Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The NYPD's counter-protest

On December 3, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio held a press conference to address the protests in the wake of the non-indictment of Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the killing of Eric Garner. During his remarks, DeBlasio talked about having to "train" his biracial son Dante in how to interact with police. DeBlasio was trying to empathize with the protesters, and to acknowledge that he was aware of the problem, and that it impacted his own family as well. I don't really know much about DeBlasio, but I was impressed with him on that day.

Pat Lynch wasn't impressed. He's the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (it's worth highlighting that it is the association which is benevolent, not the patrolmen), and he held his own press conference on the following day in which he claimed that police were "thrown under the bus" by DeBlasio's remarks. One of the reporters present, Azi Paybarah asked him what he found so upsetting, and whether expressing concern for his son indicates a lack of support for police on the part of DeBlasio.This is Lynch's reply:
“He spoke about, we have to teach our children, that their interaction with the police, and that they should be afraid of New York City police officers. That’s not true. We have to teach our children, our sons and our daughters, no matter who they look like, to respect New York City police officers. Teach them to comply with police officers, even if they feel it’s unjust. That police officers are protecting them from the criminals on the street. That’s what we do. Our city is safe because of police officers. All our sons and daughters walk the streets in safety because of police officers. They should be afraid of the criminals. That’s what we should be teaching them.”
There's a grim irony in this. DeBlasio said that he taught Dante to "take special care" in interactions with police. What do you imagine DeBlasio meant by that? I have no doubt that he covered exactly those points Lynch mentioned. The key to not getting killed by police is to not give them a reason to kill you (which is harder than it sounds if you happen to be black), and the way you do that is to be polite, respectful, and cooperative. Whenever I've heard any black parent talking about "the talk", they always emphasize that. So what is Lynch really complaining about?

A point which seems to have eluded Lynch is that it doesn't really matter whether or not people are right to fear the police. Fear is the problem, whether it is a rational fear or not, and it's a problem that undermines the effectiveness of the police. I happen to think it is a rational fear, and I don't really see how that can plausibly be denied after all that's happened since the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But either way, the police have a responsibility to reassure the communities they supposedly serve, and that starts with holding themselves (and each other) to a high standard of conduct. Instead, Lynch wants to protect them from criticism. That will only exacerbate the fear, increasing the tensions within the community, making the police more afraid of the community, resulting in more innocent black men killed. 

It's only gotten worse since that press conference. The situation was certainly not improved by the tragic and senseless murder of two on-duty officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, in broad daylight on December 20. In the wake of this outrage, Pat Lynch further inflamed the situation by declaring "blood on the hands" of the mayor, City Hall, and the protesters. He alleged that this awful murder happened because DeBlasio "tolerated" the protests. I'm not sure what he should have done instead, and I'm also not sure what Lynch makes of the fact that the shooter also shot his ex-girlfriend, Shaneka Thompson, before traveling to New York City that day. Were the protesters to blame for that too?

It shouldn't be necessary to debunk Lynch's ridiculous assertion, because it's egregiously stupid on its face. What Lynch is saying is that the protests should not have happened and should not have been allowed to happen because of the risk of inspiring violence against police. But what inspired the protests? Wouldn't it be just as fair to say that police should not be allowed to get away with excessive violence and killing unarmed men? I think that actually makes a lot more sense.

But to be clear, neither DeBlasio, the protesters, the grand jury, nor Officer Pantaleo is responsible for the deaths of Officers Ramos and Liu. The shooter is responsible for those deaths. But it's fair to ask whether there's anything we can do to address any contributing factors. We could hold police to a higher standard, so that the next Eric Garner doesn't get killed. Failing that, we could increase accountability so that the next Daniel Pantaleo doesn't get away with it. Or we could stifle protests, so that the NYPD doesn't have to endure such hurtful criticisms when the next Daniel Pantaleo gets away with killing the next Eric Garner.What would a police state do?

Other than Lynch's deranged and fascistic rhetoric, the NYPD counter-protest has largely consisted of turning their backs on Mayor DeBlasio to express their displeasure. This is a perfectly acceptable form of protest, but the substance is nearly as troubling as Lynch's remarks. Bill DeBlasio is the democratically elector Mayor of New York City. The NYPD is ostensibly supposed to be working on behalf of the people of New York City. Well, the people of New York City put DeBlasio in charge. In fact, police conduct (specifically the stop-and-frisk program which was overwhelmingly targeted at black men) was an important part of that campaign, and the people picked DeBlasio. The legitimacy of the police comes from democracy. We give police the exclusive legal right to initiate the use of force against citizens because we expect them to do so in furtherance of laws and policies devised by the democratically-elected representatives of the people. Democracy is the only legitimacy the police have.

There's something particularly troubling about using funerals to protest the Mayor. It puts the NYPD on that very short list of organizations that use funerals as an opportunity to make a political point, just below the Westboro Baptist Church. It's shameful.

It seems as if the counter-protest has reached a new level, at least according to the New York Post. I tried to find a more reliable source for this story, but everything else I found just referred back to the Post, so I'm taking this with a grain of salt. It seems the police have instituted a slowdown in which they've stopped ticketing and making arrests for minor infractions, and instead are only making arrests when they absolutely have to. The protesters are having a field day with this, because that's more than they ever could have hoped to achieve. A police force that only makes arrests when necessary is a dream come true. But this slowdown isn't intended to put pressure on the protesters. Perhaps police really do believe that society would fall apart if we stopped giving out traffic tickets or choking guys for selling loosies, but I don't think so. They're trying to put pressure on the elected government of New York City.

The reason why this is likely to be an effective form of protest is because municipalities all over the country rely on tickets, fines and fees to fund their operations. Those tickets, fines and fees are generated by police work. If the police look the other way, the city doesn't get paid. Assuming this slowdown story is true, the police are deliberately leveraging their power against the democratically-elected government of New York City. This is a form of extortion designed to silence criticism of the police. Could there be any clearer indication that the NYPD is out of control? (Of course, the broader issue is that this is a terrible way for cities to raise revenue for lots of reasons. For example, the police concentrate their attention on poor neighborhoods of color, which means this revenue comes largely from the people least able to afford it. It's just one part of a whole host of policies that add up to a de facto poor tax, which is reprehensible.)

But never mind the political philosophy. The thing that I keep coming back to is the mismatch between what the two sides want. The protesters want an end to excessive violence, and they want greater accountability when cops go too far. The police want the government to suppress the protesters because they don't like to be criticized. The protesters want to end the protests by fixing the problem. The police just want to end the protests without addressing the problem at all. It boggles my mind that people like Pat Lynch can be so self-righteous in their support of such a position that is no less than an explicit attack on the principle of free speech. And get away with it.

The unfortunate fact in all of this is that the police have a very high baseline of popular support which is not sensitive to police conduct. In other words, there is a large portion of the public which will continue to support the police whether they are doing their jobs well or not, simply because they are police. That makes it politically difficult to have real accountability for police, and while that may make life more comfortable for cops like Daniel Pantaleo, it doesn't serve the public. If we hold the police to a very low standard of conduct, they will meet it.

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