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Politicians and Police Celebrate the 'Right Way' to Protest Police Brutality

Politicians praised this weekend's protest against the NYPD for being calm and orderly, but "calm and orderly" doesn't always bring about change.

Around 5,000 people gathered in Staten Island on Saturday to protest brutality. All photos by the author

Thousands of people took to the streets in Staten Island over the weekend to march for Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was choked to death over a purported misdemeanor by an NYPD officer earlier this summer. Led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the crowd marched along a route that had been closely negotiated between police and Sharpton’s group, National Action Network. There wasn’t a single arrest the entire day: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was not there, called it a “beacon of the right way to do things.”

The right way to do things, presumably, means a month of planning, sponsorship from professional unions, cordoned-off streets, a thousand officers on the ground and in the sky—along with 350 riot cops at the ready in case of chaos—and a culminating event starring President Obama’s “go-to man on race.” In short, the right way to do things is stage-managed theater; a well-rehearsed and carefully controlled performance led by figures vetted by the political establishment, and not the sort of bottom-up, ideologically charged protests seen in both Ferguson and Manhattan in recent weeks.

Marchers demanded that Daniel Pantaleno, the NYPD officer who was filmed choking Garner to death, be “brought to justice.” To date, Pantaleno has not been charged, and has kept his gun and badge while sitting on desk duty.

“I believe the officer that killed Mr. Garner should serve the time he needs to serve,” said Anthony Perez of Picture the Homeless, an advocacy group founded and led by homeless people. “As a parent, I would expect Mayor de Blasio to want the same.”

Others said justice simply meant a trial.

“Justice looks like whatever is decided, whether he’s indicted or not,” said Keisha Wallace, an employee of the 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers, a union that helped sponsor the march.

Rosemary Rogers of the New York State Nurses Association professed a similar faith in the justice system and the police to make meaningful reforms.

“We think the tactics [the NYPD] uses in arresting people should be clarified and taken back a few steps,” she said. “We’re very worried about our patients. We want to make sure our patients are safe.”

Within the crowd itself, there were more radical elements, with many holding signs urging people to join leftist political parties. But the majority who came to protest police brutality were unaffiliated with any group.

“There’s no optimism here, but we have to make ourselves present knowing we could be targets,” said Alrick Brown, a filmmaker from New York. Pressed on what he meant by optimism, he lamented the redundancy of it all.

“Rallies come and go, but these things happen every day and cops—I mean, police— don’t change because the supremacy, the power structure doesn’t change,” he said. Still, he added, “a sustained movement is happening now… it’s a whole movement now around the world where the oppressed are rising up against the oppressor, from Palestine to Ferguson to here.”

As we marched to the main stage, there was a clear divide between those who believed all that was needed was a tweaking of officer protocol, and those who connected past killings by the NYPD to a systemic critique of the department. There was also a gap between those who readily proclaimed to support for the NYPD—just not their tactics—and those who candidly expressed anger against the police. As protesters approached the main stage, dozens chanted, “How do you spell racist? N-Y-P-D.” Younger attendees held up more confrontational signs.

Sharpton took to the stage later in the afternoon, leading the audience in chanting “no justice, no peace,” before emphasizing the peaceable nature of the rally.

“This is a nonviolent march. Don’t come and piss in my party,” he said to applause. “And anybody that acts up, we're going to expose if you're working against the forces of justice."

Numerous times, Sharpton hammered home the point that the rally was not “anti-cop,” probably because conservative media and police unions had expressed skepticism over the rally’s motives.

Other speakers included union leaders, a former governor, a US Congressman, the mothers of Eric Garner and of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man shot to death by the NYPD in 1999. Many of them characterized the problem with the NYPD as a matter of a few “bad apple” officers corrupting a whole barrel of good ones—a metaphor to which Sharpton often returned.

“You gotta take the rotten apples out,” he said. “We’re trying to give you the right apples.”

Sharpton’s cautious remarks were a reflection of his peak political stature. Officials in the Obama administration acknowledged to Politico that, after agitating on the outside for decades, the reverend has become part of the system and is now the president’s mouthpiece for all things race. It would be a huge scandal, then, for Sharpton to acknowledge that problems within the NYPD are systemic in nature, not reducible to a few bad cops.

For public officials who speak against aggressive police power, it is always a case of bad apples, with reform cast as a perpetual process of chucking out rotten fruit until we’re left with a fresh barrel of Officer Friendlies. However, given how widespread racially disparate policing is around the nation, especially in poor non-white communities, the process of reform hardly ever seems to result in a police force that is any less violent or racially persecutory.

A more accurate barrel metaphor might be: barrels full of both good and bad apple officers are consistently smashed into low-income communities of color by a giant social mutant conceived by generational poverty, mass incarceration, historical racism, and bad public spending. Certainly, this sort of system-based view of police problems may better explain what’s going on in the country right now than a few bad apples.

But public officials can’t say this. People must believe that, in the end, the system will reward the good guys and punish the bad, or else they may lose faith and begin “doing the wrong thing,” to flip the mayor’s praise.

Most New Yorkers are standing with their city—for now. A grand jury will soon hear evidence in Garner’s death, which could potentially lead to criminal charges for officers involved. But both Mayor de Blasio and his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, remain firm in the defense of “quality-of-life policing," a strategy that has been shown to overwhelmingly target blacks and Latinos. And rather than offer a critique of over-policing—something many New Yorkers believe is a problem—the mayor has simply issued a tone-deaf warning to the public that they should not resist arrest when apprehended.

The crowd had largely thinned out a half-hour before the curtains were dropped. In the end, Assistant Chief Edward Delatorre, NYPD borough commander of Staten Island, said that he “couldn't [have] ask[ed] for a better day." For others, the day will be judged by things yet to come, including whether or not the NYPD can hold its officers accountable and begin to address racial policing in earnest. If not, New York may have to put on another production all over again.

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