Article clipped from The New Yorker, January 8, 2015
by David Remnick
In 1960, James Baldwin, the American Orwell, wrote “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem,” an essay that portrayed the ugly dynamic between white police officers and young black men in the neighborhood where he grew up: Rare, indeed, is the Harlem citizen, from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality. I myself have witnessed and endured it more than once. . . . It is hard, on the other hand, to blame the policeman, blank, good-natured, thoughtless, and insuperably innocent, for being such a perfect representative of the people he serves. He, too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed. He has never, himself, done anything for which to be hated––which of us has?––and yet he is facing, daily and nightly, people who would gladly see him dead, and he knows it. There is no way for him not to know it: there are few things under heaven more unnerving than the silent, accumulating contempt and hatred of a people. To contemporary readers, such a passage may seem a relic of a harsh past. Baldwin’s essay predates so many advances, including the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. The New York Police Department’s rank and file is no longer majority white. Crime rates are lower than they have been in decades. An African-American was elected President in 2008 and appointed an African-American to be the chief law-enforcement official in the land. American audiences go to see “Selma,” get teary-eyed, and think how far we’ve come. The temptation is to suppose that Baldwin has long since lost all relevance. Why, then, does the President gently remind us that if he had a son he’d look like Trayvon Martin? And why does the Attorney General say we are a “nation of cowards” when it comes to the discussion of race? On December 3rd, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo, an N.Y.P.D. officer, on any charge related to the homicide-by-asphyxiation, in July, of an African-American man named Eric Garner. New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, commented on the grand jury’s decision. He spoke with unapologetic honesty about the failure of the judicial system. He anticipated, and tacitly endorsed, peaceful protest, “the only thing that has ever worked” to advance social justice in America. And he spoke personally, saying that he and his wife, Chirlane, have had “the talk” with their son, Dante, about “the dangers he may face” on the street as a young man of color: I’ve had to worry over the years, Chirlane’s had to worry. Is Dante safe each night? There are so many families in this city who feel that each and every night. Is my child safe? And not just from some of the painful realities—crime and violence in some of our neighborhoods—but are they safe from the very people they want to have faith in as their protectors? De Blasio then echoed one of the most resonant lines heard since the protests began last summer in Ferguson, Missouri. “It’s a phrase that should never have to be said,” he insisted. “It should be self-evident. But our history, sadly, requires us to say that black lives matter.” The demonstrations that followed were almost entirely peaceful. There were instances of protesters shouting despicable slogans, but those instances were isolated and rare. Most police officers showed no more disrespect to de Blasio and the protesters than de Blasio and the protesters had shown to them. The truth is that both protest and argument, conducted peacefully and with decency, can have the effect of easing the long-running tension between the police and the policed and bringing about the kind of change that is needed. The “techniques” that killed Eric Garner demand reform, and so does a system in which it is nearly impossible to bring a police officer to trial. And yet some police groups, including the leadership of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, charged that the Mayor was fanning anti-police sentiment. Then came the assassination, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, of two N.Y.P.D. officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, by a young man who had just shot his ex-girlfriend. That horrendous event devastated New Yorkers, particularly police officers, who daily put their lives at risk in the name of public safety. It also brought the simmering resentment among some police leaders to a boil of accusatory rhetoric. Patrick Lynch, the head of the P.B.A., who has waged battles over contracts and other issues with previous mayors, used the killings as a political cudgel. The Mayor, he said, had blood on his hands. Michael Goodwin, a columnist for the Post , was among those who had amplified the case for blaming de Blasio; the Mayor, he wrote, had thrown “gasoline on the fire by painting the entire force as a bunch of white racist brutes.” As a way to cool tensions, de Blasio asked that there be a halt to protests, at least until after the officers’ funerals. The most flagrant refusal to do so came at the funeral of Rafael Ramos, when hundreds of police officers in attendance, following Lynch’s lead, turned their backs as the Mayor delivered a eulogy. An occasion of mourning had been hijacked. The police commissioner, William Bratton, was diplomatic, calling the gesture “inappropriate.” It was worse than that. It was an act of profound disrespect not only to de Blasio but also to the Ramos family members, who were there to grieve, not to witness a petulant display of resentment. At his press conference, de Blasio had referred to a history that preceded the death of Eric Garner and charged it with meaning. The story of civil rights is not an event that ends with a triumphal arrival at a Southern statehouse. Two generations after Selma, the Supreme Court has started to roll back voting rights. Two generations after Selma, one out of three black males born in America today will, if present trends continue, see the inside of a prison cell. “One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up,” Baldwin wrote. “Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches, and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.” Some of the language is of its time, but the demand is just and everlasting. ?