You Have the Right to Remain Obnoxious

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Here in New York City, the past few weeks have been fraught. First, in early December, protesters took to the streets to protest a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict a policeman involved in the choking death of African-American Eric Garner. The police were attempting to place Garner under arrest for selling loose cigarettes.

The protests made cops angry, especially because of certain anti-police chants and an assault during one of the demonstrations against two police lieutenants on the Brooklyn Bridge. But their anger escalated into fury on December 20 when two officers were gunned down in their patrol car by a deranged assailant from out-of-town who may have thought he was exacting revenge for police killings of African American men.

The police response has been a work slowdown – although they’ve denied it – that’s just beginning to end, and acts of disrespect directed against New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio. He was booed by spectators at a recent police academy graduation, but the main gesture of contempt has been police turning their backs to the mayor at the funerals of the two murdered officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.

Such actions began the night of the killings when de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton entered a media briefing at the Brooklyn hospital where the two policemen had been brought after the shootings, but really, they were the latest in a series of attacks on the liberal Democratic mayor that began during his election campaign in 2013. Some have alleged that the latest of these are being orchestrated by police union officials coordinating with Republican allies.

Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, speaks during a news conference after the bodies of two fallen NYPD police officers were transported from Woodhull Medical Center, Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

At his own press conference outside the hospital, Patrick Lynch, the man who organized the back-turning, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the largest of the city’s police unions, blamed the deaths on the mayor and on demonstrators who had been protesting the grand jury decision not to indict the policeman involved in the death of Eric Garner. Lynch referred to them as “Those that incited violence on the street, under the guise of protest,” and those “that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day.” He continued, “That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.”

The homicides and the Brooklyn Bridge assault are serious crimes. But here’s the thing: the right of free speech the police are angry about when it comes to the demonstrators is precisely the same right of free speech they’re using to harass de Blasio. And it’s that same ideal of free speech, no matter how noxious it might seem, for which those police in Paris died last week.

Noxious is just what Patrick Lynch’s talk of blood-covered hands was, demagoguery to exploit what he saw as an opportunity to rally public sentiment on behalf of the police and against the protesters.

Counter to his spurious accusations are the simple facts about race and the police that so many journalists and non-partisan investigators have uncovered. For example, ProPublica reported, “Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater.” A Reuters survey of 25 current and retired NYPD officers found, “All but one said that, when off duty and out of uniform, they had been victims of racial profiling.”

“… The officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing stop and frisks while shopping. The majority of the officers said they had been pulled over multiple times while driving. Five had had guns pulled on them.”

How further to explain Lynch’s bombastic rhetoric? Well, for one thing, it conveniently comes as the city and the PBA remain at a negotiating impasse, both sides without a contract since 2010 and binding arbitration soon to begin. “Continents Apart on Pay Issues” – that was the headline in the civil employees weekly newspaper The Chief on December 22.

Mention this coincidence, however, and Lynch and his associates tend to scream bloody murder, quite literally it seems. For another, Lynch’s polarizing polemics come as he prepares to run for reelection this spring to what would be his fifth consecutive term. No one is likely to successfully take him on now; as Kenneth Sherrill, an emeritus political science professor, told New York Metro, “A challenger saying he’ll be nicer to the mayor can’t get him very far.”

Some perspective is helpful, too. David Firestone at The Guardian writes, “Only New York City has ever experienced decades of sustained militancy by its police unions.” And as Commissioner Bratton asked Bloomberg News, “Can you point out to me one mayor that has not been battling with the police unions in the last 50 years? It’s nothing new, it’s part of life and it’s part of politics and it is what it is. This is New York City. We voice our concerns and we voice our opinions.”

We do indeed, which makes Lynch’s bullying complaints and accusations about the anti-police protests all the more vexing, especially as all members of the police force take an oath when they are sworn in to uphold the Constitution of the United States, freedom of speech included, no matter which side of an issue any individual cop is on and no matter how obnoxious he or she may think the opposing viewpoint is.

I have lived in New York City for more than 40 years. We have an extraordinary police force facing extraordinary pressures and danger. They always have come running when I needed them. On 9/11, two policemen from my neighborhood precinct died trying to save lives at the World Trade Center: Officer James Leahy and Detective Danny Richards, a member of the Bomb Squad. Another, Sergeant Edward Thompson died in March 2008 of lung cancer, very possibly contracted from the weeks he spent working on The Pile, the mountain of debris at Ground Zero so carefully sifted for remains.

Over more than four decades in the city, my interactions with police have been routine. But I also know that because I am white, I am nowhere near as likely to be challenged or harassed as others are; nor have I had the conversation that Mayor de Blasio had with his mixed-race son, “The Talk” that so many men and women of color have with their kids about how to behave around police.

So we live a world of conundrum. We expect the police to protect and not harm us; in return, they expect our respect regardless of any transgressions. Satirists like the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo actively seek to offend the core beliefs of others, sometimes just for the hell of it, sometimes with or without common sense, but we defend their freedom to make us mad – or laugh. World leaders descend on Paris to decry the suppression of speech while committing that very same sin in their own backyards.

As the sign of one of those in Sunday’s Paris demonstrations read:

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.
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