Now, in New York City, where tourists are often surprised by the relative sense of safety on streets and subways, it is Officer Rafael Ramos, 40 years old, and his partner, Wenjian Liu, 32, who cannot breathe. They are dead, executed for the clothing they wore to work on a Saturday in December, four days before Christmas.
Liu, Asian, and Ramos, Hispanic, were shot to death by an assassin named Ismaaiyl Brinsley, 28, African-American, who began his day miles south of Brooklyn in Baltimore, a gun in his hand and a diseased dream in his mind of killing police officers, posting his goal quite publicly on Instagram, writing “They take one of ours, let’s take 2 of theirs.” His success later in the afternoon has staggered a nation and sent two families reeling from heartache that never diminishes.
By now the details are grotesquely familiar: Brinsley, career criminal, arrived in Brooklyn with, what else, a semi-automatic handgun and target opportunity, Liu and Ramos, seated in a patrol car parked on a borough boulevard in the middle of the day. In the time it takes you to snap your fingers three times, two New York City police officers were gone, the cruiser splattered with blood, the city they represent quite shaken, and the department they belong to outraged at what it feels is a distinct lack of either support or understanding from a recently elected mayor, Bill de Blasio.
For months, nearly every police department in the country has been alert to tension after the July death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, shot dead by a police officer who apparently had all the training of a mall cop, left shot and dying for hours on a street like a dead dog. There was a grand jury and there was no indictment issued. Riots ensued. Fire lit the Missouri nights.
Weeks before Brown was killed, Eric Garner died on a Staten Island sidewalk after being grabbed around the neck and wrestled to the ground by a squad of New York cops, the entire scene captured on cellphone video. Garner’s “crime” was selling cigarettes by the handful. Again, a grand jury was convened. And again no indictment.
The weight of both decisions ignited protests across the land. Each day and almost every night people took to the streets in largely peaceful demonstrations decrying the apparent indifference of a judicial system that seemed to ignore eyesight along with evidence.
In New York the marches could have been used as training films for other police departments. The cops were restrained and respectful. The men and women wearing the uniform were more diverse than the crowds they protected as they helped them proceed along streets, displaying their grievances. All of it, with only a few exceptions, was peaceful.
Simmering beneath the surface though was the clear divide between a patrol force recognized as the finest in the country, if not the world, and a mayor, de Blasio, who has by word and action divided himself from the one municipal department that provides citizens with something necessary to keep a city breathing and moving forward daily: a sense of security.
Most cops are not looking for understanding. They work in a world filled with a sense—real or imagined—of danger lurking around each corner and every hallway. Most cops are merely looking for respect.
Unlike other professions—doctor, lawyer, teacher, journalist, sales clerk, stock broker—when a cop makes a bad mistake it could mean someone is dead. They take home mental baggage unlike anything carried in almost every other job.
Now, two of them are dead. “Assassinated,” in the words of New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.
So who will hit the streets to galvanize support and express rage over the execution of two young men killed because of who they were and what they did for work? How many of those who protested will rush to the side of Rafael Ramos’ two sons? How many will be there for the young widow of Wenjian Liu, married only two months?
Saturday, when Ramos and Liu began their tour of duty, neither man expected it to end in their death. They were where they were because they stood, like so many others in uniform, as a blue line between order taken for granted and the potential disorder always there.
Both men, homicide victims like Brown and Garner, were not unlike the thousands of others sworn to protect and serve all of us, no matter our race or religion. They knew each day brings danger. They knew they might see things that will disturb them, but could not deter them from their duty. And they knew that only a few truly understand the world they lived and worked in, other cops who wear the same clothing that cause them to become targets for any deranged individual with a gun in his hand, demons in his head, darkness in his heart.
Now, during Christmas week, many of the politicians and phony posers who have labeled all cops as dangers because of the behavior of a few, will pay their respects to two who died in Brooklyn, ambushed, never even drawing their service revolvers. They will do this without realizing the tragic irony involved in paying respects to the police who rarely ask much more than exactly that: respect for what they are asked to do and what they represent to a society seeking order and peace.
For more from Mike Barnicle visit mikebarnicle.com.