Terrifying violence aimed at New York Police Department officers took place over the weekend in the Bronx.
A lone gunman allegedly shot at police officers in two incidents — one late Saturday and another in the police precinct on Sunday. Cops arrested the gunman, and two officers suffered minor injuries and have been released from the hospital.
But perhaps the more long-term damage was done to the quality of public discourse in our city. Leaders took the shooting as an opportunity to push back against justified police protests. Mayor Bill de Blasio essentially accused demonstrators of “aiding and abetting this kind of atmosphere.”
Police Commissioner Dermot Shea stated that “these things,” referring to protests against police use of force and the cop shootings, “are not unrelated.”
These comments are intellectually dishonest. They wrongly connect someone who appears to be a mentally disturbed shooter to New Yorkers exercising their constitutional rights. But more than that, they ignore the very real struggles of people being victimized by cops daily, not just in New York but all over the country.
Targeting people of color
The week prior to these shootings, hundreds of New Yorkers marched through Grand Central Terminal protesting the presence of police on subways.
The demonstrators objected to, among other things, the excessive use of force and inappropriate tactics that subway police sometimes employ. Moments, like the one earlier this month when a cop pushed a teenager out of a subway station who was attempting to walk through an open gate, have been caught on video and gone viral on social media.
Yet the powers that be often look the other way. In that case, the NYPD stated that the video didn’t tell the entire story and that the girl, who was African American, had tried to jump the turnstile. Students can ride for free with a school-issued subway card. The officer told the girl she could no longer ride the subway.
Last year, an NYPD officer pulled a gun on another black teen who was sitting in a subway car with his hands in the air. Several officers can be seen in that viral video wrestling the young male, who does not appear to be resisting, to the ground.
There are stark racial biases reflected in the sanctions (including arrests and summonses) that the police impose for subway fare violations.
Last year, the city issued about 65,000 sanctions for subway fee evasion (that’s about 180 sanctions per day). And about 85% of “theft of services” sanctions, which in addition to turnstile jumping can include other infractions like not paying for cab fare, involved New Yorkers of color who were either black or Hispanic.
Officers have regularly directed police to target black and brown communities and people, including on the subway system, according to a New York Times report about cops suing the NYPD for discrimination.
If that wasn’t enough, recordings released recently of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg reveal the former New York mayor’s 2015 philosophy on policing and race. In a statement, he pushed cops to target minorities and encouraged officers to go where the crime was. For him, that meant black and brown communities.
Right after news of the shootings broke, de Blasio and Shea rushed to a harsh negative judgement. In an irresponsible act of intellectual dishonesty, they laid blame for the shootings at the feet of demonstrators.
No city official or agency, including the police, has established a link between the protests and the apprehended shooter, Robert Williams.
By many accounts, Williams, 45, has led a miserable and violence-prone life. His first encounter with police came when he was 14, for robbery. He returned to the system multiple times and was released from prison in 2017 after serving a lengthy sentence for attempted murder.
According to reports, the accidental shooting death of Williams’ son, Robert Williams Jr., drove him over the edge. A case can be made that Williams’ repeated encounters with law enforcement, including long stretches in prison, turned him into a ticking time bomb.
Criticizing protesters is a diversion
New York isn’t the only major city targeted by protesters, and de Blasio and Shea aren’t the first government and law enforcement officials to make pronouncements calling for legitimate protesters to tamp down their rhetoric.
Attorney General William Barr made similar statements in December when speaking to cops during an awards ceremony. He stated that if communities (meaning protesters) don’t show sufficient respect to police, “they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”
These comments intentionally seek to divert attention from a central, relevant truth. For the many New Yorkers (and I would say protesters nationwide) who fear, loathe and distrust the police, there are all-too-substantive reasons: the daily targeting, harassment and harm inflicted on poor people and people of color.
Until policymakers take steps to end rather than protect and promote these abusive, biased practices, the protests will continue.
And they should.
The demonstrators carrying them out, protected by our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, should not have to fear verbal attacks from the most powerful officials representing our government.
Robert Gangi is the founder and executive director of the Police Reform Organizing Project.