The execution-style shooting of two NYPD officers in Brooklyn was a cold blooded, senseless murder, and we must call it for what it is. But we have to be able to condemn the killing of police officers as we condemn police brutality. The two are not mutually exclusive, and I would suggest they are interrelated. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is far too important to allow the actions of one sick individual to derail it.
On Saturday, the officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were shot to death while in their patrol car in the Bedford- Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, reportedly traveled from Maryland, where he had shot and wounded an ex-girlfriend earlier in the day, and wanted to kill police officers as an act of revenge for the police chokehold death of Eric Garner. Brinsley — who had expressed his hatred of the police in social media — later turned the gun on himself and took his own life.
Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network, and a consistent voice against police brutality, condemned the killings. “Any use of the names of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, in connection with any violence or killing of police, is reprehensible and against the pursuit of justice in both cases.”
“The Garner family and I have always stressed that we do not believe that all police are bad. In fact we have stressed that most police are not bad,” Rev. Sharpton added.
President Obama “unconditionally” condemned the fatal shootings and called for “patient dialogue” and a rejection of “violence and words that harm.”
“Two brave men won’t be going home to their loved ones tonight, and for that, there is no justification,” the president said in a statement. “The officers who serve and protect our communities risk their own safety for ours every single day — and they deserve our respect and gratitude every single day.”
This horrible tragedy in Brooklyn provides yet more proof that we must find ways to ease tensions in our communities and break the cycle of violence, in what Dr. King called the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
The United States is still the most violent nation, in which there is roughly one gun for every person, and where over 30,000 people are killed by firearms each year. If we are serious about addressing the issues leading up to the execution of the two officers yesterday, then we must talk about gun violence in America. We have to deal with the 270 million to 310 million guns and those who manufacture them. We must also deal with mental health issues that caused a long list of sick individuals like Adam Lanza in Newtown, Jared Loughner in Arizona, and now Ismaaiyl Brinsley in Brooklyn, to turn those guns on innocent lives.
However, I doubt in the coming days and weeks that this nation will discuss much of either. Rather, those who are against the anti-police brutality movement will unfortunately point their fingers at protesters. They will say that the movement — which has been overwhelmingly peaceful — has incited violence against law enforcement.
The truth is that the anti-brutality protests are not about death but about life and the right to live that life without feeling it is threatened by those who vowed to serve and protect us. When I drive my 5-year-old son to school and see a police car behind me through my rear view mirror, my heart races, and I wonder if my time is up, if my life and God forbid the life of my boy are in danger. And yet I have done nothing wrong, so why should I feel this way? Policing serves a crucial role in society. But the policing that many black and brown communities see firsthand is the kind that they can do without.
When I worked in the police brutality campaigns of the 1990s in New York and around the country, I had daily contact with the families of those who were killed and tortured by police. The voices of victims’ families were crucial to that movement, but so too were the righteous law enforcement organizations such as the National Black Police Association who serve as the conscience of the criminal justice system and speak up against police corruption and brutality and racial discrimination. Let us not forget the recent decision by the Ethical Society of Police — the association of black St. Louis police officers — to support the five St. Louis Rams players who walked on the football field with a “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture in support of Michael Brown’s family.
Further, there was Ray Lewis, the retired Philadelphia police captain who attended the Ferguson protests and has been on the case for police reform. “I want to try to get a message to mainstream America that the system is corrupt, that police really are oppressing not only the black community, but also the whites,” Lewis said.
If we want to change the current state of affairs, it is necessary to continue the movement for Michael Brown and Eric Garner, for John Crawford and Tamir Rice. At the same time, #BlackLivesMatter is about far more than police practices. This is about unfinished business from 1619 when American slavery was born. This is about beginning to reshuffle a deck that has favored white supremacy, white privilege, black invisibility and black subordination since day one. This is about unfinished business from Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, at a time when the voting rights of people of color are being ditched and every facet of society reinforces the notion that we are a criminal element, less than human, deserving our misfortune, and responsible for our own deaths.
All lives matter, not just white folks’ lives, and not merely the lives of law enforcement. And we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can and must speak out against the killing of police officers and mourn with their families, while we protest the murder of innocent people by bad police officers. The two are not mutually exclusive, because if they are, we have a problem.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove