The Dividing (and Conquering) of the New York Protests

The public campaign for police reform is being tainted by association.

A police officer stands guard as people demonstrate outside of City Hall against police violence at a rally that was supposed to be in support of the New York Police Department (NYPD) on December 19, 2014 in New York City.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the latest skirmish between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city's most outspoken police unions, the unions can declare a rout. In a widely shared, gripping story, Politico's Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush (both trained up by New York papers) compared de Blasio's "inability to keep long-simmering tensions with the city’s traditionally powerful police department" to Barack Obama's fumbling first negotiations with congressional Republicans.

De Blasio had been struggling with the cops since his 2013 campaign, when he surged by vocally opposing the NYPD's "stop and frisk" policies. This summer, the tension even led to a union warning the Democratic National Convention's planners to avoid Brooklyn. But de Blasio didn't obviously lose an argument with the NYPD until this week.

That's important, because the history of the movement that rose up in Ferguson, Mo., and in New York—the public campaign for police reform—is being tainted by association. In retrospect, the protests are being portrayed not just as clearly racist but clearly violent. It's cherry-picking, in other words.

Case in point: The New York Post, home to a bumper crop of "pro-cop" stories taking on de Blasio, is up with a column from reliably anti-left Democrat Michael Goodwin in which he argues that the protests that followed the grand jury decision in Eric Garner's case earlier this month were not "peaceful." To think that," writes Woodwin, "you have to ignore the hundreds if not thousands in Manhattan caught on tape chanting, 'What do we want?' and answering: 'Dead cops.'"

Journalists are not necessarily known for their math skills, but the video of that chant does not reveal "thousands" shouting the offensive chant. Jacob Siegel, who did some actual reporting on the "dead cops" chant, traced it to a fringe group that steadily tweeted and instagrammed its progress through the march. It was an involved process, but easy for anyone more interested in identifying "bad apples" than in defining people by the actions of the worst among them.


Personally, I didn't cover the entirety of the protest as seen in that video. I did go to Washington Square Park, where the protest started, and saw a familiar arrangement of interests. At the front of the crowd, speakers with bullhorns chanted the slogans adopted in every city that's seen #Ferguson protests–stuff like "Hands Up, Don't Shoot." Toward the back, some protesters carried black and red flags and shouted slogans like "NYPD, KKK, how many kids did you kill today?" Near that crowd, of maybe two dozen, I saw this hoodie:

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 4.57.01 PM
David Weigel/Bloomberg

You could certainly draw that out and cover it. But it would have been dishonest to say that this sort of violence or threatened violence represented "the protesters," any more than, say, the bleatings of one excitable state representative represented "Republicans." Dishonest, and not very interesting. The factionalism and opportunism that comes with protest movements is a repetitive story, but rich, and dangerous, as anyone could know from having covered any protest.

Telling the story the other way—insisting that violence was brought on by protests—endorses the preferred argument of the police unions. As J.K. Trotter's been reporting, the standard position of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association is to attack any critics of police behavior, from violence to ticket-fixing, as inherently anti-cop. The new dismissal of the Ferguson/Garner protests has even inspired kitsch making fun of the protesters, such as a conservative T-shirt copying the "I Can't Breathe" iconography used in New York protests to say "I Can't Breathe–signed, the American Taxpayer."

It has also divided the protesters. The ANSWER Coalition, a defiantly communist group that often takes leads in rallies (to the chagrin of traditional liberals), was visible at #Ferguson protests in New York and Washington. When a cowed de Blasio suggested that all political speech might be dialed back after this weekend's cop killings, ANSWER declared that "under police pressure directed against him, Mayor de Blasio has given in to the hysteria generated by the police against a peaceful protest movement."

ANSWER wasn't exactly a key part of de Blasio's coalition. Its members are a little more free to fulminate that the treatment police have asked for—that they should not be attacked for the actions of "bad apples"—doesn't apply to protesters.

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