Leaders of the protests against the lack of justice and accountability for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner face a highly-charged political situation after the close-range shooting of two patrolmen in Brooklyn by a deranged and suicidal individual, who had no connection with the protest movement.
Saturday’s funeral of one of the patrolmen, Rafael Ramos, became a police “counterprotest” to the movement, as over 20,000 policemen from around the U.S. converged on the Christ Tabernacle Church in Brooklyn. The solemn event was turned into a different kind of spectacle as dozens of officers turned their backs on New York mayor Bill de Blasio when he gave his eulogy of the slain policeman. This piece of political theater was the latest attempt by the police union and its supporters to stir up hostility to de Blasio’s administration and pressure it into withdrawing support for the demonstrators’ exercise of their constitutional rights.
While the funeral of the two policemen received headline treatment in the media, very little attention was paid to a march of 200 people on the same afternoon in the same New York borough to protest the death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed young black man and father who was fatally shot last month by a police officer in a public-housing project stairwell, or to the ongoing protests in St. Louis against the police killing of another black teenager on Christmas Eve, who allegedly pointed a gun at an officer before he was shot. There is nothing new about the police killings of young black men. But the protests manifest a social change in the African American community, a movement that began with the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. The community will not tolerate more of these shootings, and all Americans are now sensitized to the issue because of the protests that began in Ferguson.
The contrast in the reception of these events corresponds to a political divide among Americans that relates in a complex way to racial tensions. The Washington Post reported that “many black and Latino New Yorkers remained hostile to the police despite the shootings [of Liu and Ramos] … At the same time, though, many New Yorkers embraced the police, rushing to the defense of a department they view as doing the difficult and often thankless job of maintaining order in the nation’s largest city.” The polarization of opinion was displayed at a pro-police rally at New York’s City Hall the Friday before the patrolmen’s deaths: Guardian correspondent Steven Thrasher noted, “There were not many people on the pro-police side, but they were extremely vitriolic, invoking a lot of military imagery and 9/11 imagery and talking about the people who are protesting police brutality as if they were enemy combatants.”
Police supporters are vociferous and inflammatory in their attempts to influence public opinion. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani blamed both de Blasio and Obama for fomenting anti-police sentiment: “We’ve had four months of propaganda starting with the president that everybody should hate the police,” he said. “I don’t care how you want to describe it: That’s what those protests are all about.” But it was left to disgraced former New York police commissioner and convicted felon Bernard Kerik to spell out the full implications of this narrative: “NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were assassinated over the weekend because their assassin believed the lies perpetrated by de Blasio, Sharpton and others.”
The Washington Post reported that Patrick Lynch, president of the largest police union, said: “There’s blood on many hands tonight … Those that incited violence on the street in the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day. … That blood on the hands starts at the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor. When these funerals are over, those responsible will be called on the carpet and held accountable.” Lynch had already made thinly-veiled threats of police insubordination to mayoral control, telling officers to slow-roll their work because of a lack of political support and that the department was on a “wartime” footing.
The police spokesmen are demanding the unconditional backing of the political establishment for aggressive policing in minority communities. They perceive their legitimacy as threatened by even the mildest criticism. So despite de Blasio’s numerous statements of support for the police, when in a television interview he described warning his mixed-race son, Dante, not to make sudden movements or reach for his cellphone in an encounter with an officer, it was interpreted as “throwing the police under the bus.”
Josh Marshall comments: “the leadership of the city’s police unions operates on the assumption that the Mayor or the city’s political leaders in general need to show reflexive support and defense of the police department or else they go to war with them. … The protestors who swelled around the city weren’t some kind of alien army. They’re New Yorkers. And the feeling that something deeply wrong happened in the death of Eric Garner was widespread in the city. … As a political reality, no Mayor can ignore that kind of public sentiment. But … these are the people who employ the NYPD, the people the NYPD is sworn to serve and protect.” When de Blasio ran for election on a platform of reforming the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” strategy, he achieved a 72% majority, and Marshall adds that hostility to de Blasio comes from a demographic (whites, Staten Islanders and Republicans) that makes up only a minority of New Yorkers.
However, Corey Robin points out: “The entire New York City establishment—not just De Blasio, but political, cultural, and economic elites—is terrified (or in support) of the cops. … not one of these figures has spoken out against the Freikorps-ish rhetoric emanating from the NYPD. … They’re politically frightened… because they have no sense of an alternative base or source of power.”
There is an alternative source of power in the determination of the African American community to end acceptance of the daily killings of its young men, that insists black lives do matter, and that has gained support among most young Americans of all ethnicities. The group Ferguson Action pushed back immediately against what it described as “cheap political punditry,” and #BlackLivesMatter added: “we are rooted in the belief that Black people in the U.S. must reassert our right to live be well in a country where our lives have been deemed valueless.” The day before Christmas Eve, about 700 demonstrators defied de Blasio’s call to pause protests until after the funerals of the two officers and converged on Fifth Avenue, blocking traffic. Protester Argenys Tavaras told the Gothamist: “Mayor de Blasio didn’t start the protest, and he doesn’t tell us when to finish.” Joo-Hyun Kang, of Communities United for Police Reform, said “Silencing the countless voices of New Yorkers who are seeking justice, dignity and respect for all, is a mistake.”
It remains to be seen whether de Blasio will turn to this social reality for support against the voices calling for the suppression of protests, but the resistance to police killings is going to intensify and the protest leadership will not back down.