Eric Garner. Rosan Miller. Denise Stewart. Mashach Strachan. Jahmil-El Cuffee.
These are just a few of the countless named and unnamed victims of New York Police Department brutality whose arrests were recorded and have gone viral within the past few weeks. The NYPD is coming under increased public scrutiny this summer, but far less than it deserves. The recently filmed homicide of Eric Garner in Staten Island by NYPD officers set in motion a viral image of abuse of police power. The video of Garner’s death joins a mounting pile of viral evidence that abuse of force police is not an isolated incident; rather it’s a system wide problem that needs to be addressed comprehensively.
Much like the open casket portrait of Emmett Till in 1955’s JET, the cruelty of this video of Eric Garner being choked to death recorded could galvanize us to raise our voices against chronic abuse that for too long has been seen as isolated and disconnected. The abuse is not new, but our dialogue about it should be. The process of raising our voices against police terrorism won’t be an easy one which the family of Ramsey Orta—the civilian who taped the killing of Garner—learned this week when he and his wife found themselves “conveniently” under arrest and their names paraded across an national news media.
Despite this, we cannot be silenced into to ignoring abuse of power. Not when less than a month after Garner's death, we learn of two other Black men killed by police under circumstances that might have warranted a terse word for young Whites.
If you live in or visit New York City you’ll inevitably pass a sign that reads, “If you see something, say something.” This slogan, part of an anti-terrorism campaign, actually operates quite the opposite when it comes to police misconduct. If the NYPD had signs they would likely read, “If you see something, you didn’t see nothing!” With the uploading of each new video, inevitably someone will come to the defense of the police officers and critique the response of victims whether handcuffed or splayed on the concrete. This is no longer surprising to me and it shouldn’t be surprising to you. After all, from early ages we are actively taught to believe in authority and assumptions about criminality and race run deep.
This type of response only emboldens the narrative of people like the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch to claim a chokehold was not used to subdue Garner despite its visibility in the video and the medical examiner ruling the death was caused by “compression of his neck (chokehold), compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police” and other factors. The outright denial of abuse in the Garner case reflects a trend of denial by turning a blind eye to the larger problem, rather than acknowledging an epidemic pattern. However, social media is allowing an increasing tide of experiences to be collected and belted out to audiences across place and time. For example the taking over of #MYNYPD hashtag on Twitter this year taught the NYPD that “not all publicity is good publicity.”
At the core of reforming the police is engaging the current police commissioner Bill Bratton. Bratton was made (in)famous for an epidemic approach to policing known as “broken windows.” Broken windows policing, drawing from the research of James Q. Wilson and Greg Kelling, suggested that small amounts of disorder led to greater rates of more serious crime. As a response, policing should involve the address of “minor social disorders” to deter subsequent crime. Great idea, right? Wrong. The problem is broken windows isn’t related to better policing, safer communities, or increased feelings of trust in police. However, perpetual and often unnecessary interactions with police can bolster negative interactions with the police. Recently the Daily News found that Black and Latino residents received 81% of the citations in New York City associated with broken windows policing. It should be hard to ignore that number and the reality of harassment in low-income communities, but still many are attempting to “unsee” the clearly visible.
With the election of Bill de Blasio as mayor, the victory of a lawsuit which mandated an end to stop-and-frisk policies, as well as the creation of an Inspector General to oversee the NYPD hopes were high for a new era in New York City. Sadly, just eight months into his term, de Blasio and Bratton have shown little concern for the continued misconduct of NYPD officers. (A review of police practices is far from a vested response to the phenomenon at hand.) Both de Blasio and Bratton have to be challenged to acknowledge that the culture of NYPD is the problem, not individual officers misbehaving. It’s going to take the continued raising of voice by groups like Communities United for Police Reform and the New York Civil Liberties Union, but their voices must be joined in chorus. The death of Emmett Till was significant not because it was the first lynching, quite the contrary it emerged at a time when people believed lynching had tapered off. It’s significance came in the collective outrage at racial terrorism that persisted, the same can and should be done around police terrorism. That is, if we are all brave enough to see something and say something! If not, then we will remember both silence and chokeholds kill.
Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Black Studies in the Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York. He is the author of Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling. You can follow him on Twitter @dumilewis or visit his website.