I grew up in New York in the 1960s and 70s saying a prayer whenever I heard a siren – a prayer for whomever the siren wailed, and a prayer for the men behind the siren, the policemen and firemen risking their lives every day, my uncles (and later cousins) among them. That’s what my mother taught me. I still find myself doing it sometimes.
As I got older, I learned the police weren’t seen as protectors, especially in black communities. They were sometimes viewed as predators, in New York, and across the country. My first national news story, as an adult, profiled the 1981 Milwaukee protest movement that emerged when a young black man, Ernie Lacy, died in police custody after a cop pinned him to the ground with a knee to the neck. It was a case similar to Eric Garner’s – in front of witnesses, but before the days of cell phone cameras. (Five officers were eventually convicted not of killing Lacy but of failing to provide first aid.) So I have struggled to reconcile those contradictory views of police – heroes or brutes – my entire adult life.
Now I live in New York again, for the first time since the 1970s, and again New York is in turmoil over the police -- not just over the killings of Garner and other unarmed black men, but over the murders of two police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, in Brooklyn on Dec. 20. White New Yorkers fear a return to the bad old days of riots, escalating crime and attacks on police. In the 1970s, 46 officers were killed in the line of duty, according to the New York Times, and 41 more in the 1980s. Before these latest murders, the last police killing was in 2011.
Black New Yorkers say the bad old days -- of police abuse -- never ended. The loudest voices are on the extremes, shouting down those who are trying to find common ground.
And as I listen to the loudest voice of all, that of Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association chief Pat Lynch, claiming Mayor Bill de Blasio has “blood on his hands” for expressing sympathy with New Yorkers protesting Garner’s death, I’m reminded that I grew up at what might have been the epicenter of the northern white backlash: Nassau County, New York in the 1960s and 1970s. The tensions of that time and place haunted us, maybe like never before, in 2014.
New Yorkers like to feel superior to Southerners and Red Staters when it comes to race relations, but they don’t have the right. Just as Dr. King said Chicago could teach Mississippi how to hate, after he tried to challenge segregation there, New York shows what happens when fear of crime turns good people into frightened authoritarians, who’ll trade security for occasional police misconduct, as long as they don’t have to watch it on video.
I’ve known for quite a while that Richard Nixon’s so-called “Southern strategy” -- to lure white Democrats to the GOP largely around issues of race -- had a strong Northern component targeting white working class “ethnics.” But I only realized writing my book that I was raised in the capital of the GOP’s Northern strategy.
You can argue with my geography. Macomb County, Michigan, right outside Detroit, is considered the ancestral home of the Reagan Democrats, thanks to Stan Greenberg’s pioneering polling on how voters there transitioned from backing John F. Kennedy in 1960 to Ronald Reagan in 1980, mainly around crime and race.
But while Macomb County gave us Eminem and Alice Cooper, my ancestral home, southwestern Long Island, gave us Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, the loudest, lingering voices of the white backlash that emerged in my childhood (The PBA’s Patrick Lynch, also Irish Catholic, grew up nearby in Bayside, Queens). That backlash had a lot to do with fearing crime and chaos, and reflexively defending cops, two issues that again polarized Americans around race in 2014 – even in liberal New York, and even in a time when the city, overall, is incomparably calmer and safer than it was decades ago.
I saw that polarization personally this year, on Facebook, where I’m in touch with family and childhood friends. Some of them are Long Island Republicans I love very much. We have an unspoken pact: we stick to commenting on one another’s kids and pets and leave politics alone. But recent headlines about police killings eroded that agreement, with a few people cautiously, respectfully, disagreeing with my posts. And even apolitical people -- even a few Democrats -- posted news stories defending police and attacking protesters, whether in Ferguson, Mo., or here in New York.
It reminded me of growing up, and the peculiar politics of southwestern Long Island in the 60s and 70s. It was more like Outer Queens: mainly working class migrants from Brooklyn and the Bronx who’d fled the city in the early 60s. It was about having a yard and a two-car garage and a bedroom for every kid; it was also about what’s euphemistically called white flight.
It wasn’t just race: the flight was driven by crime and arson and riots, and a sense that the world was unraveling. I tried to write about some of this sympathetically in my book: the transformation of New York in the 1960s and 70s was scary. Crime and arson rates spiked: the murder rate jumped 150 percent between 1965 and 1973; property crime jumped by a third. Some of my uncles and cousins were cops and firemen, including my mother’s two brothers. She worried about them every day, and so did I.
But for a whole lot of people, it was all about race. Conservatives made sure of that, with William F. Buckley running for mayor in 1965 mocking the liberal idea that social factors drove the rising crime rate – as if poverty and racism could “make Negro crime any less criminal.”
Significantly, that comment came in a debate over whether cops needed civilian review. Almost every major urban riot of the 1960s – Harlem and Philadelphia in 1964, Watts in 1965, Newark and Detroit in 1967 – was touched off by police misconduct. When Mayor John Lindsay appointed a police review board, Pat Lynch’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association sponsored a ballot initiative to repeal it. To the shock of liberal Manhattan, a coalition of outer-borough Jews and “white ethnics” voted with the cops.
In 1977, Democrat Ed Koch shoved aside Mario Cuomo and Bella Abzug to become mayor, partly powered by the white backlash. But Republican Rudy Giuliani took backlash politics to a new level, without ambivalence. The epidemic of police violence against unarmed black men under Giuliani – the killings of Patrick Dorismund and Amadou Diallo; the sodomizing of Abner Louima with a broom handle at a Brooklyn precinct – proceeded with no apologies from the mayor. Dorismund was “no altar boy,” Giuliani insisted – though in fact the dead man had been an altar boy.
Excessive force by police, and rampant racism, was never acceptable, not even in the years of crime and chaos. But what stuns me now is: crime is way down. Arson is almost non-existent. There are no more riots. Most protests against police abuse are peaceful. Sure, there are a few saboteurs smashing windows and punching cops, but you’ll also see a whole lot of protesters trying to stop them – and it seems most of the violent folks are white.
With one critical exception: Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the mentally ill Brooklyn native who shot his ex-girlfriend (an Air Force reservist) in Baltimore, then shot Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.
Even before those murders, despite the overall calm, the defense of the cops had been just as shrill and unyielding and frankly anti-democratic as it was when crime was spiking in the 60s and 70s. It’s no accident Rudy Giuliani became the national spokesman for the cops’ point of view. Sean Hannity, the pride of Nassau’s Franklin Square, turned his show into a headquarters for the defense of Darren Wilson, the Ferguson officer who killed an unarmed Mike Brown in August.
And of course, there’s no one more shrill in defending the cops than the pride of Chaminade High School, Bill O’Reilly. He’s attacked protests of police brutality by NFL players because they “aren’t smart enough” to understand the issue. In mid-December he took his trolling to a new level, suggesting that instead of wearing “I can’t breathe” T-shirts, memorializing Eric Garner’s last words as he was choked to death by police, African-Americans wear “Don’t get pregnant at 14” T-shirts.
Actually the black teen birth rate, like the crime rate, has been falling for years; the arrest, incarceration and police misconduct rate has not.
O’Reilly soared to new heights of demagoguery after the murders of Ramos and Liu, calling De Blasio an “incompetent pinhead” who “should resign,” because he expressed sympathy for the people who protested the failure to charge Eric Garner’s killer.
Then there’s the PBA’s Patrick Lynch, who shocked New York when he was caught telling his officers, in the wake of rising public criticism of Garner’s killing, that they should follow the city’s “stupid rules” when policing “our enemies” and use “extreme discretion.” He went on: “The rules are made by them to hurt you. Well now we’ll use those rules to protect us.”
Lynch’s us vs. them politics is dystopic and dysfunctional in a country where police are accountable to civilians, as well as in a city where a majority white police force “serves and protects” mostly people of color. It was appalling when Lynch's members turned their backs on Mayor de Blasio at the funeral of Rafael Ramos, which De Blasio attended at the request of Ramos's family. But it comes from Lynch’s belief – genuine or self-justifying, I can’t be sure – that the city owes its current safety, even its prosperity, to his cops.
In a revealing October Newsweek profile, Lynch callously blamed Eric Garner’s own bad choices – selling loose cigarettes and, it seemed, being overweight – for his death. And he blamed New Yorkers for being overly concerned about Garner and insufficiently grateful to police for protecting them.
“Maybe we’re forgetting what it felt like to be afraid,” he said bitterly. The writer seems to agree, arguing that “cops serve as an uncomfortable reminder of what it takes to make Brooklyn a playground for the Lena Dunhams of this world.” Lynch, he writes, “thinks that maybe it got too ‘good on the streets,’ and that people have forgotten that they need the police.”
It takes uncommon hubris to credit cops, alone, with the transformation of New York in the two decades. Demographic and economic changes; a political system more responsive to the concerns of African Americans; hard work by community leaders themselves to reduce crime and disorder – it’s a long list, and I’m not sure how many experts -- outside the police department -- would put cops at the very top.
But a lot of white New Yorkers would, too. A cousin of mine, a liberal, says she thought Giuliani went too far – but she’s glad the city moved beyond crime and fear. She was mugged multiple times, once at gunpoint. Once she was dragged between two buildings by some women who threatened to kill her, then let her go. “I don’t want to go back there,” my cousin confessed.
Nobody does, we agreed. The question is whether New York’s relative safety today can only be maintained at the expense of the police stopping, frisking, arresting and sometimes killing black men who didn’t deserve it.
“Maybe we’re forgetting what it felt like to be afraid,” Pat Lynch said, two months before the murders of Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. The awful killings shouldn’t derail the movement against police brutality, but it should remind us that police can be afraid, too.
One of the many tragic aspects of this story with so much tragedy is that this crisis could derail De Blasio, who seemed to hold the power to unite the city across race and class lines, to close the fissures that opened in the 1960s and persisted through the Giuliani years. With his African American wife and biracial kids, he represented New York’s future – and New Yorkers of every race, religion and income group voted for him. Sure, he had a record in politics, but it was at least partly the power of his family story that lifted him into office.
African Americans, LGBT people, Jews and Asians passed up the chance to vote for one of “their own” to back De Blasio. White New Yorkers backed the progressive 52-43 over Republican Joe Lhota. Which seemed like progress at the time – but given that De Blasio won 73 percent of the city, it was a fragile kind of support. De Blasio lost only one group of voters – those who said crime was their top concern. That’s Pat Lynch’s constituency, and it’s growing today.
In that context, Lynch’s remarkable secret comments about using “extreme discretion” and following “stupid rules” which are “made by them to hurt you” also sounds like a threat – a strategy to make New Yorkers remember “what it felt like to be afraid,” before it got too “good on the streets.”
Before the killings of Ramos and Liu, I took comfort in a mid-December Siena poll, which found that New Yorkers believed, by a 2-1 margin, that the officer who choked Garner to death ought to have been indicted. They also supported giving the state attorney general the authority to investigate and prosecute cases where unarmed civilians are killed by police, 58-33. (Whites agreed with both, though by much smaller margins than African Americans.)
Although white New Yorkers may still be inclined to give the police the benefit of the doubt – as I saw on my Facebook page this year – the video of Eric Garner being killed has had an effect on their certainty that cops are always the good guys. The murders of officers Ramos and Liu may have changed that, at least temporarily.
But we should also remember that the officers killed were named Ramos and Liu. The NYPD has diversified enormously since my childhood, though its leadership has not. The families of the two dead officers haven’t joined in the denunciations of De Blasio, or the movement against police violence.
And Eric Garner’s family denounced the murders and expressed sympathy for the bereaved on the other side of the thin blue line. His daughter Emerald Garner laid a wreath at the site of the police murders two days later.
"I just had to come out and let their family know that we stand with them, and I'm going to send my prayers and condolences to all the families who are suffering through this tragedy," she told ABC News. "I was never anti-police. Like I said before, I have family that's in the NYPD that I've grown up around, family reunions and everything so my family you know, we're not anti-police.
Emerald Garner proves that it’s possible to support the police while opposing brutality and excessive force. Maybe those of us who lived through New York’s crime wave and the white backlash have to leave the stage before we figure out a way to do both.