Black Lives Matter Activists Take on a New Foe: Police Unions
Protests this week hit at cop unions, one of the strongest holdouts against police reform.
Protesters using plastic pipes and metal chains barricaded the entrance to the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association headquarters in Manhattan on Wednesday morning. At the same time, protesters occupied the Fraternal Order of Police building in Washington D.C., waving flags and posters reading “#STOPFOP” and “The most dangerous fraternity in America.”
“The PBA protects cops that kill black people,” protester Jewel Cadet told the New York Post during the Wednesday protest. “We are here today to say that is not OK.”
New York City’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association acts a mediator between the city and its cops, negotiating for higher wages and more favorable contracts. Other cities’ police unions work on similar relationships with their local governments. But protesters say the unions’ legal power gives an unfair advantage to officers in police brutality cases, many of whom never face indictments let alone convictions in controversial deaths.
“We’ve been particularly interested in the way police unions have power over police departments and how they have prevented police departments and officers from being held accountable,” Dante Barry, executive director at the Million Hoodies Movement, told The Daily Beast. His group organized the protests with other activists groups like the Black Youth Project.
“They’ve often been the barrier between black people getting justice or not,” Barry said of the unions.
In police departments across the country, unions act as a first line of legal defense for officers involved in fatal shootings by providing them with arbitration services and internal appeals. New York’s PBA is so important to cops that when NYPD officer Peter Liang fatally shot unarmed Akai Gurley in November 2014, Liang texted his union representative before calling 911, even as Gurley lay dying.
While occupying the PBA’s New York headquarters on Wednesday, protesters read out a list of demands, the first of which was “Fire Officer Isaacs, who murdered Delrawn Smalls in Brooklyn.”
The demand refers to NYPD Officer Wayne Isaacs, who this month shot and killed a man while off-duty in Brooklyn. The incident, originally described as a self-defense shooting, came under new scrutiny when footage emerged showing Isaacs shooting Smalls from the safety of his car, where he did not appear to face any credible threat from the civilian.
Isaacs is still on the police force, temporarily stripped of his gun and badge. A police official told The Daily Beast that Isaacs was not subjected to an interview until several days after the shooting, as union rules allow officers time to seek legal representation during deadly force investigations.
But PBA President Pat Lynch said the protesters (10 of whom were arrested) should take their grievances elsewhere.
“[Wednesday’s] protest was a display of misdirected and misinformed anger that should have been pointed at City Hall,” he told The Daily Beast in a statement, adding that “the climate police officers face is growing more dangerous by the day. Police officers are being shot at; that’s not ‘dialogue,’ it’s violence.”
This claim, that officers face a growing threat of violence, is a common refrain from Lynch and police union leaders. After the 2014 shooting deaths of two NYPD officers, Lynch made headlines for tying the murders to ongoing Black Lives Matter protests in the city, partially blaming the deaths on “those that incited violence on the street, under the guise of protest.”This narrative of protester-on-police violence has become a popular one this month, following a rash of police killings and killings by police.
But Barry says his organization will continue holding police unions responsible for their officers.
“We know in New York the PBA President Pat Lynch has used the killings of police officers as a wedge,” Barry said. “We know this. Now it’s about how do we hold police unions accountable and their departments accountable.”