This Is Not a War. The Police Are Not Soldiers. We Are Not the Enemy.

A woman lights a candle at a makeshift memorial outside the 84th Precinct in Brooklyn. Photo from the New York Times.

A woman lights a candle at a makeshift memorial outside the 84th Precinct in Brooklyn. Photo from the New York Times.

When I read Dave Winer’s post the other day I wasn’t totally convinced. It offered a nice framework for explaining why the police expect total deference and impunity, but it was just a little too abstract. Now I buy it.

Winer argues that the militarization of police goes beyond outfitting them with mine-resistant tanks, that the police (specifically, the NYPD) now actually think of themselves as soldiers. As a result, “they want ‘Support Our Troops’ to apply to them as it applies to soldiers fighting overseas.” They want the same unmitigated, blind approval for any and all actions they take, which the American Right (and many on the Left) have claimed since 9/11 is owed to the military. The Right has been arguing for over a decade that calling military action into question is treason. Police, Winer argues, think calling their actions into question amounts to the same thing.

What’s more, there’s a corollary to America’s unwillingness to criticize our soldiers: the people they kill lose all value. For the only way needlessly killing someone can be morally ok is if they lack moral worth. By granting the military utter impunity, we thus deprive its victims of their humanity.

It’s the same, Winer says, with the police. They expect impunity, which means depriving their victims of moral worth:

“The problem isn’t with the NYPD, the problem is with the blanket total support we give our military when it fights in Afghanistan and Iraq. The price of placing zero value on the lives of the people of these countries is that our lives in turn become worthless. What goes around comes around. You reap what you sow. There are dozens of adages and fables that explain this phenomenon. The lives of the people of the foreign countries are worth exactly as much as ours. We overlooked the behavior of American soldiers in these countries. Now the cops want to know why we treat them differently.”

I disagree that the problem isn’t, in large part, with the police. But otherwise I’m starting to think Winer is onto something.

In the aftermath of the gruesome, devastating murder of two police officers—Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu—in Brooklyn on Saturday, the local Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the largest police union, said the following: “We have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly.”

And despite the fact that all available evidence suggests that the murderer, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, was a deranged lone gunmen, who had the day before attempted to murder his girlfriend too, and took his own life after taking the lives of Ramos and Liu, the head of the PBA, Patrick Lynch, went on television and claimed that the murders were caused by the recent protests against police racism and brutality in New York, Ferguson, and elsewhere.

“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. We tried to warn, it must not go on, it cannot be tolerated.”

In other words, the largest New York police union claimed that the murder of two police officers was an act of war.

Now, it appears to be true that Brinsley was motivated by animus specifically against the police, and that he was moved to take action by the recent protests. Thus it would seem to confirm the fears that many police officers have, that it is they themselves our protests are aimed against, rather than the institutions they serve. But anything can move mad men. We don’t blame J.D. Salinger for the death of John Lennon.

What it means, exactly, for the NYPD to believe that it is at war with the rest of us remains to be seen. But I’m starting to think Winer is right that we should assume they mean it literally.

In the meantime, we can’t let it deter us from the fight against police racism and brutality. And we can’t let it turn us into the enemy some in the NYPD want us to be. We can’t let it turn us into soldiers in a war, rather than citizens seeking just treatment from our own government. We can’t let it turn us into people who think other people lack value and moral worth. We need at one and the same time to protest against police racism and brutality, and to mourn Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, just as we mourn Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice and Islan Nettles and all the other victims of unwarranted violence.

In contrast to the PBA, Ferguson Action and #BlackLivesMatter released statements in response to the murders, saying:

“We are shocked and saddened by the news of two NYPD officers killed today in Brooklyn. We mourned with the families of Eric Garner and Mike Brown who experienced unspeakable loss, and similarly our hearts go out to the families of these officers who are now experiencing that same grief. They deserve all of our prayers.”


“We know all too well the pain and the trauma that follows the senseless loss of our family members and loved ones. We extend our hearts and prayers to the families of those who lost their loved ones this week. No one should suffer the loss of those whom they love.”

As a friend wrote on Facebook, “Humans are complex, and we are capable of both sympathy and anger, because both are rooted in a desire for universal justice.”

7 Responses to “This Is Not a War. The Police Are Not Soldiers. We Are Not the Enemy.”

  1. Kevin J

    Good stuff! One element that I haven’t seen explored though is the role and discourse of terrorism and the War on Terror that seems to be in the background here. Stephen Graham’s book “Cities Under Siege” points to this as one major contributor to the increasing ‘warlike’ mentality in urban governance. Same story here: the very first info we got about Brinsley was that his middle name was Abdullah , he spoke Arabic, and ‘ah ha!’ his name is Ismaaiyl. Throw in some photos of him with a Koran, his previous arrest record showing his ‘terroristic threat’ conviction, and maybe something about his ties to Black Power organizations, and we have ourselves a picture of a home grown, angry black anti-police Muslim terrorist. So now all these discourses get subsumed into the larger context of preventing terrorism. (Also I think I read somewhere that the officers were on some sort of anti terrorism task force?)

    So it goes back to the War on Terror: policing and anti terrorism are one and the same since 9/11. The Urban Area Security Initiative,’the 1099 program, all of these government programs have given police the mandate to fight terrorism as a part of their normal duties. Anti terrorism police task forces fuse the logic of war with policing. And since apparently it is indisputable that Brinsley has a criminal record of ‘terroristic threats’ and has some sort of vague link to religious and/or cultural fundamentalism, then the police can always argue that in fact this *was* an act of war, part of the fundamentalization of home-grown anti-police sentiment. Thus the conclusion would be that such anti-police attitudes are dangerous, and any protests that contribute to such attitudes are prime targets for police intervention (in the name of the war on terror).

    • Daniel Susser

      Yea, that’s a really good point. I hadn’t thought much about the connections between #BlackLivesMatter and the War on Terror. If the homeland is a battleground, then police start to look a lot like soldiers. And if police are soldiers, then the people they’re policing start to look a lot like enemy combatants. If the people they’re policing look like enemy combatants, then any pushback against the police starts to look a lot like an act of war.

      Oof. If ending police racism and brutality requires ending the War on Terror (or at least disentangling the two), we’re in for an even more complicated fight than I’d realized. I wonder what this line of thinking means in terms of political strategies for #BlackLivesMatter?

  2. Kevin J

    “If ending police racism and brutality requires ending the War on Terror (or at least disentangling the two), we’re in for an even more complicated fight than I’d realized. I wonder what this line of thinking means in terms of political strategies for #BlackLivesMatter?”

    I think you just asked the million$ question

  3. LiJia

    The extent to which the police force is punishing De Blasio has deep implications for our democracy. What does it mean for the police force, a force that supposedly enforces the laws, to not feel accountable to the democratically elected executive?

    • Daniel Susser

      I totally agree. These cops seem to think that they’re above the law — not in the sense that they can’t be prosecuted, but in the deeper sense that you’re suggesting, that they think they aren’t accountable to the people (who legitimate the laws they claim to be upholding). I don’t know what to make of it. Maybe they don’t realize what their rhetoric implies; maybe they do. Either way, it’s scary.

  4. terry

    The column is asinine. I guess the author is another victim of our public schools

    • Daniel Susser

      Indeed. And I guess we’re meant to understand that you learned this kind of classy, ad hominem Internet trolling in private school? Your teachers must be so proud!

      You may have noticed that my post contains arguments — claims followed by conclusions. If, in future, you want to address those arguments, if you want to take issue with some of the claims I make, or suggest that the conclusions I draw don’t follow from them, please feel free. Otherwise, kindly troll elsewhere!


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