The New York City Sergeants Benevolent Association blames New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio for the deaths of Wenjian Liu and Raphael Ramos. Today, conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh blamed Al Sharpton, and Rudy Giuliani blamed Barack Obama.
The blood of 2 executed police officers is on the hands of Mayor de Blasio. May God bless their families and may they rest in peace.
— SBA (@SBANYPD) December 21, 2014
What do Sharpton, Obama, and de Blasio have in common? All three men have advocated the outrageous notion that maybe – just maybe – the police in this country need to be held accountable for their actions.
And they’re right.
Before this post goes any further, two things need to be made plainly and abundantly clear. First, Wenjian Liu and Raphael Ramos did not deserve to die. Second, no one is to blame for their deaths but Ismaaiyl Brinsley.
There’s a tendency in this country, in the wake of tragedy, to look for places to assign blame beyond those who perpetrated the tragedy. In 1999, several conservatives tried to blame the Columbine massacre on violent video games, and some liberals tried to blame gun culture, while both parties overlooked the fact that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were both mentally ill. Ismaaiyl Brinsley was a thug, an ex-con, and a murderer, who was known to have ties to a violent prison gang known as The Black Guerilla Family. The police accountability movement did not make him kill two cops – he did that on his own.
Nevertheless, Limbaugh and Giuliani and their cohorts want to blame the police accountability movement for the culture that supposedly breeds cop-killers like Ismaaiyl Birnsley. But putting blame on the cop-watchers, the protesters, and those who call for police accountability overlooks some rather important facts.
“Us vs. Them”
If you believe that the police (as an institution, not all individual police officers themselves) don’t view you as the enemy, look no further than Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014. Yes, some protests following the Michael Brown shooting were violent, and some protesters engaged in rioting and looting. So how did the police respond? Military tanks, tear gas, assault weapons pointed at civilians with their hands up, a no-fly zone over the city to enforce a media blackout, journalists arrested, and an al-Jazeera camera crew’s equipment destroyed.
And it’s not just Ferguson; about 150 miles north of St. Louis, this billboard once greeted visitors and residents alike in the central Illinois town of Bloomington.
Does Bloomington’s police department need military protective gear and assault weapons to prevent people from selling drugs to one another? Or do they simply want people to be aware that they are armed to the teeth and will exact quick vengeance on anyone who dares to sell drugs – especially if the buyer is part of an all-American, white family?
These weapons, tactics, and propaganda serve to send a message to the American people from their police; we are at war with you.
A couple of weeks ago over in Pennsylvania, a newspaper published a cartoon (which can be seen here) criticizing the police. Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 President John McNesby responded to the cartoon, and he got downright nasty about it.
“There is a special place in hell for you miserable parasites in the media who seek to exploit violence and hatred in order to sell advertisements.”
And if you post a video of a police brutality incident on YouTube, the haters will be there within hours, blaming the victim. Here’s a video from earlier this month showing a Texas cop roughing up and tasing an old man for not having an inspection sticker.
The cop in that video has since been placed on leave by his department, pending an investigation, and even his police chief called his actions appalling. Nevertheless, YouTube commenter kerplunk8000 still blamed the old man.
“I see nothing wrong here the old man deserved it for trying to be Mr. Barney badass I’m glad he was tazed.”
Attitudes like this convey the notion that cops – even cops who believe that an expired inspection sticker deserves a tasing – shouldn’t be criticized.
Eric Garner lost his life over the sale of “unlicensed cigarettes.” Even if his actions can be considered a crime (which is a debate for another op-ed piece), it would have been a crime best dealt with by a notice to appear in court and a small fine. Instead, he was issued the death penalty, on the spot and without trial.
But to police apologists, his death was justified. Consider the case of South Bend, Indiana former cop Jason Barthel, who created T-shirts mocking Eric Garner’s last words (“I can’t breathe”).
The implication of the message on that shirt is clear; Obey the law, and you will be allowed to live. Break the law – even if you’re selling unlicensed cigarettes – and you deserve death.
No one in this debate is saying that all cops are bad. Al Sharpton himself has said so several times.
“The Garner family and I have always stressed that we do not believe that all police are bad, in fact we have stressed that most police are not bad.”
The vast majority of cops are undoubtedly decent men and women doing a dangerous and thankless job.
But overzealous enforcement of laws pertaining to victimless “crimes” such as drug offenses or selling unlicensed cigarettes, coupled with a culture that holds bad cops above criticism and a militarized police force that views the American populace as the enemy, has driven some to hatred and even violence. It’s not right, it’s not justified, and it’s not acceptable. But it has happened, and it will happen again.
Not all police accountability activists are calling for dead cops. In the same way that a handful of bad cops don’t represent all police, a handful of violent rabble-rousers advocating violence don’t represent all police accountability activists.