Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The NYPD has a problem

I’m just back from a couple of hours of what I hope will be repeated marches through the streets in protest of the incomprehensible decision to let off the Staten Island killer cop, caught on videotape choking an unresisting detainee to death. There are several reasons why this should be making the department and the city’s powerbrokers, the ones happy with things just as they are, very nervous. [photo: sit-down protest blocks Columbus Circle, Manhattan]

One: as occurred in Ferguson, the NYPD and the prosecutorial system that protects it have been exposed as profoundly, institutionally racist. This is not news to the people on the receiving end of their abuses, i.e. black males. But it has been too easy for the average white citizen to disbelieve or minimize what is going on on our streets. Such voluntary ignorance is becoming increasingly untenable.

The racist practices within the department are possible because the perpetrators—perhaps a minority of the overall force—act with the full knowledge that their abuses will rarely be discovered and even more infrequently punished. But the impunity also requires deniability; that is now gravely weakened. After today, who will automatically believe cops when they deny they beat up someone, claim an arrestee became violent, or cook up charges against someone who files a complaint?

Two: not surprisingly, there were many young black men and women in the demonstrations tonight. However, a clear majority were white 20/30-somethings. This is not a demographic that you want to permanently alienate, as one Lyndon B. Johnson discovered to his dismay. And these kids are fired up. There are Occupy veterans among the mix, but the sheer numbers tell us that there is a deep malaise among a broad sector of our city’s youth, including many people we would not consider overtly ‘political’ in their habits or outlook. I’m not sure it means the seeds of a new social movement are sprouting. But it might.

Three: the average New Yorker who is not a hopeless, racist asshole is appalled at what happened in this case. I base that judgment both on anecdotal evidence from my daily life but also on the surprising reactions of the drivers whose commute I helped disrupt tonight. While people sat in total gridlock with no prospects of getting their cars moving for an hour or more, most did not scowl or complain but rather looked on with interest. A very considerable number expressed support for the march’s goals by honking, smiling or applauding, or even using the “Hands Up” gesture. I did not see a single angry confrontation of a suburbanite enraged about not getting home in time for dinner.

Four: I saw something else tonight that I have not seen since 1985 in the streets of downtown Santiago: citizens confronting the cops and shouting them into silence. When the bodies of three leftist professionals were discovered with their throats cut in a field near the Santiago airport that year, average office workers fed up with the Pinochet dictatorship poured into the streets spontaneously to express their fury. I witnessed a woman in heels become hysterical screaming in the face of a completely cowed cop, turning the tables on the normal state of affairs under Pinochet in which the cops bullied people as a matter of course.

Something similar happened tonight when a few cops got separated from their platoon and were briefly surrounded by marchers who called them racist murderers to their faces. The look on their faces was one of sudden defenselessness because they knew the angry citizens have a very solid point. Those three cops prudently did not try to billy club their way out of that confrontation because they would have had the shit kicked out of them. Eventually, they were rescued by a dozen back-up officers who were also careful not to knock anyone around.

In short, the cops were scared of the people. You don’t see that too often, and it means the NYPD has a problem.

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