The current wave of mass protests in the US is about more than police brutality and impunity. The demonstrations are a struggle to assert that black lives matter in the United States, and thus take aim at the institutions that repeatedly dismiss and denigrate black life.
The anti-racist struggle has historically catalyzed around police brutality, from Birmingham in 1963, to Los Angeles in 1992, to Ferguson in 2014. The issue of counter-violence against police has also been contentious in civil rights history. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that "We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality." Meanwhile, the Black Panther Party's embrace of armed conflict with police left 15 officers dead, as well as 34 radicals, and earned the group a fraught place in civil rights history — both maligned and martyred.
But even the most critical view of Panther activity must look back on history's passage and be thankful that anguish over the death of police officers did not derail anti-racist activism altogether. If we view the protests of 2014 as more than knee-jerk reactions to specific impune police killings, and rather as a continuation of the civil rights struggle, then protests cannot be shut down because of the ambush killings of two NYPD officers Saturday in Brooklyn.
When President Barack Obama said Monday in response to the officers' deaths that "it is a time to put aside political debates, to put aside protest," the first black president of the United States positioned himself on the wrong side of history. It is of no disrespect to the lost lives of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos to continue to forcefully assert — as thousands of protesters have long been doing — that Black Lives Matter. To call for an end or even a pause in protests, as Mayor de Blasio has done, perniciously suggests that the actions of one Baltimore man, hellbent on revenge, delegitimize anger at patterns of police racism, killing, and impunity.
Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolman's Benevolent Association of New York, did little short of delivering a threat when he said that there is "blood on the hands" of demonstrators. The threat is that anyone who speaks out against systematic injustices plaguing US policing will be considered guilty any time police blood is spilled. If we cannot name and decry injustice without being accused of inciting murder, then injustice will remain shrouded in silence. But the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Ramarley Graham, Ezell Ford, Kimani Gray, Oscar Grant, just to name a few, should not be passed over in silence. In 2014, owing largely to tireless activism in Ferguson, a glaring spotlight was shone on police mistreatment of black youth, and the justice system's mishandling of police. The protests have been righteous and righteously angry. To recognize this is not to justify the killing of cops.
'If we cannot name and decry injustice without being accused of inciting murder, then injustice will remain shrouded in silence.'
A petty circle of blame has formed around the NYPD officers' deaths. Police and pundits are slamming both New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and protesters for enabling and stoking anti-police sentiment. It would be a reactionary move for the emerging protest movement to deny that a strain of fierce anti-police sentiment runs through its decentralized ranks. The Garner and Brown cases have, it can't be denied, fueled an an attitude toward US policing that goes further than merely critical, it is enraged. But Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the gunman who killed the NYPD officers and then himself, was not just enraged, he was murderous. We are not all Ismaaiyl Brinsley.
"We are all Ismaaiyl Brinsley" is not a protest chant I've heard. I have in recent weeks, however, heard groups gather in New York streets, many of them young and black, to chant "We are all Mike Brown" and "We are all Eric Garner." Now, as police union comments make clear, anybody standing up in solidarity against this racist pattern in policing will be considered a murderous threat too.
If this historic moment of anti-racist protest, this continuation of the civil rights movement, is silenced for fear of being called a criminal threat by police merely for expressing anger, then we are in a worse scenario than we perhaps even knew. In response to the NYPD killings, a familiar and problematic narrative is playing out in which police assert themselves as unassailable while black Americans and their allies are called criminal and silenced. To see this motif reappear, so readily available to police representatives, is reason to continue — not end — this moment of resistance.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard