The non-indictment of the police officers involved in the deaths of both Michael Brown in Ferguson and of Eric Garner in Staten Island brought to a rolling boil the long-simmering outrage at police misconduct and resentment at policing practices nationwide, bringing into relief the simple but urgently felt truth that “Black lives matter.” And so tens of thousands of people took to the streets – and stayed there week after week – voicing their indignation and demanding structural transformation of a criminal justice system with its systemic pattern of racialized law enforcement. The PSC participated in these protests, and was right to do so: most of our students are working-class, young people of color – potential targets of unjust police practices.
And then a young black man killed two NYPD officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, in Brooklyn, after shooting his ex-girlfriend in Maryland and shortly before taking his own life on a subway station platform. Such an act deserves our unequivocal condemnation, and protesters advocating for police reforms have done exactly that. The tragic loss of Officers Ramos and Liu was the result of a desperate and murderous act by a deeply disturbed man. It is yet another consequence of the dismal failure to institute adequate gun control legislation.
Not surprisingly, the tragic event has become the pretext for an ideological counter- offensive by defenders of the criminal justice status quo. The mainstream commercial media has often played along, airing false claims that the protesters had incited violence. More notably, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association claimed that the police deaths were the fallout from Mayor de Blasio’s positions, and this was followed by police protests against the mayor. All of this demonstrates an arrogant rejection of the demand for transformation in policing practices as well as a disregard of civilian authority. But a brutal crime cannot be allowed to drown out the cries of tens of thousands against abuses of police power.
Police reform must not be delayed. Mechanisms to ensure police accountability to the communities they patrol, greater community control over police matters, enhanced police training and a step back from “broken windows” are all imperatives that cannot wait. As protest leaders have often pointed out, this is not about the competence of the broad body of NYPD officers as individuals, but about the structural conditions for ensuring “courtesy, professionalism, respect,” and fighting to keep racial profiling out of police work.
Let us also note that criminal justice practices and miscarriages, problematic as they are in themselves, are also signs of deeper ongoing catastrophes. The cop on the beat is not the problem, and not the solution. We’re a nation that has more jails than schools, that abides consistent double-digit unemployment rates in communities of color while municipalities and local governments count on policing practices as revenue streams; a nation in which bankers can bring economic devastation down on society while racial disparities and wealth inequalities swell without limit. These are structural and interweaving issues that we must engage, and criminal justice reform would be a step forward.
Nivedita Majumdar, associate professor of English, and John P. Pittman, associate professor of philosophy, both teach at John Jay College, and have worked together as co-chairs of the college’s PSC chapter.