On December 20, a Friday, 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley eyed a parked NYPD cruiser where Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu sat; he pulled out a silver, semiautomatic gun and shot them dead. First and foremost this is a human loss that, like the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, has left families broken by pain. But quickly their murders were transformed into a political spectacle used by interlocking sectors of the ruling class to delegitimize the Black Lives Matters movement.
Justice will come when the vast majority “sees” that the state, specifically the criminal justice system, is not the cure for crime, but is in part, the cause of it.
On the streets of New York, protesters struggle against the police, conservative media and politicians. Each side fights for the power to shape public opinion. At stake is our social consensus on the limits of the state’s monopoly on violence. The Black Lives Matter movement demands we measure all life equally, which in practice, means sending police who kill innocent black men and women to jail. Whole swaths of reactionary society are lined up against them because they fear a “domino effect” – that if traditional authority is compromised, step by step, we will descend into chaos.
Who wins will determine the very visibility of violence itself. A huge gulf separates the media representation of violence from its lived reality; in that limbo lays the promise or betrayal of justice. It will come when the vast majority “sees” that the state, specifically the criminal justice system, is not the cure for crime, but is in part, the cause of it.
We don’t see with our eyes, but with ideas. Narrative visibility is like a magnifying glass in the brain, it’s the ideological distortion that forces us to “view” some phenomena and be blind to others. Like every city, New York is an imagined community of old-time locals and immigrants, a few rich and the many poor, a boiling metropolis held together, in part, by the story it tells of itself to itself. In the newspapers and TV come endless tales of crime. Some are the hilarious hijinks of passion-addled people. Mostly though, we see the threatening faces of young men of color, tattooed necks and cold eyes.
Since the shooting, where Officers Ramos and Liu were slain is a giant memorial of candles and flowers. The New York Post put their funerals on the front page to make their deaths socially visible. Across the street is the Tompkins Houses, tall housing projects beaten by years of neglect. And there, violence is also socially visible because papers like The New York Post highlight working-class crime. We are trained to “see” the poor as dangerous to justify the heavy police presence.
However liberal New York sells itself as, the day-to-day power dynamics are one of a steep class hierarchy. Conservative ideology is our implicit backdrop, and against it, crime becomes more “visible” the lower the class of the perpetrator and the darker the skin. At the core of this politics is a fear of the Other, one best expressed by English writer Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 book Leviathan, where he advocates for a strong central authority because without it, our natural state would be an anarchist “war of all against all.” Unchecked by law or fear of the state and driven by passions, we would slaughter each other and make, “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Nearly four hundred years later, the same political anthropology of “man as beast” is repeated in the pages of the conservative site National Review. In his article, “The Race Card’s Steep Cost,” Thomas Sowell, a black Republican wrote, “Someone once said that civilization is a thin crust over a volcano. The police are part of that thin crust. We have seen before our own eyes, first in Ferguson, Missouri, . . . what happens when there is just a small crack in that crust, and barbarism and arson burst out.”
Envisioning civilization as threatened by the wretched of the earth creates the need for heroes and villains. It’s why Officers Ramos and Liu, the two slain cops, were elevated to be angels of the city and Brinsley, a mentally ill man, was described as an “assassin-thug” of the Black Lives Matter movement. None of these images are mimetic representations so much as products of ideology.
The cure for ideology is not more ideology, but a humanism that cleans our eyes to see the person inside the social role. We can question a system that gives a gun and a badge to some and pins a target on the backs of others. And that means we can build a memorial of candles and flowers for Brinsley, not for being a cop killer but to acknowledge that he was a man sick and in pain. He was a victim too.
The Police Coup Against Reality
When Mayor De Blasio eulogized Officer Ramos, row after row of police turned their backs to his image on the large screen, except for one sole black officer. Days later, a plane flew over the city dragging a large banner behind it that read, “De Blasio Our Backs Are Turned To You.” At the police academy graduation, officers turned their backs and a few booed the mayor as he spoke.
Since De Blasio’s election, an inevitable collision has been looming. The turning point of his 2013 campaign was the ad starring his large afro-wearing son Dante, who testified that his dad knew the risks that people of color faced under the city’s Stop and Frisk policy. It resonated with the growing minority electorate, who propelled De Blasio to office with a 73 percent voter mandate.
He won because he talked of “two cities,” a New York for the elite and a New York for the working poor. Nearly half of the people here live in near poverty. He won because he answered our need to be free of the heavy hands of the police.
Ever since cops began targeting low-level violations, escalated ticketing and sidewalk pat-downs, a growing rage has pooled in the neighborhoods. A poll done by the New York Times in 2012, a year before the mayoral election, showed 80 percent of black people said the police favor whites over them.
Add the drumbeat of cops killing unarmed black men, followed by protests that dissipated after time – until now. New forces have converged, one being the legacy of Occupy Wall Street in which young activists felt state terror, as police destroyed their encampments. Next was the 2013 mayoral election that opened political space for progressives. Civil Rights organizations like the NAACP seized the moment by staging a Silent March against Stop and Frisk in 2012. Surrounding all of it was the new Fifth Estate of social media that is a platform for organizing and a way to circumvent corporate media. And then of course, the police killing of black men continued with Ramarley Graham, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, and there will be a new one. There always is.
Faced with nationwide protests, the police are staging a coup against reality. When the grand jury did not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for choking to death an unarmed Eric Garner, Di Blasio talked of his fear when his black son Dante faces police. The next day, police union president Pat Lynch said the NYPD, “were out there doing a difficult job . . . protecting the rights of those to protest, protecting our sons and daughters, and the mayor was . . . throwing them under the bus.”
The Black Lives Matters movement swallowed the city with larger rallies and longer marches. A turning point in public opinion was nearing until the shooting of Officers Ramos and Liu. Again Lynch spoke out, “Those that incited violence on this street under the guise of protest . . . we tried to warn it must not go on. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of city hall in the office of the mayor.”
A wave of fear has chilled the NYPD. Death threats have been made. Following the lead of Lynch, some cops are ignoring minor crimes and only showing up to calls with backup. “Do you think I’m going to stand there so someone can shoot me,” a cop told the New York Post, “I want to get home to my wife and kids.”
And yes, Officers Ramos and Liu, sadly joined the 114 other law enforcement officers who died in 2014 and the 814 New York police killed in the line of duty since 1806. But the high visibility of their death has eclipsed the reality of violence. If you divide the numbers, roughly four cops a year since 1806 have been killed.
Contrast those numbers with the 179 people killed by NYPD from 1999 to 2014. According to a report in the Daily News, 27 percent did not have a gun, nearly 90 percent of the dead were black or Latino. Add to that number another 43 killed by cops off duty.
But police killing of people is the extreme end of state violence. Under it are the thousands of complaints filed every year to the Civilian Complaint Review Board by New Yorkers who report that cops shoved them, choked them, hit them or aimed a gun at their faces. And beneath that is the endless ticketing police do that if you can’t pay, will get you a warrant. A whole invisible pyramid of violence is pressing down on the people.
And yet in 2013, only 14 percent of those complaints were “substantiated” according to a Huffington Post report. Tragically, one of them was Officer Pantaleo, accused of stripping a man in broad daylight and tapping his genitals with his baton to “search” for drugs. Later, this buttock-crazed cop would choke to death Garner, who also filed a complaint of being strip-searched in public and having his anus probed. Had Officer Pantaleo been fired earlier, Garner’s six children would still have their father.
Jailing the Sick
“This had nothing to do with police retaliation,” Jalaa’a Brinsley, the sister of the man who killed two NYPD cops told reporters. “This was a troubled, emotionally troubled kid. He needed help; he didn’t get it.”
She gives an image of her brother opposed to the one in the media. Instead of the “assassin-thug” of the Black Lives Matter movement, we see in her eyes a young man whose personality was disintegrating.
NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said Brinsley’s childhood was riddled with violence, so much so that his mother was scared of him. Arrested in Ohio and Georgia for crimes like shoplifting, robbery, carrying a concealed weapon and disorderly conduct, Brinsley once aimed a gun at his own head until his girlfriend talked him out of suicide. He took psychotropic medication and said in court he’d been in a mental institution.
He was disintegrating. He was not a political “assassin,” but a reflection of the mass killers of Columbine or the lone gunman of Virginia Tech. The common thread is staging murder and suicide in a public way, posing as a “character,” often a vigilante, to combine personal rage with the façade of political grievance. The goal is to create a solid self-image in death that conceals the disintegration of one’s inner life.
Rather than depoliticizing his killing, saying it had nothing to do with the larger movement, we can politicize the social condition of mental illness itself. Why didn’t he get help earlier? Where are the resources? Why are so many like him locked up on Ryker’s Island?
According to a New York Times report, out of the 11,000 inmates at Ryker’s, 4,000 are mentally ill and often are abused by the staff. Outside of the prison walls is a city of people in pain. Study after study shows that poverty is traumatizing; it creates chaos, separates families, can create an abusive environment and leads to malnourishment.
Children who are abused sometimes become cruel themselves. In a 1992 documentary, Child of Rage, a girl named Beth Thomas was sexually abused by her father and beaten. Afterward, she could not have empathy for anyone. She was enraged and smashed her brother’s head into the floor until he was taken to the emergency room, squeezed his genitals, killed baby birds and threw them on the ground like trash.
The couple who adopted her got her treatment. Slowly, after long hours of talking and being held, Thomas began to trust enough to see other people as separate beings. More so, she began to realize she was repeating her pain on them. In the final scene, she cried as she recognized what she had done to her brother.
The young men of color, whom we have been taught to fear, the ones shooting up the projects that rise across the city – the inconvenient truth is that they’re in pain too. One has to be dissociated from one’s body, one’s feelings, to hate and as it’s said, “not give a fuck.” If we were to make the invisible violence of poverty and racism visible, what would we see?
When I go to the next Black Lives Matter protest, I’ll think of Brinsley and his dead eyes, the childhood abuse woven through his body like barbed wire, his mind floating in chemicals. How did he get like that? How did he end up, a murderer who bled to death in a dark subway tunnel? I’ll think of all the other young men of color I know who’ve been killed or locked away for years. I’ll think of them as I carry my signs and imagine them as babies because, if Black Lives Matters means anything, it means the violence against black people has to stop right there, on our first day. We have to be allowed to begin. You have to let us breathe.