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Staten Island, chokehold case setting, is NYC’s ‘outsider’ borough

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, with its high tolls, connects the island to Brooklyn.Associated Press/File

NEW YORK — Whether it’s geography, demography, politics, or a certain chip-on-the shoulder attitude, there are multiple degrees of separation between Staten Island and the rest of New York City.

The differences fuel both resentment and pride on the island, and they’re now 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.

Protesters around the country rallied for a third day Friday over the jury’s decision. Hundreds of protesters marched and many briefly laid down in Macy’s flagship store, Grand Central Terminal, and an Apple store. They streamed along Fifth Avenue sidewalks and other parts of Manhattan, with signs and chants of ‘‘Black lives matter’’ and ‘‘I can’t breathe.’’


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; the one-way toll for a car over the lone bridge to the city may soon reach $16.

‘‘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.

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.

‘‘We’re an island. . . . There’s that set-apart mentality,’’ said Tom Wrobleski, senior opinion writer for the Staten Island Advance newspaper.

‘‘We have smaller legislative delegations, so we have to scream louder to get our voices heard,’’ he said. ‘‘If you move here from elsewhere in the city, there’s a refugee mentality. You’re leaving other parts of the city behind because Staten Island offers a more suburban environment.’’

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.’’


Jeannette Johnson, a black school employee, said she’d never seen a black police officer in the area where the fatal encounter occurred until after Eric Garner’s death. But while she observes racial divides on Staten Island, she suggested the Garner case might have played out the same in other parts of the city or the nation.

‘‘It’s not a Staten Island thing — it’s a power thing,’’ she said. ‘‘We are an oppressed and depressed people.’’