I will say only three things before I turn this post over to the faces and voices of the Baltimore rally I attended Saturday in front of City Hall, one day after State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced bringing criminal charges, including murder, against the six officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray.
1.) Black Lawyers for Justice president Malik Shabazz, the rally's keynote speaker, was not only overshadowed by speeches by young people and mothers of those killed by Baltimore police, he was roundly heckled by audience members for his transparent egoism and microphone-hogging. He is just good enough a demagogue to shove himself into the limelight and just clumsy enough to be obvious about it. At one point, after he bragged about his family lineage and his having contributed $5,000 toward the day's event, audience members shouted back, "It's not about you!" I will have video up of him as soon as I can; it has gotten hung up at YouTube, thanks perhaps to unseen protocol or the ghost in the machine.
2.) I will follow up soon with audio recordings I made of Tawanda Jones (whose brother, Tyrone West, was killed by Baltimore Police Officers and who with her family has mounted a weekly protest for nearly two years), mothers of young people slain by police, longtime justice advocate Carl Dix, and others. Sadly, I missed recording the afternoon's most moving oration -- by young Tanara Collins, who looked to be in her teens and electrified the audience with her fierce run-down of the history of white policing from slavery to now -- when my phone ran out of data space. That'll teach me to squander precious recording time on the headliner. If I find her speech online I will pass it on to you.
3.) For the record, it appears, from photographs, that three of the six officers charged in Freddie Gray's death are black. As many of us have written for years, cops of color are not exempt from the racist militarized police culture that has dominated American policing from the War on Drugs forward.
So spoke an NYPD officer, quoted in the Guardian, after the murder of two NYPD officers by a man swearing vengeance for the deaths of Eric Garner and other black men at the hands of police.
Uh, yes, officer, we black civilians know about being afraid in our vehicles.
We black civilians know the fear of driving – and the fear of walking and riding and standing – very, very well. It has been taught to us, actually, by police. And by the decades of wrongful stops and arrests and deaths of people of color at the hands of law enforcement.
I have no doubt that the officer in question is mortally afraid. I can empathize with that. I wish that anguish on no one, and I wish that it were not so. I also know nothing of that particular officer's mind, heart, and behavior on the job.
But the spectacular irony here is that the NYPD as an armed organization, finding itself now as much a target as a targeter, is making like the world's biggest crybaby thug. The NYPD and its backers, in a move that political scholar Corey Robin chillingly warns is "Weimar-y", have managed to intimidate the city's mainstream political leaders and to shift the official tone from acknowledging civilian casualties to appeasing police power. They blame protestors for the rage that created the protests. They blame the new mayor for spilled police blood after decades of civilian bloodshed at the hands of police.
It is ironic for an armed force to grab at abusive power as it weeps for its own victimhood. But it is not new. And it is no joke.
Corey Robin gets right to the point about the relationship between the terrified New York City political establishment, including the mayor, and the defiantly unfettered NYPD. This is serious, folks. We ignore it at our peril. Here is the entire December 22 post, along with the Dec 26 update.
“There is blood on many hands, from those that incited violence under the guise of protest to try to tear down what police officers did every day,” Mr. Lynch said.
“That blood on the hands starts on the steps of city hall in the office of the mayor.”
A statement purporting to be from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the biggest police union, blamed Mr. de Blasio for the shootings.
“The mayor’s hands are literally dripping with our blood because of his words, actions and policies,” read the statement, “and we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly.”
The statement instructed officers to forward it to colleagues, and it spread instantly through the department.
The Sergeants Benevolent Association issued a similar statement on Twitter.
I had heard that that statement was not in fact from the PBA, but now I can’t find anything definitive about it. In any event, it gives you a flavor of what Greg Grandin is calling a “cop coup” in New York. It’s a strong term, but it’s hard not to conclude that the mayor believes his first duty is not to the security and well-being of the people of New York but to the security and well-being of the NYPD. Because the fate of his administration is in their hands.
“It’s time for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things that we will talk about in due time.”…”That can be for another day.”
The mayor’s call came a few hours after the police commissioner, William J. Bratton, said that the killing of the officers on Saturday was a “direct spinoff of this issue” of the protests that have roiled the nation in recent weeks.
And with that, De Blasio’s pretty much handed over his administration to the NYPD.
Listening to these cries from the cops—of blood on people’s hands, of getting on a war footing—it’s hard not to think that a Dolchstosslegende isn’t being born. Throw in the witches brew of race and state violence that kicked it off, the nearly universal obeisance to the feelings and sensitivities of the most powerful and militarized sectors of the state, and the helplessness and haplessness of the city’s liberal voices, and you begin to get a sense of the Weimar-y vibe (and not the good kind) out there.
But whatever historical precedent comes to mind, one thing is clear.
The entire New York City establishment—not just De Blasio, but political, cultural, and economic elites—is terrified (or in support) of the cops. With the exception of this fairly cautious statement from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, himself a former police captain, not one of these figures has spoken out against the Freikorps-ish rhetoric emanating from the NYPD. It’s not that these men and women are spineless or gutless in a psychological or personal sense. It’s worse: They’re politically frightened, which is far more dangerous. Because they have no sense of an alternative base or source of power. After decades of being whipsawed by capital—you could trace this rot all the way back to 1975, if not even further—they’re simply not prepared to take on the police. Even if they wanted to.
Update (December 26)
Via Digby, who was also skeptical of my initial report, comes this article in the New York Times of the impact the political response to the killing has had on the critique of the police:
Just how dramatic the turnabout has been in New York could be measured by a scene that unfolded this week at City Hall. There were no Council members blocking traffic. There were no choruses of “I can’t breathe.” And there were no mayoral meetings with protesters.
Instead, there was unstinting praise for the police from the Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who earlier this month had asked her colleagues to repeat “I can’t breathe” 11 times, for the number of times Mr. Garner said those words before he died in the encounter with the police.
“We are here to send a simple and direct message: that we unequivocally support, appreciate and value our police officers, that we condemn any and all violence against them, that we must end hateful and divisive rhetoric which seeks to demonize officers and their work,” Ms. Mark-Viverito, flanked by fellow Council members, said at a news conference.
The next in my list of things that the non-indictments have shown us:
3.) Opposition to selectively abusive policing isn't just from progressives. It's also from conservatives.
We do ourselves, and justice, a disservice if we assume that the case against brutally racist policing is compelling only to people of color and progressives. Yes, those abused first and most are the first and most fierce to resist. But the power of actual self-interest runs deeper than white privilege and rightward fear-mongering. Particularly after the Eric Garner video put execution-style streetcorner policing on display worldwide, it is interesting how some voices on the right have chimed in with their reasons for opposition.
Andrew Sullivan, for instance, takes the temperature of some conservatives and libertarians on the perilous injustice of untrammeled and targeted policing, including this entry from Reason Magazine's J.D. Tuccille:
You want a society taxed and regulated toward your vision of perfection? It’s going to need enforcers. … Those enforcers aren’t an equal problem for everybody. They spare the people who pay them to look the other way. They give a pass to friends and relations. But they often take a dislike to individuals or whole groups that rub them the wrong way or cause them extra grief. Poor minorities, in particular, are always on the short end of the stick when it comes to dealing with cops. When they break petty laws, they don’t often turn enough profit to grease police palms enough to be left alone, they don’t have the political power to push back, and at least some of the enforcers have a hard-on for them anyway.
On a shallower but still interesting level, in a CNN interview former President George W. Bush observed that he finds the Eric Garner non-indictment "hard to understand" and that, after a dinner conversation with pal Condoleezza Rice, he is disturbed that large numbers of black Americans seem to not trust the police. Even House Speaker John Boehner has said regarding the Garner and Michael Brown cases that "the American people deserve more answers about what really happened here and was our system of justice handled properly." Neither remark reflects more than a penny's worth of empathy or informed conviction. But the fact that both of these men felt the need to say something publicly sympathetic toward the movement against racist militarized policing says a lot about how flagrant that policing has become. With the Garner video now globally viral, it is not, at the moment, good politics for the Money Party to summarily dismiss police brutality as a wild claim of lying black thugs. There are white conservatives out there who are more afraid of the state than they are of black people.
It's not that the agenda of the American right is anywhere near the same as that of the left. It's that, again, the realities of what the state does and who it works for run deeper than claimed ideologies about race and entitlement.
That zone of overlap is where new movements can happen.
It is being tweeted everywhere, and there is truth to it. If the videotaped killing of an unarmed man by a policeman using an illegal chokehold while the victim cries out repeatedly that he can't breathe, in a case subsequently ruled by the coroner as a homicide, can't get an indictment then an on-camera ISIS beheading in Washington, D.C. couldn't get an indictment. President Obama, feeling the heat from enraged voters who the Democrats hope won't boycott the 2016 election, might now be turning over furniture in search of a more satisfying declaration than his recent call for police body cameras. I suspect it wasn't an accident in timing that the administration announced yesterday the critical findings of its Cleveland Police brutality investigation.
Make no mistake: cameras can and do make a life-and-death difference. Had there been video of the Michael Brown altercation, it might have framed the issue in Ferguson, and the reaction to it, in ways we will never know. Having a video of the Rodney King police beating made the Cro-Magnon racism of the Simi Valley and its jury's not-guilty verdict infamous around the world. The Eric Garner video has done the same for Staten Island, where white bigotry and Blue Line police loyalty have been notorious for decades. Like the sometimes-belittled white-privilege-confessional of #CrimingWhileWhite, anything that bears public witness to injustice is a good thing. Cameras are good at that.
But racist bulwarks, like the grand jury pool in Staten Island and the long pattern of overwhelmingly-white Dixie-ish arrogance in Ferguson law enforcement, are very bad at responding appropriately to even irrefutable evidence.
Video won't fix that. Power will. That is why it took streets filled with outraged citizens to put militarized policing of black people into the mainstream of American news and politics. It is up to us to keep it there.
I know: it's the much-ridiculed f-word, something that reasonable Americans are taught cannot happen here in our ostensible democracy. Problem is, though, that it is already happening to selected groups of Americans nationwide.
Consider fascism's necessary ingredients:
A chilling national fear about the safety and future of the "homeland."
Sinking national self-esteem.
Deprivation and desperation in a nation of people who believe they deserve better.
Designated scapegoats for the threats of crime, treason, and national ruin.
Military-style police who target these scapegoated groups – both in the communities where many of them live and in their movements in the larger society – and who enforce upon these groups a daily regime of random street stops, questionings, beatings, arrests, payoffs, assaults, occasional murders, and brazen judicial injustice.
A colossal national project of incarceration that warehouses these groups in wild disproportion to their numbers.
That is the time-honored recipe. And that is what we now have in selected areas and populations of the United States. Call it Stop and Frisk, call it broken windows policing, call it immigration enforcement. Call it what you like. But see it for what it is. It has already regimented the daily lives of millions of poor Americans of color for years. And, one quiet act of "national security" and "public safety" at a time, it is making itself at home in every communityacross the country.
That is why the defiantly non-quiet response to the atrocities in Ferguson and Staten Island, both among the long-targeted and the recently-enraged, is a good thing for every neighbor on every street in America.