Killing and Dying in Black and Blue

Eric Garner 2The protests continue across the United States in response to the recent grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York in the deaths of Michael Brown (Ferguson) and Eric Garner (New York, pictured right).  New York Mayor Bill Di Blasio has drawn the ire of the New York City Police Benevolent Association’s Pat Lynch for his statements of sympathy for the Garner family and those families of Afrikan-American young men who must counsel them on how to avoid (or survive) confrontations with police. 

We have seen the battle lines bring drawn between the Afrikan-American Giuliani 1community and the Law-and-Order Lobby.  Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani attempted to shame Afrikan-American commentator Michael Eric Dyson several weeks ago on the Sunday morning talk shows, challenging him that marchers have hit the streets across the country against police brutality, but have failed to do so in response to “Black-on-Black crime”.

Then, on Sunday, December 14, a Baltimore City police officer was shot and seriously wounded during a traffic stop in which one of the occupants refused to leave the car.  The officer who was shot reportedly never drew his weapon.  At a press conference outside the hospital where the officer was being treated, Baltimore City Police Commissioner Anthony Batts decided to enter the political fray with the statement, “We’ve had marches nationwide over the fact that we’ve lost lives in police custody.  I wonder if we’re going to have the same marches as officers are shot, too.” 

On Saturday, December 20, two New York police officers were murdered when NYPD LiuIsmaaiyl Brinsley walked up to Officers Wenjian Liu (left, top) and Rafael Ramos (left, bottom) in Brooklyn and shot both of them in the head as they sat in their patrol car, according to police authorities.  Brinsley had shot and wounded his ex-gitlfriend in Maryland earlier that day, and shot himself to death shortly after killing the two police officers, according to NYPD Ramosnews reports in retaliation for the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Predictably, right-wing pundits came out of the woodwork to condemn Mayor DiBlasio for his statement of solidarity with Black parents following the Eric Garner murder, even as he attended a press conference to condemn the slayings.  George Pataki, Republican former Governor of New York, condemned DiBlasio  and US Attorney General Eric Holder for their “divisive anti-cop comments”.   Lynch, the head of the Police Benevolent Association, asserted that DiBlasio had “blood on his hands.”  DiBlasio has since publicly asked for a pause in the continuing anti-police brutality protests in New York, at least until after the officers’ funerals.  New York police commissioner William Bratton seemed to strike a conciliatory note with the mayor, even as members of the New York Police Department turned their backs on the mayor in a recent public show of defiance.  And while Giuliani appeared to defend DiBlasio, calling Pataki’s remarks an “over-reaction”, he did accuse President Barack Obama and Attorney General Holder of stoking hatred against the police.  “We’ve had four months of propaganda starting with the President, that everybody should hate the police,” he told Fox News.  On CNN, he said, “Maybe, just maybe, they should spend the next four months not talking about police hatred, but talking about what they are going to do about bringing down crime in the community.” 

Then there was a backlash against a Maryland 911 operator for posting her concerns about police misconduct on Facebook.  On Sunday, December 21, actor James Woods condemned MSNBC talk show host and National Action Network chair Rev. Al Sharpton, saying he was responsible for the shooting of officers Liu and Ramos.  On Tuesday, December 23, MSN posted a story titled “Off duty, black cops in New York feel threat from fellow police“, specifically making reference to a Reuters study.  “Reuters interviewed 25 African American male officers on the NYPD, 15 of whom are retired and 10 of whom are still serving. All but one said that, when off duty and out of uniform, they had been victims of racial profiling. … The officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing stop and frisks while shopping. The majority of the officers said they had been pulled over multiple times while driving. Five had had guns pulled on them.”

All this seems indicative of a continuing culture of hostility not only towards the Afrikan-American population in major urban areas (hence the repeated instances of harassment, brutality and violence), but also against any who would speak out against it (As far as we are concerned, the only ones who should be criticizing Sharpton right now are the Ferguson-area activists who had been protesting for the last 100-plus days and yet were denied the opportunity to speak at Sharpton’s Washington, DC march, and other activists and organizers who may see him as less of an activist and more of an opportunist, but that’s an argument for a later time).  That cheerleaders for an old Nixon-era law-and-order repressive philosophy that has disproportionately and repeatedly violated the rights of Afrikan descendants would feel qualified to lecture us on issues of repression and racial sensitivity is an indicator of the collective insanity of many in the halls of power.  But we digress.

First, let’s tackle the substance of the remarks from the former mayor, the former governor and the current police commissioner.  Lynch’s remarks seem so full of vitriol that responding to them in polite company would strain the vocabulary and would, quite frankly, be a waste of time.

Former mayor Giuliani asks, Why are we so concerned when police kill us and ignore the numerous cases of “Black-On-Black crime” that occur in our communities every day?  Aside from the obvious answer that police brutality and crime are two different subjects and should not even be mentioned in the same sentence, and the also-obvious response of pointing to Giuliani’s own record of stoking the fires of racial discord (see KUUMBAReport #8, December 1998, A Tale of Two Marches, about the first Million Youth March in Harlem and Giuliani’s efforts to increase tensions), let me throw a few things out:

(1) People seem to love talking about “Black-on-Black crime” without apparently acknowledging just how racist that very concept is.  The majority of crime committed against Black people is by Black people.  Guess what?  The majority of crime committed against White people is by White people.  Same for Latino communities, Asian communities and so on.  Crime is most often a product of proximity; you commit crime against those who are within easy reach.  Thus most crime occurs within communities rather than between communities.  (And statistics indicate that even Black-on-White crime, to the degree that it occurs, is not nearly as prevalent as most Whites assume it to be.)  But we never hear anyone talking about White-on-White crime, not even in West Virginia, Tennessee or North Dakota, now do we?  And apparently no one considers police brutality to be an example of White-on-Black crime, though that is often the dynamic at play.

(2) We march when police kill us because the police are supposed to be protecting and serving our communities as the major part of their jobs (jobs that are supported with our tax dollars), not assaulting and killing us.  We march on City Hall, Police Headquarters and the Capitol because the police impose their authority on our people under color of authority as bestowed on them by City Hall and our elected “leaders”.  No government official gives the thug or gang-banger this authority, and marches on City Hall do not resonate with thugs and gang-bangers.

(3) And contrary to the stereotype that is promoted by Giuliani and other elected “leaders” who want to push their own “personal responsibility” (what a concept) off on someone else, we do mobilize when crime in our communities shakes us out of our collective complacency, in spite of the occasional reprisals (such as witness intimidation, gangland shootings, house burnings and just a general climate of fear) that come from the more vicious members of the “criminal element”.  In Tubman City (Baltimore), there have been several marches through some of the “rougher” neighborhoods in response to the violence in our communities, especially in the last two years (most notably the 300 Black Men’s March along North Avenue on July 11, which drew closer to 600 as reported in the Baltimore Sun), and there are men’s ministries in churches as well as mentoring programs from Black men’s organizations, including groups of ex-offenders, who have been reaching out to develop solutions to the crime that terrorizes our communities.  So let’s put those misconceptions to rest.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Batts is waiting for the massive community march to protest the deaths of police officers, again as though police brutality and the crime Baltimore Police Batts 1that sometimes victimizes police as well as us are the same thing or are equivalent.  Of course, police have a very dangerous job (though a recent study reportedly found that garbage collectors, firefighters and deep sea fishermen suffer higher rates of injury and death, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t even list police officers in the top ten most dangerous professions), but they patrol these dangerous neighborhoods armed with semiautomatic pistols, Tazers and PR-24 nightsticks and are often protected by Kevlar and helmets, especially in situations involving hostages, riots and those ever-so-dangerous “peaceful” protesters.  The ones who find themselves in these dangerous neighborhoods with practically no such protection, all-day-every-day, are the people who live there, and they often feel threatened by the police as well.  Just ask the families of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Terence West and so many others.  Ask the victims of “Stop and Frisk” in New York.  Look at the videos on YouTube that show police committing acts of what can only be described as gratuitous violence against motorists and pedestrians who commit the grave sin of questioning them.

If Commissioner Batts wants to know why our activists don’t respond as forcefully when a police officer is killed, first let me say that when any person dies for no reason at all, we who are concerned about truth and justice are outraged.  When a police officer dies as the result of a heroic act (such as those who gave their lives to save civilians in New York during the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001), this is just as tragic as when any other innocent dies.  But police often do not endear themselves to us when they react as they often do when they kill us, or when activists like several members of the Black Panthers defend themselves against police attacks and then are branded as aggressors, as happened most famously in December 1969 when Chicago and Illinois law enforcement assaulted and murdered Fred Hampton in Chicago.  That vicious attack, which culminated in the cold-blooded execution of Hampton after he had been mortally wounded, was first covered up with a false story about “violent Panthers” who never so much as fired a shot at the police that night, and the record was never officially set right even after the truth had been revealed for all to see.  And that is only the most famous of countless such confrontations between Black activists, in particular, and police.  Meanwhile, police associations regularly seek the death penalty in cases when activists such as Mumia Abu-Jamal are charged with murders of police, no matter how questionable the evidence, no matter how many witnesses are coerced and tortured and no matter how many lies are told by police and prosecutors in these cases, while the police who riddled Amadou Diallo with bullets in New York were hidden in secret for 48 hours while they got their story straight.  The Fraternal Order of Police consistently comes down on the side of even clearly murderous and corrupt cops and against the communities they are supposed to be “protecting” and “serving”.  These and other issues are what have created an air of suspicion between police and especially Afrikan-American communities, not anything that Mayor DiBlasio or President Obama says.

Commissioner Batts, former Governor Pataki and former Mayor Giuliani must have been storing their scripts up for a rainy day ever since they found themselves on the defensive for the actions of their brothers in arms.  Certainly, they had become tired of answering the criticisms of activists who pointed out the long list from the police assaults of Rodney King (Los Angeles) and Abner Louima (New York) to the murders of Oscar Grant (Oakland), Adolph Grimes (New Orleans), Archie Elliott III (Baltimore), Terence West (Baltimore), Anthony Baez (New York), Ronald Madison (New Orleans), Amadou Diallo (New York) and so many others, leading up to the recent killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice (Cleveland) and several others this year alone.  Thus, they have reacted defensively, the very reaction that raises the ire of the community ever the more, because it shows a refusal to face up to the responsibility the police  hold in the murders of innocents and because they attempt to draw a false connection between murders committed by thugs who are not expected to uphold the law and those committed by police who we are told to respect and obey by people such as Commissioner Batts, former Governor Pataki and former Mayor Giuliani.

When people in official positions of political power are able to speak honestly with our community without the judgmental attitudes we have grown all too accustomed to, and are able to accept their own responsibility for tensions instead of attempting to foist it all on us, then we will be able to heal the community wounds that exist between the people and the police.  I’m not holding my breath on that one, but that is the least of what it will take.  Mayor DiBlasio came close immediately after the fiasco that was the Eric Garner grand jury, but then his cohorts in the New York hierarchy slapped him into submission and may have slapped him back into line.  Without such a conciliatory step from those in the halls of power across the board, there will likely be no true healing, and the old fantasy of “Support Your Local Sheriff” will be buried forever.