To hear the culture warriors of America tell it, the source of most of the ills plaguing the black community in the United States can be traced back to a dearth of good parenting, specifically on the part of fathers. It has always been a rather condescending and specious assertion, but considering the widespread condemnation of a public expression of a nugget of conventional black wisdom from a father to his (half) black son, it may have never held any less water than it does right now.
I am referring, of course, to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s continuing feud with the city’s police department, supposedly sparked by de Blasio’s comments after a grand jury opted not to press charges in the high profile case of Eric Garner, who was killed after being placed in a chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo during an attempted arrest. In a press conference after the grand jury’s decision, which sparked widespread protests and demonstrations across the country, de Blasio recounted a conversation he had with President Obama at the White House, where Obama mentioned that de Blasio’s biracial son Dante reminded him of himself as a teenager. De Blasio went on to state that he and his wife have had to teach Dante “how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him,” and that there is an ever-present tension for some citizens in having to rely on the police as a protective force while remaining cognizant of a history in which their power was used to hurt the communities they were sworn to protect.
A reasonable person with even the slightest grasp of what the reality is on the street for black and Hispanic citizens around patrolmen would be able to appreciate the nuance in de Blasio’s words—de Blasio’s comments honor the work of the police while acknowledging a documented history of inequities. But to read and hear some of the responses to de Blasio’s words, one could be forgiven for thinking that he’d outed himself as a long-lost member of gangsta rap group N.W.A., and that his press conference was little more than an additional verse for their 1988 song “F**k Tha Police.”
De Blasio was excoriated in the press, and when coupled with his opposition on the campaign trail to New York’s “stop and frisk” policy, his words were used to tar him as an “anti-cop” mayor. When Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenijan Liu were murdered by Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley, ostensibly as a revenge killing for Garner, the stewing resentment of the mayor poured over into outright hatred and anger. Rank-and-file officers turned their backs on the mayor at the funerals for both officers, and he was booed while speaking at the graduation for cadets from the New York Police Academy. Among a slew of talking heads and pundits, such as Fox News staple Bill O’Reilly, former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former police commissioner Ray Kelly, Congressman Peter King, and Fraternal Order of Police president Patrick Lynch all publicly spoke out harshly against de Blasio, with the latter going so far as to say that his words and refusal to condemn the protests over Garner’s death meant the blood of the slain officers was on his hands.
What did de Blasio do to deserve this? He publicly gave voice to something that almost every black child in America has been told at least once in regard to the police: it’s different for you. Be calm, be respectful, don’t be intimidating, keep your hands where they can be seen, and try to present yourself in the best possible light. A failure to do any one of those things can lead to an arrest that a white perpetrator might have been given a bit more leeway on, and once in police custody, the doorways open up to a number of other terrible outcomes. It is as true on the streets of New York as it is on the sidewalks here in Hyde Park.
Men like Giuliani, O’Reilly, King, Lynch, or Kelly would have you believe that because Eric Garner resisted arrest (by slapping an officer’s hands away and asking to be left alone), Officer Pantaleo had no choice but to put him in a chokehold to restrain him. They would have you believe that because Eric Garner’s repeated final words were that he couldn’t breathe, that he was naturally lying, as one must breathe to be able to speak. Anyone who has ever been in a similar hold could dismiss this logic from painful firsthand experience, but under that rationale, they would further have you believe Pantaleo had no choice but to continue applying the hold, as Garner could’ve been faking it to get free. They would have you believe that Eric Garner’s weight was a greater hazard to his health than a forearm across his throat, and that if he had been in better physical condition, why, he might still be alive, as though he was five minutes away from slipping into cardiac arrest without police intervention. And on the matter of Officers Liu’s and Ramos’s tragic death, they would have you believe that because of one documented protest in which marchers despicably chanted for “dead cops,” every protest around the country is somehow responsible for fostering an attitude that led to the officers’ death at the hands of one man (conveniently glossing over his prior attempted murder of his black ex-girlfriend). Operating under the same logic, perhaps they would lay the blame for the 2011 attempt on former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ life at the feet of Sarah Palin and the broader Tea Party.
In short, they would have you believe that the culpability in Eric Garner’s death lies with the slain and not the slayer, and that the climate that all but guarantees that another black man will die under similar circumstances secure in the knowledge that there will be no justice found after his death is a product of the people protesting it, and not the police.
In saying so, they would pretend that Amadou Diallo was not shot at forty-one times and hit nineteen times after reaching for a wallet that officers interpreted as him brandishing a gun. In saying so, they would have you believe that Patrick Dorismond, a private security officer shot at point blank range while being solicited by an undercover police officer who believed him for a drug dealer or a man with connections to such, did not have his hitherto sealed juvenile disciplinary record released by then mayor Rudolph Giuliani in an attempt to prove that the dead man was “no altar boy” (an act whose inherent contemptibility is only slightly mitigated by the irony that Dorismond was in fact a Catholic altar boy at Giuliani’s former school). In saying so, they would have you believe that an unarmed Ousmane Zongo was not shot four times and killed in a warehouse raid when he fled from an officer out of uniform, during an investigation into a pirating operation in which he played no part. They would have you forget the lives and deaths of Sean Bell and Jonny Gammage, of Shem Walker and Akai Gurley. In saying so, they would pretend as though Abner Louima was not savagely beaten by NYPD officers after being taken into custody, as though he were not forcibly sodomized with a broom handle and remanded to the custody of an emergency room with the insulting explanation that his injuries were the result of "abnormal homosexual activities."
In the end, Louima may well have been the luckiest man of all. Not only did he survive his ordeal, but the officers responsible actually went to jail for their actions. Rarely were they even indicted in the other cases, and they were much less often convicted, and even less often sentenced to prison.
They would have you ignore arrest quotas, which while nominally illegal, are still very much in use by the NYPD. They would have you ignore the habit of some officers of planting evidence in order to reach those quotas. They would have you ignore the demonstrated disproportionate targeting of minorities under New York’s stop and frisk program. They would have you ignore all of this, or at the very least believe that they are all a series of unfortunate events, because to believe in any one of them or in their interconnectedness is to recognize that the NYPD is neither perfect nor above reproach. For such big fish in the very large ocean that is the nation’s media capital, such an attitude is at best woefully inept, and at worst staggeringly disingenuous.
I have never set foot in New York City, but if it is anything like my hometown of Chicago, then I feel comfortable in my appraisal of their police department. Which is to say, that it is full of good men and women, by whatever nebulous standard “goodness” may be judged, who honestly wish to serve and protect their communities. That in the country’s largest city, they have the dangerous and often thankless job of protecting their fellow citizens from a pernicious criminal element, and from danger that could be lurking around any corner. I would say the same of any police department in America, simply on faith. Even if I were not related to two Chicago officers and acquainted with several more, I would believe this to be true. My penchant for Batman stories and open-world video games notwithstanding, I am not and will never be anti-cop.
Just as I am sure of the existence of good officers, so too am I sure of the existence of their less competent and more ill-intentioned counterparts: the corrupt, the lazy, the unjust, and the overall unfit to serve. But I hesitate to point even that out, because such officers make easy scapegoats that unjustly tarnish the Big Apple’s reputation. These protests, and de Blasio’s tacit endorsement of them, are not about a dichotomy between good cops and bad cops. It is about a system that effectively shields all cops, “good” and “bad,” from being subject to the same laws and punishments they enforce. It is about a system that interprets criticism of the police, no matter how valid or invalid, as the first large and emphatic step down the path to anarchy and madness. It is about a system that for decades has done poorly by both its own members and by the people it ostensibly protects , and yet never wants for people who will defend it tooth and nail against any reform whatsoever.
And this is not a phenomenon strictly confined to New York. When the St. Louis Rams football team expressed support for protesters after the shooting death of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson by walking out of the tunnel prior to a game with their hands raised, the St. Louis Police Department demanded that the team issue a formal apology. When Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a T-shirt over his uniform calling for justice for John Crawford and Tamir Rice, a black man and child killed in two separate instances for carrying fake guns that were interpreted to be real and killed by Cleveland police, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association deemed it pathetic, dismissively stating that Hawkins should stay focused on his play on the field, and demanding a formal apology from the Greater Browns organization. When the Pittsburgh chief of police was photographed carrying a sign saying he vowed to challenge racism at work, the union chief told a local news network that “the chief is calling us racists.”
Such knee-jerk and thin-skinned reactions would be embarrassing for a prepubescent child, let alone seasoned law enforcement officials, and if such officers are truly their respective cities’ finest, then I shudder in horror at the thought of what must constitute their worst. Yet as puerile as they seem, it is important for all Americans, especially the people on the ground marching and demonstrating, to hear these responses. More than anything else, these responses and the attitudes they convey are the strongest evidence for why such protests and demonstrations are not only justified, but necessary.
And as long as such histrionics over police conduct are allowed to rule the day in media outlets, police stations, and city halls across the nation, they will continue.