The police and their relationship with the community: The issue is not an ‘issue’ for many, but the reality that confronts them daily. More to the point, it is a reality that provokes frustration, helplessness and rage at the same time that it demands from anyone wishing to broker positive change patience, fortitude and a nuanced perspective.
Complicating an already impossible situation are the political functionaries and public figures who feel compelled to appear on television and in the press to deliver unhelpful and often woefully oversimplified renditions of events bookended by party-line rhetoric and platitudes decrying or supporting some notion of the status quo. This perpetual speaking at cross-purposes has garnered national attention in the past few months, following a series of singular, tragic events that many argued were symptoms or outright manifestations of deeper problems that face the nation. The conversation has started anew in New York this week, and if the words being used are any indication, the U.S. has learned little, if anything from what has come before.
As of Tuesday, what is known is this: Late Saturday afternoon, 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley walked up to the passenger side of a New York Police patrol car in Brooklyn and opened fire, murdering the two officers inside. The deaths of policemen Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos have been called an execution, an assessment backed up by “anti-police” social media posts made by Brinsley leading up to the killings as well as Brinsley advising two bystanders to “Watch what I’m going to do” just moments before he killed the two unsuspecting law officers.
New York mayor Bill de Blasio issued a statement later that day, calling Brinsley a “heinous individual” while condemning his actions as “an attack on all of us…an attack on everything we hold dear.” In the context of the officers’ deaths at the hands of a vengeful, self-appointed vigilante, de Blasio’s words come off as the natural response to such a terrible crime. The mayor, however, had already been dealing with the political fallout from a Long Island grand jury’s decision to not indict police officers involved in the choking death of Eric Garner and the subsequent mass protests throughout the city that were, in part, incited by that non-indictment.
De Blasio had received ample criticism for “taking sides” with protesters by expressing their right to assemble and by meeting with protest organizers. Prior to Saturday’s events, de Blasio was frequently depicted as being “anti-cop” as he dealt with the public relations mess related to New York’s largest police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, posting a letter on their website entitled “Don’t Insult My Sacrifice,” in which police are urged to bar de Blasio from attending their funerals should they be killed in the line of duty.
Following Saturday’s horrific events, the rhetoric, especially from police unions, only got worse. Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, seemed to place blame for the officers’ deaths directly on the actions of protesters and de Blasio when he called out “[t]hose that incited violence on the street under the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what New York police officers did every day. We tried to warn it must not go on. It cannot be tolerated.” Lynch then conjured the image of trail of blood that “starts on the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor.”
Chastisement of de Blasio hasn’t come just from the NYPD and its representatives. Former New York governor George Pataki and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani have taken to social media and the televised news magazine circuit to denounce the city’s current leader. On Twitter, Pataki called the deaths of officers Liu and Ramos the “predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric.” Meanwhile, Giuliani explained in a Fox News interview that de Blasio should be held accountable for “[h]is policies of allowing protests to get out of control, and of his not emphasizing enough the importance of fatherhood, the importance of education, the importance of an alternative to a public education system that is failing the black children.”
The protests themselves, Giuliani argued, were not earnest expressions of frustration and anger, but the end result of “four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police.” Assuredly, the protests in question, in New York and across the nation, have not been devoid of such outspoken police hate. And certainly, for every muddled, racialized oversimplification like Giuliani’s, there has likely been its equal floating somewhere online in the form of a bigoted view of police lacking the subtlety requisite to intelligent discussion. Yet all this does not lend to the easy dismissal of the protesters as dupes to propaganda or conflation of demands for transparency and accountability with hate.
Such accounting for blame in the context of political capital can provide little of use to those working for change, work that continues on both sides of the “us versus them,” police versus community divide. That the conversation so swiftly moved to which “side” de Blasio was on says a lot about how citizens view police and how police view themselves.
If de Blasio is ultimately deemed unfit to lead because of the tragedies that have occurred in New York recently, it will likely do nothing to confront the problems plaguing police-community relations. Nor will divisive claims that collectivize and then collectively reduce the legitimate concerns of individual citizens and police alike to instances of hate speech. No matter a person’s interpretation of the facts in the case of Eric Garner (or any of the alleged miscarriages of justice associated with other cases where a person of color, having broken a crime or not, ended up dead at the hands of police), that interpretation should not be blindly plugged into any ready-made narrative: The narrative that the protests are about hating police; the narrative that all police hate black people; the narrative that police should be practically accepted as something like a force of nature; the narrative that citizens don’t want or need police.
The facts that remain, abstracted from any particular case, are these: Every citizen has rights; the law should be enforced with righteous discretion and that enforcement should be informed by the ideals of equality. No less important, the citizenry requires police to ensure safety and to protect those rights. That is, neither a wilful, autonomous citizenry nor a police force charged with protecting and serving and given the powers necessary to provide those qualities are going to simply disappear. But the question as to who is “right” in the arguments over police overreach, brutality and corruption or the debate concerning what constitutes a just and reasonable response to anyone thought to be breaking law, can not be answered simply and uniformly. More importantly, in the interests of that way of life political rhetoric so often pays lip service to, whatever the answer might be to these seemingly irresolvable problems should not automatically come at the expense or outright negation of either the citizens or the police who, it should never cease to be noted, live together in the community they share.