Tuesday, 23 December 2014

We cops are the victims, others have themselves to blame

The killing of two police officers last weekend apparently chosen at random is a classic illustration of the reactionary nature of terrorism. A movement was growing steadily among people of good will to rein in police excesses as embodied in the notorious Eric Garner snuff film. Demonstrations were massive, the coalition broad, and sympathy deep.

The only off-key notes were those emanating from the cops-can-do-no-wrong police union head and the predictably tone-deaf Murdoch paper, the Post. Those voices sounded shrill and clueless as the pundits and tabloids consistently made excuses for the Michael Brown killing, blamed the victims, defended the cops and tried to smear the citizens massed in protest.

Now, the cold-blooded murders of cops minding their own business has put Mayor de Blasio, who has tried to act reasonably and keep the police from making things worse, on the defensive as if his mild statements were somehow encouraging cop assassins (versus, for example, the equally plausible—or implausible—hypothesis that the many provocative defenders of Eric Garner’s killers did so). The whole right-wing echo chamber has exploded with convenient outrage while the police union chief and his Lynch-mob have issued direct threats, such as declaring a state of “war” (against the people of New York as the enemy, presumably) and suggesting that they need not obey civilian authority, a posture that author Greg Grandin calls a “cop coup”.

De Blasio has never been popular with a certain demographic in New York, and personally I suspect a large part of the motive is the fact that he’s married to a black woman and has mixed-race children. When he says he warns his black teenager about dealings with the cops, he’s only saying what every black family already knows. But the white suburbanites of Staten Island and Queens don’t want to believe the cops who privilege them and target minority males do anything wrong—ever. Maybe making them hear it anyway is divisive—who knows?

Before this latest twist, thousands of people were beginning to see the need for a major cultural shift in how we organize and monitor policing, a struggle that goes back to the years-long fight against stop & frisk that was itself instrumental in de Blasio’s election. The effort was making steady gains, despite the steady accumulation of more tragic incidents. Race was suddenly back on the agenda as an unresolved social dilemma. At the cinema recently, I was struck by how many new films openly probe black-white issues, like Dear White People, the Chris Rock film, Selma and several others not directly focused on race.

Although De Blasio had his detractors before the weekend murders, he also had the back of an important middle-ground sector of the population, usually sympathetic to the police but aware that things are not right here. Mike Lupica, the Daily News columnist who is a sort of weathervane for them, criticized the mayor but saved some ammo for Lynch as well, arguing that the force needs to weed out the minority of loose-cannon cops who can’t control themselves.

Now, Lupica has lined up behind the cops and puts the blame on the mayor. The atmosphere is suddenly less that of a political fight playing out on the streets than a budding war with unpredictable consequences. The rhetoric coming from the cops is scary: according to them, the protesters who object to excessive police violence are, like de Blasio, guilty of their colleagues’ murders. If the mayor doesn’t take a tougher stand against these insults, retaliation is almost a given, sooner or later. The tidal wave of self-righteousness in the cops’ language is an eerie pre-echo of how they’ll justify the next ‘incident’.

Meanwhile, de Blasio gets it exactly wrong on calling for people not to protest police violence for a while, a suggestion that feeds right in to the cop-land fantasy that people who object to their violent acts want them dead. Furthermore, the attempt to legalize mass arrests of people exercising their constitutional right to assemble is an appalling cave-in to the worst instincts.

One can sympathize with de Blasio’s dilemma in this troubling moment, but it’s pretty clear that trying to make nice with the cops union and play Mr Reasonable is going to get him nowhere. I’d like to see some measured firmness from him, a reply to Lynch reminding him that he’s talking to his boss, i.e., the people’s elected representative, whether he likes it or not, and a further reminder to the entire force that the weekend ambush does not give them permission to take revenge. Six years of watching Obama try to find a friend among the GOP should be enough of a lesson for anyone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I hope that the advice in this article will be heeded. By refusing to clean its own house, the NYPD has done the citizenry and itself a great disservice. The average NYC cop is no doubt well intentioned (though existing in a climate of corruption can rub off on some). The killing of two innocent cops by an obviously deranged individual from a different city, who had nothing to do with NYC peaceful protests against police violence, was an horrendous act. However, Lynch's hysterics and threats against the citizenry must be met with the firmest possible reminders of whom he works for; the courts must uphold the right of citizens to peacefully assemble; and a special prosecutor must be appointed in any and all instances of the death of a citizen at police hands.