Several years ago, two friends were giving full vent to their annoyance at police. The worse of the two called them “pigs,” leading me to chuckle over the seemingly outdated rhetoric of this child of the Sixties.
It doesn’t seem so funny now. “Pigs” was the epithet of choice a couple of weeks ago among protesters against a grand jury’s failure to indict a cop in the death of Eric Garner. The word not only reeks of insult and denigration, but of dehumanization. It also sounds like the last social-media messages of the killer of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu as he resolved to take the lives of some cops, any cops.
Yesterday, The New York Times editorialized against “acts of passive-aggressive contempt and self-pity” displayed by police who turned their backs on Bill de Blasio at the funeral of Officer Ramos and heckled the New York Mayor at a police graduation ceremony at Madison Square Garden earlier this week. While these acts were inappropriate in ceremonies meant to honor brother officers, the Times’ criticism was as filled with condescension as it was lacking in history, context and balance.
Remarkably, the editorial makes no mention of the elephant in the room in the Garner protests: the mayor’s embrace of Al Sharpton. The symbolism was extraordinary several months ago: de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton (the latter clearly uncomfortable) sharing a dais with Sharpton. This was the same individual who had never held a responsible governmental post, but who, as head of the National Action Network, had been unable to exercise the slightest responsibility over his private organization’s finances; a self-described speaker of truth to power who, in the 25 years since the Tawana Brawley case erupted, has never apologized for abetting a damaging legal hoax; a man who calls constantly for police restraint when he exercised not the slightest himself when he referred to Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood as “diamond dealers” in 1991 and to a Harlem clothing-store owner as a “white interloper” four years later.
I wish the writer of the Times editorial could have read some past articles to see how Sharpton’s comments in these two latter cases were followed by riots in Crown Heights (during which a 29-year-old Hasidic student from Australia was set on and murdered), and arson set at the Harlem clothing store (which took the lives of seven innocent people). His response to a call for a moratorium on marching by then-Mayor David Dinkins--"They don't want peace, they want quiet"—sounds much the same as his refusal of de Blasio’s request not to hold marches until after services for the slain officers ("Is a vigil a protest? Is a rally?").
I also wish the writer of the Times editorial had been there at the 9/11 Memorial on Monday to remember the sacrifices made by officers on that awful day. And I wish he or she could have walked a couple of blocks west of the memorial, as I did, to Battery Park City, to ponder the meaning of the New York City Police Memorial.
The police memorial, at Liberty Street and South End Avenue, is the kind of site that people come across on the way to or from another (in this case, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and the Hudson River). Nevertheless, you cannot stand in front of the granite retaining wall, as I did, without being moved by the names of police who lost their lives in the line of duty. Ramos and Liu have not yet had their names added to that list, but an improvised remembrance was already taking form on the day I visited, with flowers and photos of the assassinated officers laid before the wall.
But maybe the opportunity for reflection offered by just those names, in that quiet setting, is not enough. Maybe the writer of the Times editorial needs something more raw, reflecting anguished experience—the kind of detail found in Edward Conlon’s searing 2004 nonfiction account of life on the force, Blue Blood—or Ernie Naspretto’s Daily News article from a few weeks ago describing how quickly a seemingly “routine arrest” can escalate into an encounter with lives in the balance and an entire city on edge.
Looking east of the memorial, I beheld a new city within a city rising from the ashes of 9/11 in Lower Manhattan. But all of the millions of square feet of hotel, residential, office and retail construction—not to mention the employment that will flow to all portions of New York from it—will be for nought without police around to keep the area from descending into disorder.
Long, hard questions about the proper use of force by police, in the Garner case and others, are in order. So are issues related to less extreme interactions with the police with the potential for law-enforcement abuse or selective targeting, such as traffic violations. What is not in order are stereotypes of all or most cops as racist—or, indeed, anything that limits perceptions of the individuality of each officer, or reduces them to something less than the complicated humanity they share with the rest of the population.
One of the rallying cries in the protests generated by the Garner and Brown cases is, “Black lives matter.” Indisputably—but that doesn’t go far enough. Human lives matter—not just the lives of all private citizens in a democracy, but all the law-enforcement officials with the awesome, terrifying responsibility of protecting them.
As I walked away from the 9/11 Memorial, a number of people approached the traffic cops in that congested area to wish them a happy new year and thank them for their service. To my way of thinking, that’s far more welcome than expressing gratitude in a mute though well-intentioned granite memorial or a politician’s face-saving eulogy, when the officer isn’t alive to appreciate it.