Sunday, 14 December 2014

A protest march, a German thinker - and how injustice for some is injustice for all

The chanting on the night of December 4 sounded muted heard from my eighth-floor office. But there was no mistaking what was going on. Rushing over to the window, I peered down into Hudson Street and saw the front of a line of hundreds of protesters. The leaders were carrying black placards with slogans picked out in LED lights. “Justice 4 All” and “Black Lives Matter,” they read.

I felt admiration and fellow-feeling for the demonstrators, protesting against the decision of a grand jury in Staten Island, just across New York Harbor from where I was, to bring no charges against the police officer who killed Eric Garner. The officer placed Mr Garner, a black man, in an illegal chokehold in July as he sought to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes. The protesters were shouting “I can’t breathe” – the last words that a video of the event captured Mr Garner gasping out 11 times.

Drivers held up by protests over police brutality:
far from determined to uphold the rules themselves.
But I faced an immediate problem - how, with protests swarming over much of lower Manhattan, I would get myself and my bicycle home to Brooklyn. I opted for a route somewhat to the north of my normal one and successfully reached the Manhattan Bridge. Yet my biggest challenge turned out not to be the protests but the behaviour they encouraged in drivers. Many expressed their frustration at being delayed by driving into cycle lanes, executing illegal u-turns, honking loudly and otherwise behaving irresponsibly and illegally.

The experience was, it subsequently occurred to me, an excellent encapsulation of the crisis in policing of both the US’s roads and minority – especially black – communities. Far from looking down on the law, the most vulnerable people – the protesters, people who don’t own cars – have high expectations of law enforcement. Fair, undiscriminatory enforcement of society’s agreed rules is their main protection against those who have more power than they - or operate vehicles with greater momentum.

Meanwhile, it’s the people commonly regarded as upholders of society’s order – police officers and those who have taken driving tests and invested in cars – who often seem, consciously or otherwise, to hold those rules in most contempt. Many seem to think themselves responsible or respectable enough not to need to follow the pettifogging details of the rules.
An emblem of the NYPD's style: some officers are prone
to brutality and the department cites shortages of resources
as a reason not to investigate traffic deaths. But even on a cold
winter's evening at present there are four police interceptors
parked on the Brooklyn Bridge to guard against tampering
with the Stars and Stripes on the towers.

The episode brought to mind a famous passage in which Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, wrote about how justice’s significance went far beyond any practical effect its execution might have.

Kant expressed his views in relation to the death penalty – and took a position about the morality of capital punishment with which I profoundly disagree. But his take on justice’s significance captures something of why the families of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – as well as those of Allison Liao, killed by a driver in Queens, and Cooper Stock, killed by a driver on the Upper West Side – protest so loudly over the system’s failing them.

“Even if a civil society resolved to dissolve itself with the consent of all its members… the last murderer lying in prison ought to be executed before the resolution was carried out,” Kant wrote. “This ought to be done in order that every one may realise the desert of his deeds, and that blood-guiltiness may not remain upon the people.”

The acute problem, however, is not so much that the US – and some other societies worldwide – is failing to prosecute some brutal police officers and many, many negligent or even deliberately violent drivers. It’s that by doing so the authorities send a message to those who follow the rules that they’re mugs. Refraining from violence at risk to yourself, police officer? Why not just grab the suspect round the neck? Ignoring that cellphone call so you don’t endanger other road users, taxi driver? Why? It might be a customer calling to book a long, profitable ride.

Minor lawlessness, certainly - but evidence of a corrosive
contempt for the rules: a private garbage truck blocks the bike
lane, while a delivery truck double parks outside
The challenge is less that the guilty are going unpunished and more that virtue is punished by default.

These ideas started forming in my mind nine days before the December 4 protests, as I took a bike ride on a rare day off work the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I rode from home in Brooklyn all the way up Manhattan’s 1st Avenue towards The Bronx. Yet it was soon apparent that the relatively new protected bike lane north of 60th Street wasn’t going to live up to its promise. I had to leave the lane repeatedly and pull into fast-moving traffic. Some of the obstructions were because of building work – but most were because cars were illegally parked in the bike lane or improperly turning across my path. More than once, on pulling out of the lane and round the legally-parked cars, I found a third barrier in the form of an illegally double-parked truck.

At one point, I found a huge semi-trailer truck (articulated lorry, British readers) had blocked the bike lane to deliver to a store. I appealed to a nearby traffic police officer to ticket the driver. The driver treated her with contempt and berated me, as a proxy for all other cyclists, for having forced him to park there. A previous cyclist had, apparently, sued after the driver struck him with a trolley while moving goods across the cycle lane from a legal parking place.
It's no illegal chokehold - but the parking outside the 52nd
precinct in The Bronx police station suggested to me something
about its officers' conception of enforcing the law.

It was no surprise when, later in the ride, I had to manoeuvre delicately around police cars parked illegally on the shared sidewalk and bike path outside the NYPD's 52nd precinct in The Bronx.

None of what I experienced went beyond inconvenience and I suffered no real harm. But I was soon feeling humiliated and powerless in the face of the bullying of those who were refusing to follow the rules. I felt angry that so little was being done to ensure a more equitable, fairer outcome.

Given my feelings over this minor injustice, I can only imagine the blind rage that Michael Cheung must feel over the failure to take any serious action against the driver who killed his 90-year-old mother as she crossed a street with the light in New York’s Chinatown in October. It must be indescribably painful for a mother such as Dana Lerner to hear that district attorneys are declining to bring criminal charges against the cab driver who killed her nine-year-old son, Cooper Stock, on the grounds the weather was bad when it happened.

I spoke recently to the daughter of someone killed by a negligent driver while he cycled in Central London. She expressed her rage at the failure of the police there to investigate the crime thoroughly and of prosecutors to bring a prosecution over the case.

It can only be worse still to learn that a relative has died because of illegal behaviour by those meant to uphold the law – and that those responsible will not be held to account. The killings of Eric Garner on Staten Island, Akai Gurley in East New York, Tamir Rice in Cleveland in countless other cases are shocking because they contradict so many of the theoretical principles of life in the US – and anywhere that human rights are held in any regard. A mixture of rage, impotence and grief that must boil inside the victims' relatives at the thought that many of these incidents happened mainly because of their family's skin colour and others' assumptions about people of their race.
He agrees with Kant: a demonstrator voices humans' shared
yearning for justice.
Police officers and district attorneys who flout the law or ignore rule-breaking not only disgrace their offices - and sometimes break the law themselves – but breach a fundamental clause in western societies’ social contract. Civil legal authorities centuries ago largely removed from individuals the burden of pursuing those who had criminally wronged them. The promise was that justice would be more fairly, impartially and efficiently dispensed when its pursuit was no longer clouded by issues to do with victims’ personal power, prestige, feelings or wealth.

That principle has been abandoned, it seems, when it comes to many of those killed or injured on the roads or minority community members harmed by police officers. Many prosecutors in the US – and in the UK, I increasingly fear – are ready to pursue only cases where either overwhelming evidence or a plea-bargained guilty plea make a conviction nearly certain. On the rare occasions I cycle through New York’s Foley Square, past the steps that featured at the end of the classic legal drama Twelve Angry Men, I give a rueful smile at how such finely-balanced court cases increasingly seldom come to court.

Despite my misgiving about Kant’s support for the death penalty, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that his feeling about a wider society’s guilt for unpunished crimes captures something about the deep wrong of the Eric Garner and other cases. If this behaviour isn’t regarded as wrong, if wider society imposes no consequences for these kinds of actions, what does it say about the wider society? How far into lawlessness is society prepared to let its roads or its police officers descend?

While the problems of unaccountability spread across the United States and some other developed countries, there are also very specific New York issues. Bill de Blasio stood as mayor on prominent pledges to improve police treatment of black people and to tackle the city’s epidemic of traffic deaths. It’s dispiriting that he appears so weak in face of his police commissioner’s apparent reluctance to act decisively on either.

Yet the outrage I witnessed from my 8th floor window and the growing disquiet over traffic deaths give me at least some hope. The United States might finally be preparing, as Winston Churchill would say, to do the right thing, having exhausted all other options.

Santa-conners in the 2nd Avenue bike lane: our trip would
have been depressing if we'd seen only sights like these.
That hope was boosted this Saturday, December 13, when I took my son Christmas shopping by bicycle in Greenwich Village.

We rode first up 1st Avenue and encountered drunk participants in the gruesome, annual Santacon bar crawl by young fraternity boy-types and like-minded women around the Lower East Side. The partygoers – who had noisily asserted their “right” to pursue their drunken binge in the preceding days – were the epitome, it seemed to me, of privileged refusal to follow generally accepted rules. They wandered over sidewalks, shouted across streets at each other and behaved self-indulgently and short-sightedly.

But, even as I mentally shook my head over them, I heard the first protest chants.

“I can’t breathe!” “Hands up – don’t shoot!”

We arrived at the Strand Bookstore on Broadway just as the front of the Millions March NYC protest headed by. Many of the participants were of the same twenty-ish age group as the Santacon participants. But there was an impressive earnestness about them that was entirely absent amid the Santacon foolishness.

There were also far more of them than of the Santacon-ners. We emerged after 20 minutes in the bookshop to find the march still in progress down Broadway. We joined them for a symbolic two blocks, wheeling my bike and the Invisible Visible Boy’s trailer bike.

“How do you spell racist? NYPD!”

A brief spasm or the start of real change? The Millions March
NYC protest just before I and the Invisible Visible Boy joined.
For those two blocks, it was possible to get caught up in the earnest passion of the crowd, the frustration that so little has changed. My heart sang to see several bicycles among the protesters, symbols of the union of my various political and policy positions.

But I’d have come away less optimistic had I not come away with the sense that others better equipped than I to understand the crisis also thought that, just maybe, these protests might be the harbinger of real change.

As my son and I walked those two blocks, I noticed a tall black man grab the hand of his young son – maybe three or four – and lead him across Broadway through the crowd. He was determined to get him a better view of the event.

“Come on,” he said impatiently, looking down at him. “I want you to see this.”


  1. I wonder if there is a link between the reluctance of authorities to prosecute and the reluctance of juries to convict? That is, the authorities don't bother prosecuting because they think they are unlikely to get a conviction.

    Certainly in driving cases, there seems to be a logic amongst juries of "it could have been me who didn't see that cyclist, I'm not a bad person so they aren't bad either and I'll let them off" so driving into someone gets excused on the basis of "it could have been anyone who did it".

    1. Anonymous,

      There are multiple issues here. It certainly seems as if district attorneys are very reluctant to take cases where there isn't a strong prospect of an easy conviction. In the US, that often takes the form of negotiating a plea bargain.

      However, in cases involving the police there is a very high rate of non-indictment from grand juries (which in other cases essentially always indict). There is a great deal of speculation that prosecutors, who need to work closely with the police, tend to guide grand juries away from indicting in such cases to ensure an easy life for themselves.

      All the best,


    2. We have already overcome a "reluctant to convict" situation.

      Specifically the fact that juries in the Jim Crow era in the US South would not convict participants in lynch mobs or other forms of racist violence.

      That changed. I fail to see why the same change cannot happen to perpetrators of traffic violence.

    3. Kevin,

      Many things have changed over the lifetime of the US. There was a time when people were reluctant to enforce laws over violence against slaves in the south as well.

      What changed all those previous situations, however, was a determined act of political will - the civil war, civil rights legislation or whatever. Unfortunately, for the moment I see little sign of a determined political effort to tackle the problems in the US.


    4. How very true. I am old enough to vividly remember the Jim Crow era. When the election literature of successful politicians like George Wallace included comic books like this:

      And yet, there was a complete and wholesale change of attitude in a fairly short period of time. The 15 years from 1960 to 1975 were a revolution.

      They changed. I believe that we can too.

    5. Kevin,

      That George Wallace comic book is extraordinary - and not in a good way.

      I suspect things go in cycles. The civil rights era led to enormous progress. There was then a backlash against it, one consequence of which has been the rise of stupid, brutal policing methods. We can only hope that the cycle is again starting to turn.

      All the best,



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