Protests have sprung up around the country, indeed the world,in response to the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Kajieme Powell and many others. As a result, police executives across the nation spearheaded a conversation with government and the public about how to reform the institution of policing to ensure that such tragedies can be avoided in the future.
Oh wait, that didn’t happen.
Instead, a Cleveland police union President was given the spotlight and the microphone to lambast Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins for exercising his First Amendment rights and to declare the shooting of 12-year old Tamir Rice justified. Since, Jeffrey Follmer has been lampooned on the Daily Show and voted out of his position.
Follmer’s logic seemed to be that since Cleveland police provide security for the Browns, that Hawkins should not have disrespected them by wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford” onto the field. As it turns out Follmer is not alone in his disdain for any discourse critical, or even skeptical, of the police interpretation of recent killings, corruption, etc. Also taking full advantage of the current attention to such matters is Pat Lynch, President of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) in New York City. Lynch has accused the NYC mayor of “throwing cops under the bus” and the PBA has recently encouraged officers to sign a waiver that reads, in part: “I, as a New York City police officer, request that Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito refrain from attending my funeral services in the event that I am killed in the line of duty.”
This tension came to a head as officers turned their backs on the mayor and Chief Bratton at a press conference following the fatal shootings of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos Saturday. A statement from Lynch proclaimed that “There is blood on many hands, from those who incited violence under the guise of protest all the way to the mayor’s office at City Hall,” and went on to exclaim how “those who allowed this to happen will be held accountable.” A further statement allegedly from the PBA declares the NYPD to be a “wartime department,” and asserts that officers are to “act accordingly.”
In an article for The Guardian, Steven Thrasher uses Mbembe’s concept of “necropolitics,” dealing with who has the power to kill in order to explain the interconnectedness of recent police violence and these recent acts of violence against police. Police are in a unique position in that their violence is socially sanctioned and legitimated by the state. The outrage over the grand jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has challenged the venerated position of police violence, ultimately challenging the institution as a whole in the minds of some.
These challenges have put police on the defensive. Decades of militarization, shifts in policing strategy, and a “war on drugs” exacerbated by a “war on terror” have created a culture within the police of combat with the society they are charged with protecting. It is no wonder then that representatives of the police would rather express rage at their critics than dismay at the culture that fosters citizen outrage. Police have been “at war” with the public for decades; recently the public has chosen to “fight back” with protests and direct action. The tragic murder of two police officers as part of one man’s killing spree (let us not forget that his first victim was his ex-girlfriend who is as of this writing in critical condition, but expected to live) doesn’t negate the largely peaceful protests and reasonable demands of police critics. Nor does the seemingly senseless violence committed by Ismaaiyl Brinsley negate the very real anger and frustration felt by communities of color, people with mental illness, and the poor and working class at their treatment by police in this country.
As the protesters have tried for months to demonstrate, these issues are bigger than the actions of just one man. They are systemic and systematic parts of the way in which policing operates in America. If we are to move beyond this moment, we must make peace despite declarations of war and turn rage into positive action for change.
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University
Sociology, Criminology & Anthropology Department
University of Wisconsin – Whitewater