After the police officers who murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York were let off scot-free, many (myself included) were irritated with President Barack Obama’s awkwardness. He had already won himself a second term, and he had lost the House and the Senate for the remainder of his presidency, so what did Obama have to lose by showing some passion for his people? I just wanted to hear the truth from my President: that the cards were stacked in the police’s favor, that there is no justification for young black Americans to be twenty-one times more likely to be killed by the cops than their white counterparts, that it is literally illegal for racist people to be included on a grand jury panel, and that it is corrupt for state prosecutors to cocoon their police pals from the punishment the latter deserve. This list of grievances might sound harsh, but it is preferable to the echoes of parents and friends sobbing over a loved one who has been executed on the street.
Due to his race, Obama has been compelled, for the most part, to toe a line of supreme objectivity that can border on indifference in regard to the mountain of problems African-Americans still face in the US The President was hailed by the right-wing media as a Black Panther when he said the Cambridge Police “acted stupidly” (spoiler: they did) when its officers arrested Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a black Harvard professor, as he tried to enter his own home. In return for stating a fact about the competence of the Cambridge Police, Obama, and not the Cambridge Police, had to apologize. The whole thing was not unlike a terrifying art-house European satire on the lack of cognitive dissonance in America, the “evil superpower” where honest citizens are forced to bow down to the racists and the villains.
Obama was also burned by the media in March 2012, when he stated the obvious by saying that if he had a son, that child would look like Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old boy who was stalked and fatally shot by a cop-wannabe-vigilante in Florida. Identifying with the victim was actually more controversial than letting the killer walk free, which is ultimately what happened. So, I can understand a bit why Obama would not want to waste precious political capital on press conferences engineered to make him look either weak or authoritarian, when he still has many other goals he wishes to achieve before he is replaced.
Amazingly, though, a new Obama (the 2008 Obama?) has taken over in recent weeks. Spurred by looming thoughts of his legacy and by the truculent Congress he’s been saddled with, Obama has left his lame duck status in the ashes and emerged a phoenix. He has made bold unilateral strides in the past few weeks on the issues of diplomatic relations with Cuba (normalized) and immigration (humanized), historical achievements that would not be feasible in partnership with a legislature that is perpetually on the brink of a tantrum and a shutdown. The executive action has fortified Obama and has revitalized the voice that inspired a nation. Finally, when we rail against injustices in America, Obama speaks out too, thus giving us the validation we so desperately seek from our government.
The Richmond County Grand Jury’s decision not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the videotaped murder of Eric Garner was a disgusting and blatant miscarriage of ethics that united most of the nation in early December. Even diehard racists couldn’t see how the grand jury could ignore the footage that showed Garner pleading for his life; Bill O’Reilly of Fox News had the decency for once to acknowledge that Garner “didn’t deserve to die.” With this nearly unanimous mandate of outrage, Obama gave a direct statement after the failure to indict Pantaleo, who has a history of violence.
“It is incumbent upon all of us as Americans regardless of race, region, faith, that we recognize this is an American problem and not just a black problem or a brown problem or a Native American problem- this is an American problem when anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law that's a problem and it's my job as president to help solve it.”
There is no race-baiting or class warfare here. There is only the insight that there is something broken in all of us if the slaughtering of children and innocent adults is sanctioned as normal government behavior. Not only are we all at risk if people don’t face consequences for murder, but we are also in danger of losing the reverence for equality and due process that make the United States a superstar democracy. It would have been an easy abdication of executive branch duties if Obama had taken the back seat on the recent string of extrajudicial killings of black Americans. By insisting on police reforms, he is protecting us from the police, who seem to think doing a good job most of the time allows them to commit murder all of the time.
Others joined in Obama’s call for caution and change, most notably US Attorney General Eric Holder and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. A.G. Holder has often highlighted the racist tribulations of black Americans in 21st-century America, and after Eric Garner’s death, he announced that the Justice Department would open a federal civil rights investigation on behalf of Garner. His accompanying words were similar to Obama’s: “All lives must be valued. Mr. Garner’s death is one of several recent incidents across the country that have tested the sense of trust that must exist between law enforcement and the communities they are charged to serve and protect.”
Holder then continued to speak about his brother, who is a retired police officer, and how he appreciates the safety provided by the police. As if giving constructive criticism to a teary starlet, Holder was careful to praise those in the law enforcement as behaving “honorably,” “respectfully,” and with “bravery.” Entirely absent of any overt barbs towards the police, Holder’s speech merely asked for improved relations between cops and civilians and that protests remain nonviolent (which, in New York City at least, they have).
The reaction de Blasio was livelier than the formals ones of Obama and Holder. Eric Garner’s death resonated personally with the mayor, who has a black teenage son named Dante. Years of, you know, just existing in America made de Blasio and his wife Chirlane wise enough to advise Dante, a law-abiding citizen, to be extra alert around the NYPD.
"We're not just dealing with a problem in 2014, we're not dealing with years of racism leading up to it, or decades of racism we are dealing with centuries of racism that have brought us to this day. That is how profound the crisis is." The statement itself isn’t breathtaking, just factual given the de facto federal immunity for taking a black person’s life. Nonetheless, it is ballsy in American politics to concede that racism still exists.
Most Americans were in agreement with de Blasio. Elementary school kids who have paid attention during Black History month related to what he was saying. The NYPD, thus, had to spring a full-fledged revisionist assault to salvage whatever reputation they had left. The president of the Police Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, said the police felt like they had been “thrown under the bus.” The peak of pettiness was reached when the PBA put up a form on the website that would allow any NYPD officer to sign a form that would ban de Blasio from attending their funeral. Apparently, failure to play along with the delusion that cops are 100% perfect is tantamount to committing treason against the police state.
I was heartbroken when I read about the assassinations of Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos on December 20th. The pair had been quietly sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn when they were shot several times by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who had driven to Brooklyn from Baltimore, Maryland after he had shot his girlfriend (after committing the murders he would also kill himself). Brinsley had a very long criminal record of felony possession and robbery, and had Republicans in Congress supported the background check law for weapons last year, Brinsley would not have been able to procure the gun he used to kill two innocent people and wound a third. (The media seems to have struggled with the multitudes of race in this tragedy. Airtime has been largely devoted to Ramos over Liu, and it has been hard to call Brinsley anti-white and a reverse racist since the girlfriend, Shaneka Thompson, he shot is black.)
I don’t think it’s hypocritical to mourn Officers Liu and Ramos, as well as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Eric Gardner, Tamar Rice, Antonio Martin, and so on. The loss of innocent life is always sad, and these victims have families and friends whose lives will never again be the same. While there are many, many people on the right who dug for rationalizations as to why the aforementioned black people deserved to be killed (smoking marijuana has suddenly become a capital offense), I do not know of a single person, a single protestor grieving over the indifference towards black life, who is relishing the murders of the police officers in Brooklyn. Rightly so, the grief for the dead officers has been universal, and Eric Gardner’s daughter has given her condolences to the families of Liu and Ramos.
If anyone was happy about the murders of Officers Liu and Ramos, it was probably the extreme right-wing establishment, media and politicians and all. Now it was simple for them to shift the attention from racist law establishment and state procedures to the “radical” and “incendiary” protestors. Obama, Holder, and especially de Blasio were fingered as the real culprits in the Brooklyn police executions. Former Governor of New York George Pataki tweeted that the “anti-cop rhetoric” of Holder and de Blasio elicited the police murders, and he later added that de Blasio had nurtured a “climate of mistrust” between the cops and the citizens of New York. Things got theatrical when Patrick Lynch, the PBA president, said that there was “blood on many hands tonight”, including on “the office of the mayor.” Blame was squarely placed on the protestors, too; no matter that the vast majority of them were peaceful and that it is their constitutional right to protest, their cries “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” were indicted as the un-American fires that sparked Brinsley’s gun.
Every single person who wished to see justice for minorities and changes in the ways the police are trained and in the ways courts are supervised had to add the caveat, “but we don’t want to kill the police.” Of course we don’t! I respect police officers and so far I have only had positive experiences with them. If I ever feel scared, I call 911 with the reflexive faith that they will protect me. Yet infallibility, unfortunately, is not real. The room for improvement is vast when cops are killing innocent people because police training dictates shooting to kill rather than to disarm or wound. Training programs should include courses on defense, restraint, and on race relations (if James Holmes, a white man, can be arrested alive after killing twelve people in a movie theater, then Tamar Rice, a black twelve-year-old boy, should have been apprehended bloodlessly for his toy gun instead of being shot dead). Accountability should be augmented both within the department and within the judicial system so that civilians are kept safe from incompetent and toxic police officials. Just as doctors are subject to malpractice suits and reviews of their medical licenses, police officers should be held liable for their misdeeds. Uncritical tenure is a terrible thing (see: several of America’s public school teachers) to push upon the Americans.
Congress and the courts wouldn’t dare touch the first, fifth, and fourteenth amendments, yet there is a right-wing movement that is trying to silence protestors and activists who are fighting for civil rights in yes, 2014. By delegitimizing all marchers as bloodthirsty avengers, the right is trying to dismiss anything facts about racism so that the status quo can stay as is. The threshold for determining which speech presents a “clear and present danger” is being lowered, alarmingly. Cops can’t go to jail for shooting someone in the face but a citizen can be deemed culpable for murder just by walking in the streets and holding up a sign? Racism didn’t evaporate when Officers Liu and Ramos passed away, and their deaths didn’t erase police brutality either. So when Obama or de Blasio endeavor to bring more equality to our nation, and when they give their blessings to nonviolent protests, they are trying to be leaders, not secret commanders of targeted assassinations. Cops turning their backs on de Blasio at the funeral of Officer Ramos politicized and trivialized the death of one of their own, and also illustrated how hell-bent they were on continuing to carry on with their haphazard, bigoted MO.
The media is less inclined to reiterate the actual comments of Obama, Holder, and de Blasio, and are more likely to selectively report the sensational responses. Facts are lost in this maelstrom until people truly believe that the three aforementioned politicians called for blood to run through out the streets. Forgotten is the truth that all three repeatedly emphasized the need for nonviolence. Good usually triumphs over evil, but in the meantime good can be overwhelmed by louder manipulations.
Evidence of a diminished threshold for provocative speech is evident in Israel, too. In this other young democracy, the Israeli reporter Gideon Levy and the photographer Alex Levac, both from the liberal newspaper Haaretz, were arrested in Area A of the West Bank for an alleged scuffle with IDF soldiers. It is unclear why the soldiers would not allow Levy and Levac to report freely from the West Bank. Levy has written frequently about the Palestinians’ pain, and supports lifting the blockade from Gaza and ending the occupation in all Palestinian territories. A peacenik who once fought in the army, Levy is against Hamas and wars in Gaza, citing, in a 2009 piece for Haaretz, the staggering number of civilian casualties as proof that “Israel is a violent and dangerous country, devoid of all restraints.” During Operation Protective Edge, Levy persisted in writing about the lives of ordinary Palestinians, and this drew the ire of Yariv Levin, chairman of the Likud bloc in the Knesset. Levin has accused Levy of “treason,” called Levy’s articles “evil screeds,” and expressed interest in filing “legal proceedings” against Levy for allegedly harming soldiers. Should published empathy for dying children be considered treason, then we have entered an era of newspeak far worse than the one George Orwell had imagined.
I do not believe in absolute freedom of speech. The “clear and present danger” standard that was formulated by US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in the 1919 case Schenck v. United States has given Americans space to say almost anything, even hateful things, without risking the lives of others. I think threats, like the ones made by Brinsley on Instagram hours before he went to Brooklyn, and plans, like terrorist schemes over the internet, should be prosecuted immediately.
Officers Liu and Ramos are murder victims, full stop. On a daily basis, however, it is black and Hispanic Americans who endure the most prejudice in the United States, from impatient teachers, suspicious store employees, paranoid police officers, cynical courts, and everything in between. It is typically black people who are the victims of police violence, of wrongful sentencing and excessive punishments where a white counterpart would be treated with lenience. And as black people suffer, bigots bend over backwards in all kinds of mental gymnastics to defend their hatred. In the sad war between the establishment and black people, the latter are the prey who should gain parity so that they are no longer persecuted. The establishment is clever, though, and wants all the power available, even the power of victimhood status, a potent element in the media war. By acting like they are the ones being oppressed, the police are trying to steal political sympathy and entrench the current nightmarish reality for as long as possible. If they can’t shoot to kill, if they can’t crush minority groups in a myriad of ways, police who are missing the point of their job presume that their rights and very lives have been infringed.
The Israeli government and army also toiled tirelessly to paint themselves as the puny underdog in Operation Protective Edge, an effort that required heavy spin and special effects, since one glance at the casualty numbers point to which side lost the most blood: 1,523 civilians perished in Gaza, 6 in Israel (counted by the United Nations). Fearing loud noises and taking bomb shelter selfies somehow is not the same tragedy as children dying on the beach while playing soccer or while sleeping in a school, but with the help of some angles and filters and good old propaganda, Israel succeeded, with America for sure, to emerge the righteous victim.
Ignoring pain on the other side is perhaps the best way to drown out open dialogue. Amidst this din, I can only hope that Obama, Holder, de Blasio, Levy, and people in general, can stay clear-eyed and full-throated.