To Understand Rudy Giuliani’s Actions on Jan. 6, Look at a 1992 Police Riot in New York
FEBRUARY 22, 2023 4:36 PM EST
Rudy Giuliani stood before the angry crowd, his voice strained but carrying clearly over the assembled throng. The audience was angry and aggrieved—and many were also armed. Giving little heed to civility or comity, Giuliani knew what his crowd wanted, which was to overrun a building where officials were taking actions that the mob believed to be wrongheaded. Such a move would leave officials no choice but to cede their power and give the rioters what they wanted. It might be messy, but the crowd believed it could prevail.
Sounds familiar, right? Well, Giuliani has twice played a similar role in front of a violent mob: the most proximate was on Jan. 6, 2021, when he urged a crowd gathered between the White House and the Washington Monument to march to the Capitol to pressure Congress to keep Donald Trump in power despite and electoral loss; the other was back in 1992, when Giuliani stood on City Hall’s iconic steps with off-duty New York City police officers who thought the mayor’s plan to increase civilian oversight of the force would put those in uniform under too much scrutiny.
“If you wanted to see an early version of Jan. 6, 2021, go look at the footage of the police riot of 1992, City Hall, New York City,” former Mayor Bill de Blasio says in a new TIME Studios documentary about Giuliani.
Watching the four-part project, it’s clear that Giuliani’s worst instincts have long been evident. As TIME’s Brian Bennett writes, Giuliani’s record has plenty of predicates well before he emerged as former President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, chief enabler, and conspiracy spouter. But the event at NYC’s City Hall in September of 1992—detailed in the second episode, airing at 10 p.m. Sunday on MSNBC—reveals a dangerous hype man for grievance in front of a crowd that can quickly turn violent, reveal its racism, and ignore the rule of law supposedly so central to its identity.
A bit of history: In 1988, the infamous Willie Horton ad helped President George W. Bush defeat Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 40 states. A year later, Giuliani leaned into messages seen by his critics as racist and antisemitic during a run for New York City mayor, courtesy of a media strategy that involved future Fox News chief Roger Ailes as an adviser. The strategy didn’t work in a race that would give New York its first Black mayor, David Dinkins. But Giuliani, a former prosecutor and now a failed candidate, remained as competitive as ever—and believed he still had found a winning strategy for a future race.
So Giuliani joined the off-duty police officers, who objected to Dinkins’ plan to make the Civilian Complaint Review Board independent of the police department and give non-police officials control. Thousands showed up to protest the proposal (which eventually would become reality). Speakers riled-up the officers, many of whom were drunk and hurling racial epithets at City Hall, where Dinkins was not working that day.
Among those drawing applause from a crowd that carried racist cartoon imagery of Dinkins, chanted that the city’s first Black mayor was on crack, and suggested he would be better used as a washroom attendant? Giuliani. “The reason the morale of the police department of the city of New York is so low,” Giuliani says on video, “is one reason, and one reason alone: David Dinkins!”
By the time Sept. 16, 1992, ended, the police barricades would topple, the Brooklyn Bridge would briefly be blocked, and just 42 of the estimated 10,000 officers involved faced consequences.
The echoes are imprecise, to be sure, but it’s impossible to ignore the parallels with how Giuliani conducted himself on Jan. 6, 2021, at another public space central to a city’s core. Giuliani was among those who fired up a crowd of Trump supporters at D.C.’s Ellipse as a mob gathered less than two miles from the Capitol, which would then be breached for the first time since 1814.
“He did a dress rehearsal [for Jan. 6, 2021] at the police riot against Dave Dinkins,” says Al Sharpton, the MSNBC host and a civil rights leader who led many a march against Giuliani during his time as mayor.
Indeed, the rhetoric and indifference to the political process rang as loudly in 2021 as in 1992.
“Over the next 10 days, we get to see the machines that are crooked, the ballots that are fraudulent, and if we’re wrong, we will be made fools of, but if we’re right, a lot of them will go to jail,” Giuliani said on Jan. 6 before adding one of the most scrutinized statements of that day: “So, let’s have trial by combat.”
Giuliani began his speech that day at 10:47 a.m. By 1 p.m., the first police lines fell at the Capitol. The complex would go into lockdown an hour later, and at 2:13 p.m. the Senate would be evacuated.
Despite his celebrated career as a prosecutor, the documentary argues that Giuliani over the last two decades hasn’t given too much primacy to law and order. If it helps him achieve his political goals, count Giuliani in. Giuliani wanted to embarrass and damage Dinkins by any means necessary, so he joined a seemingly racist and furious mob of cops to berate City Hall. Almost thirty years later, he wanted to keep his pal in the White House so he fueled The Big Lie, helped organize a raft of failed lawsuits to overturn the legitimate election results, and called to keep Trump in power. (Giuliani has since testified in a number of venues about that day and its build-up, and faces a civil lawsuit for his role on Jan. 6.) For Giuliani, the rules were always fungible if they didn’t serve his ends.
All of which brings back memories of when I sat with Giuliani in November of 2007 in a conference room at Saint Anselm College’s Institute of Politics. Giuliani’s run for the White House seemed to be fizzling, and he faced fresh questions about his relationship with Bernie Kerik. Giuliani’s former police commissioner had pleaded guilty to state misdemeanor charges stemming from $165,000 in free renovations to his Bronx apartment from a construction firm with suspected mob ties. Kerik at the time was facing potential additional federal felony charges. (He would eventually plead guilty to tax evasion, bribery and lying-to-the-White House charges. Trump pardoned him.)
When we sat down together after a speech near Manchester, N.H., Giuliani was blunt when I asked him about Kerik. “There were mistakes made with Bernie Kerik,” Giuliani told me as aides furiously typed into their BlackBerries. “But what’s the ultimate result for the people of New York City? The ultimate result for the people of New York City was a 74% reduction in shootings, a 60% reduction in crime, a correction program that went from being one of the worst in the country to one that was on ‘60 Minutes’ as one of the best in the country, 90% reduction of violence in the jails.”
He then summed up his approach to right-and-wrong versus results: “Sure, there were issues, but if I have the same degree of success and failure as President of the United States, this country will be in great shape.”
As was the case in 1992 and 2021 alike, the results mattered; the route to them, not so much.