The killing of two New York City police officers on December 20, 2014, while they sat in their patrol car near a public housing project in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, has riven the city in a primal way that we have not seen since the Crown Heights race riots that pitted blacks against Hasidic Jews in 1991.
The murdered officers, chosen at random, were Rafael Ramos, a religiously devout Hispanic, and Wenjian Liu, the son of Chinese immigrants whose father works as a presser in a laundry sweatshop. The murderer, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a twenty-eight-year-old black man with no known political affiliations, had shot his girlfriend in Baltimore, traveled to New York intent on killing cops, and then finished himself off with the same gun on a nearby subway platform. On the social-media site Instagram, Brinsley had made remarks about avenging the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of police. These postings, along with his boast of “Watch what I’m going to do” to a stranger on the street shortly before he approached the patrol car, suggest the kind of lone-wolf grandiosity and social resentment that we have seen in any number of assassins in public schools and malls.
Almost immediately after the event, it began to seem that a third casualty might be the national protest movement focused on policing and racial injustice that had assumed, in recent weeks, the moral force of a fundamental civil rights issue, attracting widespread political and popular support.
With staggering, but predictable, alacrity, some pro-police figures put forth an argument that they believed inescapably linked the protest movements to the murders. Protesters had called for the death of cops, went the argument, and the call had been answered.* Did it also follow that racial slurs against blacks led to the killing of unarmed black men? And were the lives of cops worth more than those of Eric Garner and other men of color? This was the abyss into which a serious debate about the need to reform the country’s criminal justice system had fallen.
Rudy Giuliani pointed the finger at President Obama:
We’ve had four months of propaganda starting with the president that everybody should hate the police…. The protests are being embraced, the protests are being encouraged…a lot of them lead to violence, all of them lead to a conclusion: the police are bad, the police are racist.
Pat Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), which represents the 23,000 New York City officers below the rank of sergeant, went after Mayor Bill de Blasio. He said:
The mayor’s hands are literally dripping with our blood because of his words actions and policies and we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a “wartime” police department.
Some of this was theater, a political game. Lynch had been attacking de Blasio for months; the PBA is in the midst of contract negotiations with the city and his message to the mayor, in part, may have been: “If you want me off your back, give us the contract we’re demanding.”
But there seemed to be more to it. Many cops are worried that, in the age of cell phones, mounted surveillance cameras, and now body cameras pinned to their uniforms, they are vulnerable to legal action for doing what they have always done—and have been taught to do—on the job. From their point of view, protesters and liberal officials were on a mission to turn the enforcers of order into potential criminals; rank-and-file patrolmen would be the ones to get sacked, publicly shamed, and even go to jail. In this sense, another message Lynch was sending about the murder of Officers Ramos and Liu was: “You see why we shoot before we ask questions with these people? Just leave us alone and let us do our job.”
Twenty-five thousand police officers and sympathizers attended Officer Ramos’s funeral in Glendale, Queens, on December 27, by far the largest turnout ever for such an occasion in New York. Thousands of cops came from departments within a couple of hundred miles of the city, and hundreds more flew in from Austin, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Durham. They presented a powerful counterforce to the Millions March of December 13, in Manhattan, where 30,000 protesters called for police reform. The funeral was a startling sight: armed men and women in full dress uniforms crammed together in a working-class neighborhood of sloping streets, aluminum siding, and tin eyelid awnings—a mixed district of Serbians, Poles, Hispanics, and Irish.
When Vice President Joe Biden and Governor Andrew Cuomo paid proper reverence to their profession, the officers coolly responded with the muffled bass sound of their white-gloved hands applauding. The politicians spoke from inside Christ Tabernacle Church, where Ramos had worshiped, their faces and voices projected out onto the streets on a stadium screen.
When Mayor de Blasio took his place at the pulpit, he seemed more grief-stricken than the others, halting and deferential, head bowed like a penitent, his long frame like an intrusion to himself. He had a whiff of regret about him, of the caught-out lover trying to make amends. The shiver of hostility from the police was astounding. So abruptly did they turn their backs to the mayor’s image on the screen that for an instant I thought it must be some kind of religious ritual, a turning to the East perhaps, toward Bethlehem, in deference to Ramos’s devoutness.
Like spectators at a sporting event who raise their arms to make a wave that ripples sequentially through the crowd, the cops closest to the church turned away, those next to them followed suit, and so it went through the packed streets until it reached where I was standing, on the decline of a hill so that I did not see it coming. Various media outlets reported that “dozens” or “scores” of police had participated, but from where I stood, staring at a multitude of fixed jaws, it seemed like many hundreds or more. What struck me was the reflexive mass agreement of these cops, the automatic subsuming to the monolith of the pack. The gesture seemed outlandish. Were they aware, in their solemnity, that they had also turned their backs to their dead colleague’s family and his casket? (At Officer Liu’s funeral in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, on January 4, some cops again turned their backs when de Blasio delivered his eulogy.)
It was hard to reconcile this enmity with what some officers claimed had offended them most: de Blasio’s recounting of conversations about the police that he and his wife have had with their son Dante, who is black. “Don’t move suddenly, don’t reach for your cell phone,” he told his son. On the television show This Week with George Stephanopoulos, he explained, “There’s that fear that there could be that one moment of misunderstanding with a young man of color and that young man may never come back…. It’s different for a white child. That’s just the reality in this country.”
The observation has become a cliché, a truth based on experience that almost no reasonable person disputes. A huge number of African-American men live daily in a state of high alert, if not outright fear of the police, and have been doing so for decades. A few days after the grand jury declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for Eric Garner’s death, in early December, I attended a meeting at a Brooklyn high school to discuss students’ reactions. Student after student described conversations they’d had with their parents about police that were identical to the ones de Blasio had with Dante. There was much anxiety; the grand jury decision had come like a punch in the gut. Students wondered if there was any legal constraint on police at all.
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton seemed to dismiss the notion that de Blasio’s comment amounted to a mortal insult to police. “I interact quite frequently with African-Americans from all classes, from the rich to the poor,” Bratton said on the television news program Meet the Press. “There’s not a single one that has not expressed this concern.”
One wonders what black officers think of de Blasio’s remarks. Sixteen percent of the NYPD is black, yet blacks make up 26 percent of the city’s population. By comparison, New York City is 33 percent white and 51 percent of the NYPD is white.
Reuters recently interviewed twenty-five black male NYPD officers and all but one said that when off duty and out of uniform they had been harassed or racially profiled by police:
The officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing stop and frisks while shopping.
All but one of the officers who complained to their supervisors said that doing so cost them overtime or a chance for promotion. Black officers are also the most frequent victims of cop-on-cop shootings, mainly because fellow officers mistake them for criminals.
After Officer Ramos’s funeral, I asked a group of cops who had gathered in one of the neighborhood bars why they aimed their anger so exclusively at Mayor de Blasio. Didn’t the blacks and the protesters merit at least a portion of their contempt? No, they said, I didn’t understand, the protesters didn’t count. They were just “followers,” “rabble-rousers,” “anarchists,” “know-nothing kids looking to make a scene.” When I suggested that this surely wasn’t true of every one of the 30,000 demonstrators on December 13, one of the officers shot back, “It was de Blasio’s fault that all those people showed up. He told them it was okay to spit in our faces. They knew we had been given orders to let them run wild.”
A diminutive, white-haired sergeant climbed onto the top of his stool, silenced the bar, and in a booming voice delivered a rhyming toast that ended with the verse, “De Blasio is nothing but a whore’s court jester, sucking the cock of every protester.” The cops in the bar roared, and three or four officers followed with de Blasio–hating toasts of their own. Drinks flowed. A retired detective from Yonkers reminisced in great detail about the various suspects—or “mutts”—he’d clobbered and left for dead. When he saw me listening and obviously suspected I wasn’t “one of us,” he said, with an unconvincing smile, “None of those stories are true, understand?”
Contempt in the bar expanded from de Blasio to politicians in general. There was the sense that, as police, they believed themselves to hold an unquantifiable power over elected officials. The idea seemed to be that there was a pact between law enforcement and politicians. Cops did the dirty work, they waded in the muck, keeping the poor and violent in check and monitoring the human detritus that is the result of inequities they’d had no hand in creating. In return, politicians turned a blind eye to the excessive use of force. On the beat, cops could have their way.
Elected officials, many of the police apparently believed, feared them, placating them, when necessary, as one would a wayward but admired child. Ramos’s funeral, with its lineup of eulogizers in high office, was the latest evidence of this. The street was what was in contention. The contest to control it could be characterized as an ongoing, low-wattage, urban war. The war ebbs and flows, intensifies and fades; guns are confiscated; blood is spilled; territory is ceded, regained.
This was an ancient argument, the watchmen’s argument; one had heard it before. It was, in a sense, a philosophical defense for a way of being. You could feel the disturbing potency—as de Blasio now must feel, and as many blacks have felt for centuries—of having this highly organized force united against you.
De Blasio appeared to grow weaker as the days after the police murders wore on, lashing out at the press for being “divisive,” then offering expressions of comfort that seemed aimed as much at himself as at the city at large. He seemed to lean heavily on Bratton, who remained a staunch ally and at times appeared to be the only barrier between him and a complete mutiny from the NYPD’s rank and file. He called for a moratorium on demonstrations until after the murdered officers were buried, a decorous request that protesters ignored.
Carmen Perez, the executive director of the Gathering for Justice and a cofounder of Justice League NYC, which has had a major part in organizing protests, seemed uncertain about the moratorium. “The community feels differently about this,” she told me. The Gathering for Justice is a partnership of groups devoted to reducing racial disparity that was formed in 2005 by the singer and activist Harry Belafonte. Perez had met with de Blasio at City Hall the day before the police shooting to discuss the Justice League’s proposals for police reform. Now she was of the opinion that de Blasio “has made statements that he needs to make that aren’t necessarily what he believes.”
Perez is a young, striking woman with one side of her head shaved bald and the other side thick with a long, falling sweep of black hair. She grew up amid gang wars in Southern California. “My brother was racially profiled, in and out of jail. This is personal for me. So many kids grow up in lockdown.” Her older sister died on Perez’s seventeenth birthday and her main ambition since then has been to reform the juvenile justice system. When I spoke with her on Christmas Eve she was in a state of rushed exhaustion, delivering toys to poor children, a drive that she had been organizing for weeks. Apart from organizing protests, she was in the midst of establishing what she calls Freedom Schools, “places of consciousness where we’re able to teach young people about political candidates and how to assess what’s going on in the world.”
The murders of the two policemen were a disaster, a storm from out of nowhere, and she was struggling to understand how, by a twist of rhetoric, members of a nonviolent civil rights movement who were trying to draw attention to an entrenched pattern of abuse of innocent citizens had become linked to a mentally unbalanced criminal. The night after the murders, on December 21, she and her partners staged a vigil in Harlem. About a hundred people showed up. “We were shaken and afraid,” Perez told me. There were no chants, no die-ins, just simple black signs with white lettering that read “Claim Love,” “Claim Humanity.”
For safety, they went to the First Corinthian Baptist Church on 116th Street, where they prayed to a roll call of forty dead unarmed black men as well as Officers Ramos and Liu. The church’s reverend, Mike Wolrand, decried both police abuse and protesters who chant for the death of cops. “Don’t allow people to renarrate your hurt,” he said. The challenge was to put forward what you really cared about without being branded a hater.
When I talked with Perez again, the day after Christmas, she claimed to be “optimistic.” She didn’t think the movement was going to die down. “There are too many people working toward the same end.” She was unsure, however, about the immediate future of protests. It wasn’t clear, in the changing landscape, how many people, aside from committed activists, could be expected to show up at demonstrations. “Street protest is not the only route,” she said. There was also the unglamorous labor of lobbying and finding political allies who could help push through reform.
Several times she said that de Blasio now had “a real opportunity to bring all the groups together.” Clearly, she was placing a great deal of hope in the mayor. The retraining of officers, she said, was “a big step forward,” and, despite her opposition to the broken windows style of policing, she looked favorably upon some of Bratton’s statements about improving community relations.
In fact, at Ramos’s funeral, and in conversations with the press, Bratton has been the only New York official to speak to the heart of the issue: the perceptual distortion with which police and African-Americans see each other. “Perception becomes reality,” he said. “If we can learn to see each other,” he suggested, and vanquish the inner specter of our racial demons, “we’ll heal.” This holds true for civilians as well as police, of course. The perceptual divide is ingrained in the American psyche. If Bratton can design a training program that reconditions reflexive prejudice against young impoverished black men, the lives of many New Yorkers will dramatically improve.
Just how far de Blasio and Bratton will be able to push police reform is an open question. In the short term at least, some officers’ willingness to cooperate with progressive reform is in doubt. During the week after the police killings, police virtually ceased writing parking tickets and making arrests; by the second week of the slowdown, there was an increase in serious crime. Bratton said that if it continued, he would investigate the slowdown, precinct by precinct, cop by cop. After the PBA and the city get around to signing a new labor contract, we may expect Lynch to be less of a provocateur. At any rate, one senses that, given the pressure of the current political climate, some kind of agreement will be reached before long.
As of yet, there is no single galvanizing figure among the young organizers, no one able—or willing—to speak directly and eloquently for the movement’s aspirations. This may be partly why Carmen Perez looks so strongly to de Blasio to initiate reform. Activists like her, and like the women who organized the Millions March of December 13 by sending out 429,000 invitations on Facebook, tend to work in collectives, outside the mainstream media. They rarely have speakers at their rallies, only slogans and chants.
Their tactics are the opposite of Al Sharpton’s (who appears to be of no interest to them), with his traditional rallies and his speaker’s podium raised high. This way of protesting creates an exhilarating atmosphere of democratic selflessness. But it also has ensured that almost nothing memorable has been uttered, other than Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” which have come to express the feeling among young black men of being psychologically suffocated by siege-mentality policing. The main political challenge they face is to be more lasting than the kind of grassroots movements that fade as events overtake them and the national attention shifts elsewhere.
A lesson from the police killings and their aftermath is how immensely hard it is for black people to get across that the criminal justice system treats them shamefully and as if they were universally dangerous. After the killing of unarmed blacks in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland these past months, that message has begun to get across—thanks to a multiracial movement led by young blacks. Policing has become a civil rights issue.
What mustn’t get lost is the debate about a grand jury system where the conflicts of interest of prosecutors, who work closely with police, make criminal indictment in cases of violent police misconduct almost impossible to obtain. The appointment of special prosecutors in these cases is an obvious solution. A shift toward collaborative policing, where the wishes and desires of community members are taken into account, is, if Bratton and de Blasio are to believed, already underway in New York.
Despite the strident rhetoric of Lynch and his followers, cops have been respectful of peaceful protesters and this does not appear likely to change. The question now is whether the deranged murder of Officers Ramos and Liu will cow reform-minded politicians and induce sympathizers of the movement to back away. History shows that even the most well-intentioned elected officials require a steady dose of public pressure before they will hazard a push for real change.
The day after the police shootings, several hundred New Yorkers gathered at the corner of Myrtle Avenue and Tompkins Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where the crime had occurred. Hasidic Jews, a Muslim group, and a white Episcopal priest in full robes took turns reciting prayers. A procession of people filed silently past a rapidly growing street memorial, adding candles and flowers as if walking past an open casket. Police wept openly and so did the mostly black crowd. It would be a tragedy if the movement for racial justice that began in Ferguson last August were allowed to die.
—January 8, 2015
It is true that some protesters verbally attacked police during marches in New York, but demonstrations have been overwhelmingly peaceful. The three or four people who physically assaulted two lieutenants on the Brooklyn Bridge on December 13, after the main march had dispersed, were an aberration. See my “We’re Not Going to Stand for This Anymore,” NYRblog, December 16, 2014. ↩