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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a press conference after witnessing police being retrained with new guidelines at the Police Academy on December 4, 2014 in the College Point neighborhood of the Queens borough in New York City.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

He is a white man with a black son, a mayor elected on a campaign centred on mending relations between the largest U.S. police force and the communities of colour who feel mistreated and, at times, endangered by the police.

As New York Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke Wednesday night, his voice halting, in the aftermath of a grand jury's decision not to indict a white police officer in the choke-hold death of a black Staten Island man, he drew upon the experiences of his own family to connect with disheartened residents. He said he and his wife, Chirlane, have had to have painful conversations with their teenage son, Dante, about "how to take special care with any encounter he may have with police officers."

"I've had to worry over the years, Chirlane has had to worry: Is Dante safe each night?" he said. "And not just from some of the painful realities of crime and violence in some of our neighbourhoods, but safe from the very people they want to have faith in as their protectors."

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He recalled how President Barack Obama turned to him last week during a White House meeting following the violence that exploded in Missouri last month after a grand jury there did not indict a white officer in the shooting death of another black man, Michael Brown.

"And the President of the United States – he had met Dante a few months ago – said Dante reminded him of what he looked like as a teenager," Mr. de Blasio said in a speech on Staten Island carried nationally on the cable news networks. "He said, 'I know you see this crisis through a very personal lens.' I said to him I did."

That lens helped propel Mr. de Blasio to the position he now holds. A campaign commercial last year featuring Dante talking about his father's vow to curb the use of stop-and-frisk, the policy that allows police to stop anyone deemed suspicious but which a federal judge ruled discriminated against blacks and Latinos, helped propel the little-known candidate to the top of the polls.

Mr. De Blasio urged calm, telling protesters that they would "not sully [Mr. Garner's] name with violence of vandalism," all the while making it clear he understood their frustration.

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