In the week following the killing of two New York City police officers by a deranged gunman, protesters demanding justice for the victims of police violence were repeatedly urged to stand down by politicians and the media. The feelings of the grieving families as well as the need for a grand show of civic unity were invoked. This, we were told, was not the time for politics.
Then on Saturday, hundreds of police officers reminded us that the funeral of Officer Rafael Ramos, one of the two killed, was the perfect occasion for politics, at least of a certain kind. When Mayor Bill de Blasio began his eulogy, police officers standing outside Christ Tabernacle Church in Glendale, Queens, spun around and turned their backs on the video monitor that displayed de Blasio’s image.
From the looks of photos, many of the officers engaging in this action were members of the NYPD, who were also joined by visiting cops (shall we call them “outside agitators”?) from other police departments.
This political stunt at the funeral of a fallen comrade followed a similar back-turning incident involving de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton a week earlier at Brooklyn’s Woodhull Hospital, where the bodies of the two slain officers were taken after the shooting on December 20. That night, Patrick Lynch, the bombastic head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the largest of the city’s five police unions, blamed de Blasio and the protesters for the killings, declaring “There’s blood on many hands tonight … [It] starts on the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor.” On the same night an email circulated widely among the NYPD that called for police officers to go on a “wartime footing.” The message was thought to have come from the PBA though the union subsequently denied responsibility for it.
Rank-and-file cops are upset with a moderately liberal mayor who has failed to offer unconditional support for the most savage acts of police brutality such as the chokehold death of Eric Garner. De Blasio’s innocuous comment that he has warned his Black teen-age son to be careful in his dealings with the police “who are there to protect him” has also become a source of simmering police anger.
When members of the NYPD turned their backs again to de Blasio on Saturday, they expressed their disdain not just for the mayor, but for the residents of this majority people-of-color city who gave him his landslide victory last year. They also repudiated the basic democratic ideal that agents of the state who are given the legal power to walk around the city with 9mm semi-automatic pistols on their hips and arrest or even kill people when they deem it necessary should be answerable to civilian leaders, not the other way around.
New York City police officers who think they are a law unto themselves should resign immediately. We have no use for them and deserve better than this. There are plenty of quiet suburbs outside New York City where thin-skinned cops can ply their trade free from the complexities of 21st century urban life, including protesters who see cop culture as inherently corrupt and abusive.
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Of course most of these cops aren’t likely to be leaving their posts anytime soon. They are protected by civil service laws and should have little trouble remaining on the city payroll for years to come. They will also go on accruing the 22 years of service time required to collect a generous public pension, something many NYPD officers become eligible for by their mid-40s.
However, given the occasion, the protesting cops did inadvertently perform a valuable public service on Saturday. But first, let’s think about the setting.
Police funerals are a mix of private grief and public spectacle, especially here in New York, home to the nation’s largest police department.
Such a funeral draws the presence of high-ranking politicians (Vice President Joe Biden, Governor Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio were all present on Saturday). It is also subject to wall-to-wall, front-page media coverage. The fallen cop is invariably remembered as a hero, a devoted family man and a protector of his community. In a moment of emotional alchemy, the feelings of love and gratitude expressed for the fallen officer are then conferred onto the whole police department, which we are all expected to rally around in gratitude and reverence.
“At the end of the day, we are one — the family of New York,” said Cuomo, who saluted the NYPD as “ a force of true professionals.” He was topped only by the ever-garrulous Biden, who hailed the NYPD as “the finest police department in the world.”
Because of the high emotions and the lack of any counter-narrative about the role of police as the enforcers of an unjust status quo, the funeral becomes a key moment in the reproduction of police ideology — the belief system that exalts police officers as selfless defenders of a city always on the verge of being overrun by hordes of depraved criminals, hippie protesters and other societal riff-raff. The sense of exceptionalism that allows the police to kill unarmed civilians and always be seen as innocent in the eyes of a grand jury is reinforced. As a police officer is laid to rest, it becomes plain that there will be future Amadou Diallos, Sean Bells, Eric Garners and Ramarley Grahams.
On Saturday, the legions of petulant cops who repudiated the mayor and the people of this city did us the favor of reminding anyone with open eyes that “we” are not all “one.” As far as the NYPD is concerned, its presence will continue to be experienced as alien and unwelcome in many corners of this city, which means more protests are inevitable.
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When Patrick Lynch spoke to the media on the night the two police officers were killed, it was as if his mouth was an automatic weapon indiscriminately spraying verbal bullets [??1] at elected officials as well as protesters for daring to think NYPD cops should ever be accountable to anyone outside their ranks. The city’s liberal establishment quickly ducked for cover. Both the mayor and City Council pledged their unstinting support for the NYPD and called on protesters to stop marching until both police officers were buried. Progressive unions — including those in the public sector — offered messages of condolence for the two dead police officers but said little else.
Reflecting the desire of local elected officials for the uproar over police practices to quietly go away, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams penned an editorial in the December 28 New York Daily News calling for “soft-spoken and respectful diplomacy” between the police and community activists. At a time when the police are doubling down on their demand for the continued right to kill with absolute impunity, this would be a huge mistake for the movement.
Groups further to the left have continued to organize. Most recently, this has included a December 23 march up 5th Avenue from Midtown to Harlem led by the ANSWER Coalition and a protest on Saturday at the NYCHA development in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where unarmed Akai Gurley was shot and killed in an unlit stairwell by a nervous cop on November 20. Whether the movement will be nimble enough to target a quasi-fascist police union while pressuring its putative allies in city government remains to be seen.
Standing up to the PBA is essential not only to wresting the debate over police practices away from the most reactionary elements in the NYPD. Left unchallenged, the police union will happily wreak havoc on the de Blasio administration for the next three years and create a narrative of an “ungovernable city” in order to get a mayor more to its liking and make an example of the current one to the next generation of would-be reformers. The same thing happened in the early 1990s under David Dinkins, the last Democratic mayor before de Blasio. The PBA’s open revolt against Dinkins culminated in a narrow 1993 re-election defeat for Dinkins and the ushering in of 20 years of conservative rule by Rudy Giuliani and then Michael Bloomberg.
The conduct of the police at Saturday’s funeral should be seen not as an aberration but as a clear warning of where the PBA would like to take the city. It’s all the more reason why a large and unabashedly loud protest movement will be needed in the streets of New York more than ever in 2015.
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