I consider myself lucky. I am 40 years old, a woman of color, and I have never had a terrible experience with police officers. I also consider myself lucky because I live in Harlem, NYC, and live with the safety net created by some of the world's finest first responders.
But the older I get, the more I see and understand that for too many Americans, including family members, including neighbors, police presence has long felt like occupation. And with the rapid militarization of America's police, an experience once reserved for those in ghettos is now available to anyone caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in cities, suburbs, and rural areas across the country.
After Mike Brown's killing and the subsequent non-indictment, and Feminista Jones's call for a national moment of silence over the summer, I attended my first anti-police brutality protest. I was nervous --I'd never protested the police before. But when I arrived at the park -- along with a few hundred other extremely peaceful protesters -- I was reassured by the professional and calm response by NYPD. Protesters had their say. No one became violent. And that was that. On the same night, protests led by multiple groups in Union Square would march down avenues and shut down Times Square. And for weeks, #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe protests and die-ins would continue, sometimes dramatically shutting down highways and disrupting commuters' and shoppers' holiday routines. When NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were so horribly killed, they were murdered by a lone actor, not as part of anyone's movement as too many were quick to accuse.
The vast majority of protesters wanted peace, acted in peace. I know of no protests in these past months that would have necessitated a long gun reaction from police, presuming the police intent was to deescalate and not instigate. So many of us watched the Ferguson protests, and asked, our hearts open and hurting: why would the police respond with such hatred? Why couldn't they come in peace? Or, at least with the professionalism of most of NYPD?
So I find myself deeply troubled by Commissioner Bratton's announcement that NYPD has formed the Strategic Response Group, a 350 officer unit that is: "designed for dealing with events like our recent protests, or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris."
Commissioner Bratton lumped together the recent anti-police brutality protests with terrorist acts of murder. If one asks, how could he possibly do it? I suppose the answer lies in these two words: "disorder control." No matter that these recent protests were to say that black people are human beings, too, undeserving of systematic brutality, no matter that millions of Americans of every hue and background rose up to agree, he used those two words as more justification for the force that will have "extra heavy protective gear, with the long rifles and machine guns -- unfortunately necessary in these instances."
But when exactly were they necessary in these past months? Are we to conclude that the best and brightest at NYPD watched the Ferguson response and their takeaway was not disgust, but we need to be more like them?
I have never been someone to decry or dismiss NYPD as an organization. I know there are so many strong and good police officers who have a very difficult job to do and do it well, and when put in gray situations, do the best they can. Also, I find hope in the policing change that encourages more community engagement by police on their beats. But I can't help but be alarmed by the hyper-militarization of our police force. By policies that put so much trust in enhanced firepower.
In a recent post, I asked both Commissioner Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio to consider going the Toronto Police Department route and declaring that from now on, the new paradigm would be zero deaths. That as an agency, they would work to preserve human life when possible. That as an agency that runs on stats, this would become the stat above all stats.
Are these two words -- zero deaths - just too radical to be spoken aloud in America?
There is still time to listen to the people of New York City who are saying enough is enough. We want common sense. Not overwhelming force.