There’s no blood on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s hands, despite what the police union said after two cops were assassinated in Brooklyn on Saturday. If anything, the mayor’s sin is that his hands are too clean. He didn’t wrestle enough with the inflammatory rhetoric coming from his allies.Same goes for the majority of peaceful protesters. They are not responsible for the actions of a violent criminal with a long rap sheet and a stated death wish who invoked Eric Garner and Michael Brown before shooting Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. But de Blasio and the protesters will both pay a price for it.
Despite appointing a law and order police commissioner and defending the controversial “Broken Windows” policing method, de Blasio hasn’t convinced many wary members of the New York City Police Department that they have his support. Their suspicion deepened after two police officers were assaulted at a demonstration last week in an act the mayor condemned but didn't lead to a curtailment of protests.
As a candidate and then as a mayor, de Blasio established a dynamic that created a space for the protests and gave a voice inside City Hall to New Yorkers who hadn’t felt part of the conversation before. But in doing so, he’s alienated the police without going far enough to satisfy the critics calling for the system to be overhauled.
The truth, obvious at any large protest, is that most pro-reform New Yorkers aren’t anti-police. Black and Latino New Yorkers especially were demanding recognition that the heavy police presence in their neighborhoods, where crime has dropped most dramatically, brought with it undue harassment.
With crime at historic lows and people ready to hear them out after the shock of the video showing police killing an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, many protesters were asking the police department to back off and re-examine its assumptions about criminality.
But the other truth obvious at the protests is that some people were calling for violence against the police and using the large crowds as cover. The video showing demonstrators chanting for dead cops is the most chilling evidence, but less homicidal forms of incitement were not uncommon.
On Sunday night one of New York’s leading protest groups, Justice League NYC, held a candlelight vigil in Harlem. It was both “a time to heal” after Saturday’s violence and a continuation of the #blacklivesmatter social justice rallies it had been leading for weeks.
On Friday, the day before the murders in Brooklyn, de Blasio met with the Justice League to discuss their demands.
Both sides said the meeting went well but offered few specifics. Except on one point: “They will work with the police to identify anyone who seeks to harm the police or harm anyone and undermine their nonviolent peaceful progressive movement,” de Blasio said afterward. Almost immediately, another group active at the protests called the Justice League snitches.
Two police officers had been assaulted in New York less than a week before the sitdown. Justice League, with its insider connections, was being called out by the more radical Copwatch, accused of collaborating with the police to identify protesters who had attacked the officers, leaving one with a broken nose.
How did the Justice League respond?
The group might have condemned violence while still maintaining an adversarial relationship with the police force. Instead, its representatives said they weren’t snitches and left it at that.
Bob McManus, a former editorial page editor for the New York Post who was rightly criticized for a column after the Eric Garner grand jury decision that blamed Garner rather than the police for his death, wrote this on Sunday, in the wake of the two officers killed in Brooklyn:
“Here’s the real issue: It was, and it remains, the responsibility of protest organizers—such as they may be in the face of ubiquitous social media—to directly address murderous incantations, to unequivocally condemn those who call down harm on the city’s protectors.”
He’s right about that. A principle of nonviolence is meaningless unless defended, and repudiating Copwatch may be the least sort of sacrifice that nonviolent protest demands.
Later McManus wrote:
“The city’s cut-the-baby-in-half approach to the Garner-Brown protests—genuflect to the [police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association], confer with the most rhetorically irresponsible of the protesting groups, rinse, repeat—lent an air of moral equivalence to the events leading up to Saturday’s savagery.”
And here he’s wrong. The mayor didn’t meet with the most irresponsible protest group, as Justice League’s exchange with Copwatch attests. He met with the one most likely to be responsive, the protesters with a relationship to City Hall and an agenda that may not be what most New Yorkers want but is explicitly nonviolent.
The protesters, too, tried to cut the baby in half. Too radical and the mayor won’t meet with you. Too moderate and the more radical groups call you a snitch, jeopardizing your standing and authority at demonstrations.
The Justice League couldn’t have seen anything as heinous as the murders in Brooklyn coming, but another attack against police like the one on the Brooklyn Bridge last week wasn’t so far-fetched. That's how they kept clean, meeting with the mayor one day and affirming no snitching over nonviolence the next.
The best you can say for the meeting is that the mayor and the protesters used each other. De Blasio got engaged with the protesters as he’d promised on the campaign trail and used the meeting to reaffirm his support for Broken Windows, the policing method that groups like the Justice League are calling to end. The protesters got publicity and another chance to tout their demands.
Allowing the protests to go on with little interference was always a high-stakes gamble. It needed to allow public disorder while keeping the peace. For weeks, protesters shut down bridges and highways but the peace was kept. That started to erode after the two officers were assaulted last week. If it didn't end with the killing of two police officers on Saturday it's not clear what can be salvaged.
And the next tragedy, because one begets another and there are always more, is that the space for protest and dialogue narrows at the same time the police union threatens a work slowdown that could bring crime back up, adding more danger on top of the division and distrust.
Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Bob McManus is a former editorial page editor of the New York Post, not a current editorial page writer.