THE BLOG
12/29/2014 10:10 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

We Did Not Start This Fire

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I hesitated to write about the December 20 murder of two New York City policemen. I needed more information, to see how political events played out, time to think, and as Cardinal Timothy Dolan so eloquently stated in his homily the next day, it was time to "mourn the brutal and irrational execution of two young, promising, devoted police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu." While mourning continues, I need to weigh in with my thoughts. At the end of this post I include a lesson idea designed for high school classes about policing in the United States.

Prior to the deaths of the two New York City police officers, in an opinion essay in the Daily News, Cardinal Dolan spoke out against demonizing either the New York City Police Department or New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and other city officials who were calling for reforms in police tactics and greater respect by police officers for minority communities where they worked. De Blasio asked for a suspension of politics and protests until after the funerals of the two police officers. I respected this request, although it was rejected by some small groups of protesters and ignored by rightwing defenders of police action and by the leadership of the police officers union in New York City. Officer Ramos was buried on Saturday, December 27 at a ceremony attended by over 20,000 police officers. At his funeral, many of the police officers turned their backs when the mayor addressed the assemblage. The funeral for Officer Liu is scheduled for January 4, 2015.

Meanwhile, major civil rights groups have condemned the murder of the police officers. The New York State affiliate of the NAACP, which helped organize many of the major demonstrations against police violence against black men, issued a statement that it is "shocked and outraged over the unprovoked, cold blooded murder of two New York City police officers, Officer Wenjian Liu and Officer Rafael Ramos. We reject unequivocally this cowardly murder." Millions March NYC issued a similar statement but added, "This tragedy is in no way connected to our march, or ongoing protests against police brutality, discrimination, and profiling - and we condemn, and are disappointed with any entity that would try to imply such connection."

As a teacher, a teacher educator, and an activist involved in protests following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner I cannot remain silent on the sidelines. Bill Marinis, a former student and a friend, who frequently disagrees with my views, has prodded me to share my thoughts on these events. Bill believes "Too many protesters have been using Mr. Garner's death as an excuse for bad behavior, or worse yet, a fund raising opportunity . . . I can only hope that New Yorkers are smart enough to realize who the true heroes of the city are."

I think Bill shares the point of view of many people, particularly white people, in the New York metropolitan area and the United States. On NBC television Police Commissioner William Bratton claimed, "It is quite apparent, quite obvious, that the targeting of these two police officers was a direct spinoff of this issue of these demonstrations."

I believe that people who are blaming demonstrators for setting off Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the man who killed Officers Ramos and Liu, are wrong and some of them are just political opportunists. Brinsley was a time bomb waiting to go off. What is most puzzling is that based on his history it took him so long to finally explode. You could just as easily and mistakenly blame institutional racism for the acts of a single disturbed individual like Brinsley. But all people exposed to institutional racism do not kill police officers.

We live in a racially divided nation in racially charged times and this clearly influences how people view actions by police officers in their communities and see the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rafael Ramon, Wenjian Liu, and Ismaaiyl Brinsley. A Pew Research study poll conducted December 3-7, before the murder of the police officers, found that more than half of the blacks who were interviewed expect "relations between local police forces and minority communities" to get worse "over the course of the next year." Sixty-four percent of whites expect it will stay about the same or even get better. The relationship between police and community is exacerbated by the fact that most police officers in the United States, especially white police officers, do not live in the communities that they police. In the 75 United States cities with the largest police forces, six out of ten percent of police officers live outside the city limits, even though some cities actually require that police officers reside within municipal boundaries as New York City did prior to 1962. In New York City today, an estimated sixty percent of the police force live within the city's five boroughs, but that figure is misleading. While three-fourths of black and Latino officers live in the city, a majority of white officers do not.

I have heard of cases where young people have applauded the death of the police officers. Their reaction, if it has been honestly reported, are wrong, just plain wrong, on many levels. Anger at unjust and racist policing practices including the death of Michael Brown and Eric Garner does not justify this attack. These individuals did nothing wrong. They did not deserve what happened to them. Police officers who break the law should be punished by the legal system, not by angry and mentally unstable individuals. On the other hand, police officials are now overreacting to perceived threats. Heavily armed security forces surround police precincts. As of Christmas Day six people had been arrested for supposedly making threats against the police, including at least two teenagers charged with felonies for "terroristic" like comments in messages posted on Facebook.

Historically, the African American population of the United States has been the greatest victim of vigilante violence. In addition, because of the media, police, and political responses to the killings, it is more likely the murder of these officers will make the policing situation in minority communities more oppressive, not less.

Based on information, most of it is garnered from the pages of The New York Times and the Huffington Post, this is what we now know about the life of Ismaaiyl Brinsley and the deaths of Rafael Ramon and Wenjian Liu.

1. On Saturday, December 20, 2014, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a very angry and very disturbed black man in his twenties fatally shot and killed two police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, on duty in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Later, when cornered in a subway station, Brinsley shot and killed himself. Earlier in the day, while in Baltimore, Maryland, Brinsley had shot and wounded a woman with whom he had had a periodic relationship. Just before he shot and killed the police officers, Brinsley posted on a social networking site, "I'm Putting Wings On Pigs Today They Take 1 Of Ours...... Let's Take 2 of Theirs #ShootThePolice."

2. There is no evidence that Ismaaiyl Brinsley was in any way involved in the protest movement against police violence in minority communities or any other social activism, although "They Take 1 Of Ours...... Let's Take 2 of Theirs" pretty clearly refers to recent cases where police officers were accused of killing black men in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York.

3. What exactly pushed Brinsley to fatally shoot the two NYPD police officers will probably remain unclear and the source for speculation. However we do know that Brinsley was a very troubled man that family, schools, social services, and imprisonment had all failed to help. While growing up, Brinsley bounced from home to home. He suffered from mental problems for which he was occasionally treated and at times was medicated. Brinsley unsuccessfully tried to kill himself on more than one occasion in the past. He failed to finish high school and never held a steady job. He was arrested over twenty times, mostly for petty crimes and he spent two years in jail in the state of Georgia for firing a stolen gun in public. His mother said she was afraid of him because he was often violent.

4. On the average since 1945, 14 police officers a year die in what are called ambush assaults. A 2006 study by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, "Violent Encounters: A Study of Felonious Assaults on Our Nation's Law Enforcement Officers," examined in detail assaults by forty-three "offenders" on fifty police officers. Most of these "offenders" had diagnosed personality disorders such as anti-social personality, criminal records, a history of suicide attempts, been the victims of violence themselves, and felt they had a legitimate grudge against authority. A majority of the offenders who committed violent assaults on police officers were also white. Of the thirty-three handguns used in the assaults, 97 percent were obtained illegally, yet there has been almost no discussion in this case about the need for more stringent gun control laws.

5. William Bratton, Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, and rightwing television commentators including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani have irresponsibly either insinuated or outright accused people who believe in social justice and campaign against police violence and the militarized occupation of minority communities of being responsible for the death of the two police officers. They have also tried to link a scuffle between police and demonstrators on the Brooklyn Bridge on December 13, a week before the shootings. Lynch charged, "There is blood on many hands, from those that incited violence under the guise of protest to try to tear down what police officers do every day." He even claimed "That blood on the hands starts on the steps of city hall in the office of the mayor." The mayor's office issued a carefully worded response to Lynch, saying, "It's unfortunate that in a time of great tragedy, some would resort to irresponsible, overheated rhetoric that angers and divides people."

6. Rudy Giuliani has been particularly outrageous. On Fox and Friends, Giuliani blamed the death of the two NYPD officers on anti-police "propaganda" by politicians, including President Obama, who think "everybody should hate the police." He accused black commentators of creating "an atmosphere of severe, strong anti-police hatred in certain communities" and Mayor de Blasio of "allowing protests to get out of control." Giuliani seems to have forgotten his own shameful behavior in 1992 when he spoke at a police union rally at New York City Hall and his comments contributed to four thousands off-duty police officers climbing over and through barricades onto the steps of City Hall and blocking traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge for nearly an hour.

Prominent politicians including the president and the mayor have called for a period of racial healing. I would like to see that as well. But racial healing will not happen without significant social change in the United States, including employment opportunities and improved housing in inner-city minority communities, health care education, and the demilitarization of the police.

The headline of this post comes from a 1989 song by Billy Joel. In the song, Joel, a self-described history buff, names events, people, and places from the Cold War era that shaped the world and his life. Maybe we need another song like it. The people protesting against racial injustice in the United States did not start this fire.

In conjunction with teachers from the Hofstra New Teachers Network, I developed this dialogue on policing in urban minority communities for high school classes. I hope other teachers find it useful.

Instructions: Read the background information, select the position that comes closest to your own, and write a short statement (100-200 words) explaining why. Feel free to offer other thoughts you have about the issue of policing in the African American community. Be prepared to share your ideas with the class.

Procedure: We will have a roundtable discussion. Each person will have the opportunity to speak without interruption for two minutes. No one can speak a second time until everyone else has spoken. You should take notes on what is said so you can respond to individuals and ideas after everyone has had their first chance to speak.

Background: No grand jury indictments were returned for the death of either Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri or Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. Both African American men were killed by White police officers. Michael Brown was shot to death. Eric Garner died after being choked. Instead of presenting a case for prosecution to the Grand Jury, which is standard practice, in both cases district attorneys appeared to have told jurors to reach their own decision on whether police officers should be indicted. Both decisions were followed by massive protests, some of which boiled over into rioting. In a televised address after the grand jury failed to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, President Barack Obama acknowledged the "deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color," but called on Americans to accept the decision, and denounced illegal protests that led to the destruction of property and violence. The President announced that he had "instructed Attorney General Holder to work with cities across the country to help build better relations between communities and law enforcement." Following the failure of the Grand Jury to indict the police officer(s) for the death of Eric Garner, a disturbed young Black man murdered two New York City police officers, supposedly in response.

Question: Which position comes closest to your own views about policing in the United States?
A. While there are some good individual police officers, in African American communities the police are a militarized force endangering young Black men and enforcing racist policies.
B. Police departments contribute to the racism and injustice that affects Black communities.
C. Of course there continues to be racism in American society, but it is not the fault of the police. These problems can be addressed by more effective training.
D. While there are some bad apples on the police force, overwhelmingly the police should be respected for serving, protecting, and defending African American communities.
E. At this point I do not know what to think about racism in the United States or about the police.