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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.