinkins’s chief powers as city clerk, and a ritual that he relished. He proceeded to perform the ceremony at the patient’s bedside. “It wasn’t legal then, of course,” Segarra said. “But he wanted to do it for them.”

Dinkins’s road to City Hall began with his election, in 1985, as Borough President of Manhattan. Segarra was one of his first hires. Another key aide was a veteran labor organizer named Bill Lynch, who helped nudge the cautious Dinkins to consider a run for City Hall. Jesse Jackson’s strong local showing in the 1988 Democratic Presidential primary helped him decide to take the plunge.

Dinkins was in the midst of his mayoral primary campaign when the city was stunned by a murder. On August 23rd, 1989, a crowd of bat-wielding whites beat and shot to death a sixteen-year-old Black boy named Yusuf Hawkins, in the largely white neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. In the wake of the killing, Dinkins went to the neighborhood to meet with civic leaders. Segarra recalled, “We are walking down the street and these folks are following us and shouting, “Go back to Africa.’ ” Segarra grew nervous. “Dave said, ‘Don’t worry, I got this.’ ” When they arrived at the spot where Dinkins was to speak, he turned to address his pursuers. “The first words out of his mouth are, ‘I am going to be your mayor, too.’ There was just this silence then.”

Dinkins’s pledge to salve the city’s racial wounds helped him triumph in the primary over the three-term incumbent, Ed Koch, who had stumbled badly in responding to the city’s racial strife and whose third term was plagued by a major municipal-corruption scandal. In the general election, Dinkins narrowly defeated the Republican, Rudy Giuliani, who had risen to fame as the hard-charging federal prosecutor who convicted top figures in the scandal.

But, even as mayor, Dinkins was often met with racial animosity in the city’s white neighborhoods. He had served for slightly more than a year in City Hall when, in March, 1991, he went to Staten Island, a largely white borough that had voted overwhelmingly for Giuliani, to march in the local St. Patrick’s Day parade. A few parade-watchers greeted him warmly and offered embraces. But Segarra recalled that there were also jeers and racial taunts. “There is this guy standing there holding a baby and he is yelling ‘Nigger, go home,’ ” Segarra said. “Dave walks over to the man. ‘Say it to my face,’ he told him. The guy just stood there. And Dave says, ‘How can you say that while holding your child?’ ”
“When he wanted to be, he was one tough Marine,” Segarra said. “When he had a certain look on his face, you just stopped.”

The public rarely glimpsed that side of Dinkins during his years in City Hall. He was better known for his stoic reserve and a reluctance to raise his voice. In a city that celebrated Koch-style brazenness, his tolerance was often interpreted as timidity or weakness. That was especially true in the wake of the Crown Heights riots of 1991, which occurred after a car in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher rebbe, the leader of the neighborhood’s large Orthodox Jewish population, struck two Black children and killed one of them. As Dinkins later acknowledged, police were too slow to respond; a rabbinical student was stabbed to death during the riots, an incident that would come to define his mayoralty.

The closest the mayor came to a public display of outrage was in September, 1992, when thousands of mostly white city police officers held a raucous and beer-fuelled rally at City Hall, to protest Dinkins’s efforts to allow civilians to review complaints of police misconduct. Off-duty cops stopped traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, rushed past barricades to seize the steps of City Hall, tossed racial slurs at a Black councilwoman, and held signs condemning the mayor. “Dinkins, we know your true color—yellowbellied,” one read. “Dump the Washroom attendant,” read another. Giuliani spoke from a platform with police-union leaders and cheered on the crowd. Dinkins’s police-reform efforts, he shouted, were “bullshit.”

Dinkins was away from City Hall during the mini-riot, but, upon his return, he was livid. “He was shaken. His reaction was that it was just racist,” Segarra recalled. Still, Dinkins reached for terms that tempered his feelings. The police protest, he told the press, was “bordering on hooliganism.” Giuliani, he said, was “seizing upon a fragile circumstance in our city for his own political gain.”

The following year, when Giuliani made his second run for City Hall, crime was his main theme. Race, however, often seemed to be his subtext. “No one group can have all their agenda,” he said repeatedly on the campaign stump, an unsubtle suggestion that Dinkins favored Black New Yorkers. Giuliani claimed that the mayor had tilted against the police, and had failed to punish criminals. In fact, crime had started to fall for the first time in years in the city, thanks to Dinkins’s efforts to put five thousand more police on the streets and his hiring of a capable new police commissioner named Ray Kelly.

The results were again close, but this time Giuliani was ahead by fifty-three thousand votes. When the election was called, Segarra was with Dinkins in a crowded room at the Sheraton New York Hotel, on Seventh Avenue. Reports had come in during the day that off-duty police officers had been present at some polls, warning voters that they risked deportation for voting illegally. Some of those in the room urged Dinkins to demand a recount. Segarra recalled that Dinkins shook his head and said, “No, I don’t want a divided city.” The defeated mayor then went downstairs and urged his supporters to help Giuliani to be “as good a mayor as he can be.” It was time to move forward, he told them. “We have made history,” he said. “Nothing can ever take that away from us.”

After his years in City Hall, Dinkins settled quietly into the role of a civic statesman. He taught at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, which later added a chair in his name. He also hosted a talk show, “Dialogue with Dinkins,” on the Black-oriented station WLIB, and wrote a memoir of his career. He kept up his tennis game as well, switching to doubles, which a friend said was easier at his age, and lent his name to numerous causes that sought his endorsement. In 2015, the Municipal Building where he had worked as clerk and borough president was renamed in his honor. Dinkins told the small audience at the ceremony that he had tried to stand for “government that lifts us all up and does not beat any of us down, that inspires rather than discourages.”

Segarra remained close with his former boss, speaking at least once a week, and celebrating Christmas together. In October, he called to console Dinkins after the death of his wife, Joyce, at age eighty-nine. The couple had been married for sixty-seven years. “His voice was breaking a bit, but he was holding up,” Segarra said. A few days before Dinkins died, on November 23rd, the two old friends planned a socially distant visit for the following Saturday. Segarra told me, “He said, ‘I’ll see you then, buddy.’ ”

Tom Robbins, an investigative journalist in residence at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY and a contributing writer at the Marshall Project, has been a columnist and staff writer at the Village Voice, the Daily News, and the Observer.


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