Whose lives matter in New York City?

January 5, 2015

Danny Katch writes from New York City on the aftermath of the shooting of two NYPD officers, the pro-police backlash and the impact on the anti-racist struggle.

THE BACKLASH following the murder of two New York City police officers by an emotionally troubled gunman has posed a difficult challenge to the #BlackLivesMatter protest movement.

This movement--which emerged only a few months ago, led by young people of color and taking shape in large part through social media and spontaneous participation--now confronts a vicious reaction orchestrated by police unions and conservative political networks.

The instantaneous shift in media coverage and public opinion following the two officers' deaths shows the difficulties that any struggle against racism and police power will inevitably face. But as protests against police violence have continued--albeit in smaller numbers--in New York and across the country, it has became clear that this movement, however raw and inexperienced, is fueled by deep reserves of anger and determination that make it too powerful to be bullied off the streets.

On December 20, NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were shot dead in their patrol car in Brooklyn by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who had just arrived from Baltimore after shooting his girlfriend Shaneka Thompson earlier that morning. After killing the two cops, Brinsley walked to a subway station and killed himself.

Whose lives matter in New York City?

Though Brinsley had a long history of depression, emotional turmoil and suicide attempts, the killing of Ramos and Liu was immediately described by the media and city officials as an "assassination"--a term normally associated with calculated acts of terrorism rather than the more random violence of the many emotionally disturbed (and usually white) gunmen of the recent past.

There was no comparable national frenzy in June of last year when a white couple with possible ties to Clive Bundy's white supremacist militia movement shot two Nevada police officers and left a note on one of their dead bodies proclaiming "the beginning of the revolution."

Yet within hours of a Black person shooting two cops, the national conversation shifted from demonstrators' demands for justice for the many people of color unjustly killed by police--over 150 in the past 15 years in New York City alone--to the supposedly equal or greater threat faced by police officers on what is routinely described by the media as one of the country's most dangerous jobs.

In fact, according to Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces, "The number of cops killed on duty has been falling since the mid-1990s," down to 27 nationwide in 2013. This is "consistent with the overall drop in violent crime in America," Balko says.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that police work is not even among the 10 most dangerous jobs in the U.S. Police officers are significantly less likely to be killed on the job than loggers, fishers, construction workers or taxi drivers.

In the same 15 years that 150 people of color in New York City were killed by on-duty cops, a total of 15 on-duty cops were killed in non-accidental deaths--not including the 24 who died in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

By contrast, almost four times as many New York City officers died from the chemicals they inhaled in the search-and-rescue attempts after the 9/11 attack. Ironically, it is the person most responsible for not giving cops and other rescue workers adequate protection from those chemicals--former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani--who is playing a leading role in orchestrating the chorus blaming the Black Lives Matter movement for creating a dangerous climate for cops.

GIULIANI'S RETURN to prominence during this backlash is just one of the echoes of the political atmosphere after 9/11.

From the relentless drumbeat of media coverage of the officers' deaths--the Daily News ran headlines about the shooting on its cover for 11 of the next 12 days--to the proliferation of NYPD baseball caps on local athletes and coaches, and blue ribbons and blue porch lights in towns across the country, police departments have been bathed in an adulation similar to the "support the troops" campaign for the U.S. military.

Just as in the days after 9/11, there was a flurry of fear-mongering reports about the possibilities of future attacks, most of them based on half-cocked threats against police posted on social media or even angry outbursts on the street by homeless people.

By contrast, there has been little media attention paid to the horrific things posted by current and retired police officers in online forums--including the suggestion that officers plant drugs on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's daughter, who has struggled with addiction.

A Fox TV station in Baltimore doctored the video of an anti-racist demonstration in Washington, D.C., to make it appear that protesters were chanting, "Kill a cop!"--an eerie echo of media attempts to portray the majority of Muslims around the world as cheering for the September 11 attacks.

The most troubling part of the 9/11 déjà vu has been the "If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists" effort to smear anyone who protests police violence as being responsible for Brimley's actions.

"There is blood on many hands," declared New York police union chief Patrick Lynch in the aftermath of Brimley's shooting. "From those who incited violence under the guise of protest all the way to the mayor's office at City Hall." Rather than stand up to Lynch's slander, Bill de Blasio went along with it, urging New Yorkers to stay out of the streets and "put aside political debates and protests" in the wake of the deaths of the two officers.

As political leaders across the spectrum, from the conservative Giuliani to the liberal de Blasio, shifted hard to the right, protests grew smaller --although some of that was due to the holiday season. Some activists felt pressure to shift their rhetoric from the powerful "Black Lives Matter" slogan to the "All Lives Matter."

But protests did continue, organized by a core of activists determined not to back down. On December 23, many hundreds defied de Blasio's call to stay off the streets with an action that disrupted holiday shopping on Fifth Avenue. Hundreds more rallied four days later at the East New York site where Akai Gurley was killed by in a housing project stairwell by Officer Peter Liang.

That protest took place on the same day as the funeral for Rafael Ramos, infuriating those who called for the city to "unite" in memory of the murdered officers. In fact, by demanding justice for a murdered Black man whose death prompted no cries for citywide mourning and unity, the Gurley demonstration showed just why the slogan "Black Lives Matter" is more relevant than ever.

THE PRO-police backlash has organized itself around the slogan "Blue Lives Matter," with its ludicrous implication that cops are oppressed by a society that lavishes their departments with additional funding and military-grade weaponry--not to mention portrays them as heroes in movies and television shows.

Actually, the nationally orchestrated response to the deaths of the two officers demonstrates precisely the opposite--that "blue lives" already matter far more than those of ordinary working-class people, especially if they are Black.

Most of those who publicly mourned Ramos and Liu have shown little sympathy not only for victims of police violence, but even for the Brimley's first victim in Baltimore, Shameka Thompson--despite reports indicating that Thompson may have been Brimley's primary target and the two men he killed later were relative afterthoughts.

Of course, there are no such thing as "blue people." Instead, there are people of many races, though most are white, who become untouchable when they put on a police uniform. A recent Reuters article provides telling evidence of this reality: In interviews of current and former Black members of the NYPD, all but one said they had been racially profiled by other cops when they were off duty. But while these officers had either filed complaints about the harassment or wanted to, many were themselves accused in court of crimes ranging from false arrest to excessive force.

The backlash is about making sure the oppressive institutions of law enforcement are even more protected from scrutiny and challenge. As Jamilah Lemieux of Ebony put it:

We know that "Blue lives matter," because when an officer of the law kills an unarmed civilian of color, that officer is almost guaranteed to escape any punishment, because his life matters. Why? Because the presumption is that most of us, especially Black men, are capable of the horrific act committed by Ismaaiyl Brinsley and that officers have a duty to defend themselves first.

"Blue Lives Matter" is a call for Black lives to matter even less. It is a justification in advance for the murder of more Mike Browns and Eric Garners. The calls, whether from outside or inside the movement, for protesters to mourn all lives equally misses these basic points.

THERE'S MORE of the backlash to come, too. The pro-police side has an organized counter-offensive in the works, with plans for months of protests against Bill de Blasio and Black Lives Matter activism.

At the heart of this reaction are police unions, led by New York's Patrick Lynch, who has battled de Blasio ever since his mayoral campaign in 2013 tapped into the anger among Blacks and Latinos at the NYPD's "stop-and-frisk" tactic. Police union officials encouraged officers to turn their backs on de Blasio as he addressed the funerals for Ramos and Liu, and they are overseeing a police slowdown, in which arrests have declined by 66 percent, and tickets and summons are down by 94 percent.

Initially at least, the slowdown may have backfired. Crime has remained at historically low levels, calling into question just what it is that cops do all day beyond harassing people of color and issuing bogus tickets.

But like Lynch's declaration that the NYPD will now be a "wartime police department," the slowdown shows that cops--even more so now than usual--see themselves as a force removed from and opposed to the neighborhoods they patrol. That's an ominous development for people of color who face the brunt of racial profiling and police harassment.

Right-wingers, led by the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post and Fox News, eagerly took up the "Blue Lives Matter" cause as a way to bash Bill de Blasio. Speaking on Fox News a day after the shooting of the two officers, Giuliani declared that Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and Rev. Al Sharpton "have created an atmosphere of severe, strong, anti-police hatred in certain communities. For that, they should be ashamed of themselves."

Obama, Holder and Sharpton--who, of course, all happen to be Black--have become an unholy trinity for conservatives, along with de Blasio, who has spoken often about how racism affects his biracial family.

As vile as the attacks on de Blasio have been, activists need to challenge the New York City mayor to take on the police department that he is, by law, responsible for controlling.

Like most liberal politicians, de Blasio wants to have it both ways. He promotes some reforms like ending stop-and-frisk to appease the millions of people who voted for him, while appointing as police chief William Bratton, the man who initiated the "broken windows" policing practice of cracking down on minor offenses, which led to stop-and-frisk.

Now de Blasio is trying to walk a tightrope of showing sympathy with those protesting police terror, while maintaining the allegiance of those same police--as well as the support of the New York's 1 Percent, which is frightened at the prospect of a city where the police don't have the unquestioned authority to intimidate the 99 Percent.

That's the job de Blasio signed up for--which is why no activist should see it as their job to make his easier by making concessions or letting up on the pressure to confront the NYPD.

By continuing to resist in New York City, Ferguson and around the country, Black Lives Matter protesters have asserted that this isn't going to be another 9/11 moment for the left. But the challenge remains to build a movement with both the size and militancy to win lasting change in a country built on racism and state violence.

Two powerful forces with deep roots in this country are squaring off: the Black freedom struggle against patriotic, militarized racism. The past few weeks in New York City are a taste of what that conflict will look like in the years to come.

Further Reading

From the archives