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Setting for chokehold case: NYC’s outsider borough

December 5, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) — The difference between Staten Island and the rest of New York City fuel both resentment and pride.

Now, those differences are in the spotlight as the whole city wrestles with the fractious aftermath of a Staten Island grand jury’s decision to clear a white police officer in the chokehold death of an unarmed black man. There were several disruptive protests in Manhattan, but little unrest on Staten Island.

By far the least populated of the city’s five boroughs, with about 472,000 residents, Staten Island is the most conservative and least racially diverse, dominated by homeowners rather than renters, and home to many current and retired police officers. It’s the only borough not connected to the subway system.

“There’s definitely an outsider culture to the place,” said professor Richard Flanagan, who has taught American politics at the College of Staten Island since 1999.

“It’s an inferiority complex plus a social solidarity defined by the differences from the rest of the city,” he said. “The city’s scorn is met with a certain pride.”

Given its name, in Dutch, by explorer Henry Hudson in 1609, Staten Island grew into a collection of separate villages before being merged into New York City in 1898.

That didn’t produce lasting amicability. A campaign for Staten Island to secede from the city gained momentum in the 1980s and was backed by 65 percent of voters in a 1993 referendum before it stalled.

Just last month, several Staten Island politicians boycotted ceremonies celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which links the island to Brooklyn, due to bitterness over ever-rising tolls.

Aside from the bridge, the only direct public transit route to the rest of the city is via the Staten Island Ferry. More than 20 million people ride the ferries each year — there’s no fee — but most of the tourists who arrive from Lower Manhattan get right back on for the return ride, spending neither time nor money on Staten Island.

Demographically, Staten Island stands apart from the rest of the city. According to the 2010 census, it’s the only borough where non-Hispanic whites make up a majority — 64 percent, including many with Italian and Irish ancestry. It had the lowest percentage of blacks at 9.5 percent.

The racial composition of the grand jury that cleared police Officer Daniel Pantaleo has not been disclosed, and residents differed on whether its decision might have reflected the borough’s racial fault lines.

“It was predictable,” said Bill Johnsen, a white activist who was upset that there was no indictment. He depicted Staten Island as “a bastion of police and firefighters and a conservative ideology.”

Flanagan, the political science professor, said Staten Island may suffer unfairly from comparisons to the other boroughs.

“Staten Island is very different from New York City, but it’s much like the rest of the country on average, in terms of its politics and lifestyle,” Flanagan said. “In a lot of ways, it’s the rest of the city that’s the outlier.”

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Associated Press writers David Crary and Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.

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