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.”