Monday, 22 December 2014

A ride with the police, a senseless attack - and why I'm seeing visions of injustice this Christmas

It was one Saturday back in September that I had much my most positive experience with officers of the New York Police Department. My family and I were taking part in a Kidical Mass ride for families from a park in Gowanus, near our home, to the Brooklyn waterfront. Two bike patrol officers from the NYPD’s 78th precinct joined us, as did a community relations officer and Frank DiGiacomo, the precinct commander. The officers stopped traffic to allow our families to ride through difficult intersections and chatted to us as we rode along.

A positive cyclist-police interaction: Hilda Cohen, ride
organiser, photographs two members of the 78th Precinct's
bike patrol.
By the time we reached Pier Six looking across to Manhattan, I was feeling warm enough towards them to try a gentle joke.

“I suppose I don’t really need to ask a police officer whether he’d like a doughnut,” I said to one of them, as I proferred him a bag of police officers’ favourite treat.

He felt sufficiently friendly in the other direction that he replied with a friendly punch to my shoulder.

I’ve been thinking about that incident in the last few days because of an appalling act of brutality against two NYPD officers just a few miles from where I gave the bike patrol officers their doughnuts. On December 20, as my family and I were packing for our Christmas break in the United Kingdom, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a 28-year-old black man, walked up to a police patrol car and shot the two police officers inside - Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos – in the head, killing both. Brinsley, who had posted anti-police messages on Instagram, then ran into the Willoughby Avenue subway station and, as police closed in on him, shot himself fatally in the head.

Given that Brinsley’s aim appears to have been to kill New York police officers no matter who they were, he could just have easily targetted any of the four who accompanied us.

The incident has challenged me to consider whether I, as someone who’s regularly complained about the attitudes of the NYPD both over traffic policing and race relations, helped to create the atmosphere that led to Saturday’s horrendous deaths. Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the New York police union, expressed fury in the wake of the crime over the criticism his members have faced in recent weeks.

"There's blood on many hands tonight - those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day," Lynch said outside the hospital where the officers were taken. "We tried to warn - 'it must not go on, it cannot be tolerated’. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor."
The Invisible Visible Man and Bill de Blasio, while the now-
mayor was campaigning. Both of us, I'm sure, have had reason
these past few days to reflect on Pat Lynch's criticisms.
Lynch’s comments, although intemperate, have made me look back on that September bike ride and wonder if those cycling officers perhaps represented a truer face of the NYPD than I’ve previously recognised. I’ve consistently focused on the negatives about the force. As a well-off white person, after all, I don’t rely as heavily on the police’s protection from crime as residents of the Tompkins Houses public housing, outside which Liu and Ramos were sitting. I encounter officers mainly when they’re in my way – for example, when they’re blocking bike lanes.

Since the police department’s handling of the issue that most acutely concerns me – road safety – is grossly inadequate, I’ve tended to feel resentful when I’ve encountered individual police officers, especially when they’re engaged in some pointless traffic policing. Because statistics show that there are disproportionately high numbers of brutality claims from blacks and Latinos, I’ve sometimes assumed that pretty much any police officer I encounter is likely to be racist.

It’s easy for someone such as me to ignore the effects of, say, last year’s sharp drop in New York City’s murder rate. That was achieved, according to the police, by examining patterns of Facebook and other messages surrounding gang violence, particularly in The Bronx. They brought conspiracy charges against the associates of those responsible.
Families part-way through September's Kidical Mass ride:
a scene I should recall when I wonder what the NYPD
has done for me
I’ve sometimes, I suspect, drifted close to the same thinking error as Ismaaiyl Brinsley, by viewing individual members of the NYPD as if they were responsible for the collective failures of the group or its culture. Liu and Ramos, as far as I know, were no more responsible for the wider failings of their department than I am responsible, say, for the conduct of cyclists who misbehave on the roads, or for the shortcomings of other British journalists.

Yet it remains fatuous to pretend that Brinsley decided to act as he did other than of his own free will. Even if the protesters’ rhetoric had not been mostly admirably temperate, only Brinsley himself decided to pervert the understandable, justifiable anger over the police’s killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, into murderous rage against individual officers. The story is at least complicated by Brinsley’s having shot in Baltimore, before he headed to Brooklyn, Shaneka Thompson, his girlfriend, who is not a police officer. She remains in hospital.
NYPD officers calmly march at the head of December 13's
Millions March NYC event: just because we take for granted
their readiness to protect marchers criticising them
doesn't mean it's not hard to do.
It makes no more sense to claim protesters somehow prompted Brinsley’s misdeeds than to claim that the NYPD somehow deserved them.

Instead, Brinsley was acting like the worst of the police officers he so hated. He showed the nihilistic lack of self-control that is a hallmark of many police brutality cases. Like the worst police officers, he used unjustified violence in such a way that the victims would have no reasonable chance to respond. He seems to have shared with violent cops a determination to impose his will on others no matter the havoc he risked unleashing.

It is certainly an important distinction that police officers are sometimes entirely justified in using violence, in a way that ordinary citizens seldom are. It’s also critical, however, that police officers are expected to act with discipline and self-restraint in a way that no-one expects a common criminal to do.

It’s vital to point out the balance of risks. New York police officers kill multiple unarmed people every year, yet Saturday’s killings were the first of an NYPD police officer on duty since 2011.
Marchers on the Millions March NY protest: some of them
shouted, "How do you spell racist? NYPD." I'd now be more
careful to point out it's the overall system - rather than each
individual officer - that's racist.
US Society, however, shouldn’t be tolerating even that limited amount of violence against police officers – just as it most assuredly should not tolerate the casual tossing aside of black people’s lives. While Ismaaiyl Brinsley had no justification for his brutal killing, there was also no justification for the actions of “pro-police” demonstrators who on Friday evening, the night before Brinsley’s attack, paraded outside New York’s City Hall wearing, “I Can Breathe” sweatshirts. The shirts mocked the proliferation among protesters of sweatshirts bearing the legend, “I Can’t Breathe” – the words that Eric Garner gasped out 11 times as a police officer throttled him on a Staten Island sidewalk.

It’s critical if this rift is to be healed to get away from the divisive rhetoric that currently disfigures nearly every debate in US public life. While there are certainly intemperate anti-police voices, there’s an equally disturbing tendency for any web story about a police killing of a young black man to become infested with slanders and lazy assumptions about the person’s lifestyle or behaviour.

US society has, somehow, to learn again to recognise the humanity of people on different sides of its profound racial and ideological divides.

I would normally offer policy prescriptions for how I think that can be achieved. But, after a year of chronicling dispiriting car crashes and a miserable deterioration in the US’s race relations, this final blow feels as much emotional and spiritual as practical. Brinsley twisted a knife in deep wounds that Eric Garner’s killing, the non-indictment of his killer and many other cases have left in New York’s body corporate this year.

Given the time of year, I’ve been prompted regularly in recent weeks to advocate that somehow the wider city could be more like the Episcopal Church I attend every Sunday in Park Slope. The congregation is made up of a vast range of people – around half of them black – of many different ages, backgrounds and sexual orientations. There is what feels to me, as a relative newcomer, a remarkable sense of unanimity for such a diverse group.

Note to self: next time you see a line of cars like this,
remember there are people inside
I attend the church partly because its clergy have been so quick to recognise the spiritual importance of contemporary events in the US. I’ve sat at points in tears as preachers have related the injustices that people who in some cases live very close to us have suffered to ancient spiritual themes and long-ago suffering.

While I know that few if any of my readers will share my specifically Christian experience of the last few months’ events, I imagine I can’t be the only one who’s had a sense of something truly momentous happening. The questions feel bigger than individual human beings.

I found myself describing to my wife recently the powerful sense I’ve experienced at points in recent weeks of how my faith relates to my feelings over the injustices I’ve seen being perpetrated.

“I keep thinking that somehow Jesus is there,” I told her, of Eric Garner’s death. “He’s lying facedown in front of a row of tacky shops in Staten Island.”

I have a similar sense about Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri – and about the fates of the many victims of traffic crime that go neglected by the police and criminal justice systems.

They’re thoughts that will, I’m sure, seem to many like the kind of foolish sentimentality against which I normally rail. To atheists, they will seem like the kind of deliberate missing-of-the-point of which they accuse all religious people.

Perhaps they are right.

But, for the moment, I also can’t help feeling that the central figure of my faith in some sense also sides with officers Liu and Ramos. Five days before Christmas, Jesus lay on the sidewalk beside them as paramedics worked in vain to undo yet another senseless injustice.


  1. I am certain (and in agreement with you) that we will have to turn away from violence driven by rage, and toward compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and justice if we are to make it through this. When people accuse me of missing the point, I ask them what specific, actionable suggestions they have to improve the situation. So far, that question has been met with more rage only, so it may be too early to ask. If / when people come to their senses, perhaps some deep wisdom based on love and hope rather than rage and resentment will take hold. Perhaps.

    1. JRA,

      Thank you as ever for your wise comments.

      There are, I suppose, practical things one can do to improve things. Better regulation of guns springs to mind.

      But ultimately the angry rhetoric isn't getting anyone anywhere. Pat Lynch's rhetoric is gradually growing angrier. He's talking about the city's being full of "friends" and "enemies" of the police. It can only be a disaster to continue down this path of division.

      All the best,


  2. This Christmas, let's ALL reflect on what we can do to make next year better. Thanks for your thoughts on many topics this year...

    1. Steve A,

      And thank you for your wise, supportive comments throughout the year. I hope that 2015 brings you continued good fortune over there in the Pacific North West.

      All the best,



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