In the wake of the horrific killing of two NYPD officers, police union officials and their political allies have worked to isolate and vilify police accountability and racial justice activists. By claiming that the shooter was motivated by the protests they argue both that the protests should be suppressed and that there is no space for public criticism of the police. Both of these are profoundly troubling claims.
So far the policing of the protests in New York and many parts of the country have been tolerant and flexible and have helped to maintain the overall nonviolent character of the protests. The notable exceptions being Ferguson and Berkeley, where in both cases dissent was pre-emptively suppressed in a way that directly contributed to the outbreak of violence and property destruction.
New York City police union president Patrick Lynch said that it was the protests that led to the killing of the officers and that they shouldn’t be allowed to continue. This is revealing of a mindset of many police that there is something fundamentally inappropriate about protests and that the default position should be to discourage and if possible prevent them. It also speaks to a basic intolerance of police for disorder. Demonstrations by their nature are disorderly and disruptive and police find that at best off-putting and at worst dangerous.
Fortunately, it is up to the mayor to decide what approach the police should take to protests, and so far he has supported an approach that permits disruption in hopes of avoiding violence and property destruction. So far it has worked, but any effort by police to subvert that either from the top or through decisions made by individual officers or commanders on the ground could lead to more, not less, disruption or worse.
Pat Lynch, former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and former governor George Pataki have all intimated that to criticize the police is to be anti-police. But what does this even mean? If I complain that my garbage hasn’t been picked up am I anti-sanitation? If I call and point out that the swings in the playground are broken, am I anti-parks?
Most of the protests have basically taken this approach. They want police to be a positive force in society, but feel that there needs to be significant reforms to how policing is conducted. They want officers held accountable for their misdeeds, and they want the police to treat them with basic respect, even if they are suspected of a crime. Is this what the police mean when they accuse people of being anti-police?
Now some protesters have accused the police as individuals of being racist and sadistic, while others have pointed to the entire institution as being structurally racist. Is the best way to deal with these accusations and improve police community relations to close ranks and go to “war” footing?
What about those that point not as much at the individual officers but to the system of laws and policies that shape the police role in society and are responsible for the mass criminalization of communities of color? Is their critique of the “war on drugs” and “broken windows” policing to be seen as “anti-police” even though it is directed at elected officials?