Like most New Yorkers watching the Central Park and Davis cases, I was inclined to trust prosecutors and to assume the justice of the convictions. When reporters on the Davis murder were told that the 19-year-old Bell had been heard humming the song, “Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas” during a break in the questioning at the 109th Precinct and that remorse seemed never to enter his mind, I assumed that he was yet another half-crazed casualty of inner-city isolation, the kind of casualty I’d encountered more than once.
In the late 1970s I ran a weekly newspaper serving poor neighborhoods just across Brooklyn’s Broadway and Flushing Avenue from Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Officers Ramos and Liu were killed; I made more than a few visits to the Tompkins Houses along Myrtle Avenue, outside of which the murders occurred, and to Woodhull Hospital, where they were brought with Brinsley, who committed suicide nearby. Just to the northeast lay Bushwick, a once-tidy, German and Italian white-ethnic neighborhood that had become mostly Hispanic and Black in the 1960s in ways and for reasons I knew intimately and that I portray in my book “The Closest of Strangers,” two of whose chapters chronicle North Brooklyn’s ravaging by absentee landlords’ “block-busting” welfare-subsidy scams, rampant arson for profit and for revenge, and massive looting during a huge 1977 power blackout.
On two occasions I navigated the devastation all night with officers of Bushwick’s 83rd Precinct, accompanying them into scenes of domestic violence where terrified toddlers sucking on teething rings crawled across shattered plates and splattered dinners to hide behind sofas as their mothers told us why they’d called 911 out of desperation and sometimes for revenge. Sometimes the man was still there, and officers had to take him outside.
Out on the street in the noisy, sulfurous darkness, a Black-Hispanic youth sauntered up to the patrol car’s open window and taunted one of my hosts by asking, “You Officer Torsney? Gonna shoot me?” — referring to Robert Torsney, who on Thanksgiving Day in 1976, for no apparent reason, had fired a bullet into the head of Randolph Evans, 15, a ninth grader at Franklin K. Lane High School, outside the Cypress Hills housing project, near where Officer Rafael Ramos was buried last Saturday.
As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert noted years later, “Torsney would later claim he had been afflicted with a rare form of epilepsy that, remarkably, had never been noticed before the killing and was never seen after it. The ‘epilepsy’ defense worked. Officer Torsney was acquitted of any wrongdoing.”
Herbert’s column, “The Sickness in the NYPD,” is worth reading, if only for the experience of rubbing your eyes in disbelief. Another of its offerings:
“One April morning in 1973 a veteran police officer named Thomas Shea pulled his service revolver and blew away a young Black boy on a street in Jamaica, Queens. He shot the kid in the back. There was no chance of survival. Afterward, no one could figure out why the officer had done it. There was no reason for the shooting, no threat to Officer Shea of any kind. The boy’s name was Clifford Glover and he was 10 years old. Officer Shea was charged with murder but of course he was acquitted.”
For every young man whom killers in uniform execute as unambiguously as they did Randy Evans, Clifford Glover, Eric Garner and many others without being indicted for it, still more essentially hapless, helpless people are packed off into the vast archipelago of incarceration that employs thousands of “corrections” officers. Either way, for the rest of us, it’s out of sight, out of mind, as were the hundreds of homeless people and derelicts about whom few New Yorkers asked when they disappeared from Manhattan’s streets during Giuliani’s mayoralty.
White On White
If at the bottom of it all is the calculated isolation and impoverishment of Blacks that I chronicled while climbing stairwells in Brooklyn’s Bushwick-Hylan and Borinquen Plaza housing projects to distribute our paper, next to that bottom are the cops we assign to keep the lid on it. Is it a wonder that they sometimes say that they feel like “garbage collectors” and that, when the “garbage” call them something worse, some of them explode?
In the 1960s, insouciant, pseudo-insurgent, middle-class white youths called cops “pigs.” A police union took out an ad saying, “Next time you really need help, try calling a pig.” But, with a very few, spectacular exceptions like the Brinks armored car robbery, the worst thing that white kids did to cops in those days was call them names. Is it really surprising that some cops and corrections officers feel as trapped in neighborhoods like Bushwick as the people they’re charged with containing?
Is it surprising that some of the young white men who are drawn to such work grew up marinating what I described here three weeks ago as ressentiment, the social pathology of a society that has begun to countenance torture abroad and the militarization of police at home against a decadent, demoralized populace that has come to include themselves?
Or that, at the funeral of Rafael Ramos, stunted citizens like these would turn their backs on the chief executive of the democracy that employs them, and that they would thereby dishonor the fallen officer and flout civilian leadership of the police and the military as if they would prefer a police state?
The Only Way Out
The surprise is that so many police officers are still as good as Davis and as the relatives of Salon’s own Joan Walsh, as she recounted here vividly this week and in her book “What’s the Matter With White People?”
I, too, can testify that there are many officers, of all colors and backgrounds, as generous and effective as Charles Davis. In the mid-1990s, Peter Mancuso, a former NYPD sergeant, Marine combat veteran, and longtime police reformer, introduced me to other impressive colleagues while I was a columnist for the New York Daily News, a paper many cops read while sitting in their patrol cars. The officers I met were better, more proactive citizen-leaders than moralists who simply cluck their tongues at them.
On the other hand, whenever I wrote columns like this one praising their reform efforts, I got some unexpected visits from the New York Fire Department, whose firefighters banged loudly on my door at 3 a.m. because someone had called in a false alarm a day or two after the column ran.
Soon after the chokehold killing of Eric Garner, but before the assassinations of Liu and Ramos, another retired police officer sent me this video, distributed by anonymous officers who seem to be preparing for race war, that depicts Black men maiming and murdering cops in realistic street scenes. Some of the scenes look staged, but if Brinsley’s real deed had been filmed it would have fit perfectly into this alarmist, racist montage.
The officer who shared it with me calls it “almost a counter-training device. Its message is, ‘Never mind what we are about to tell you the law says; here is what you are up against at any moment.’ After seeing it, I can better understand that young Housing Division Officer opening stairwell doors with his gun in his hand [and, trigger-happy, shot and killed an unarmed, innocent 28-year-old Black man two floors below him]. I’m wondering if he saw the video or something like it.’” (Before calling 911 to aid the man he’d shot, the housing officer called his union.) Officers’ testimony in cases like this and Eric Garner’s and Randy Evans’ and Clifford Glover’s and the rest is almost transparently scripted by the union.
Another irony. Even as the rogue video and the real deeds of Brinsley and Colin Ferguson alarm us, and even as some officers’ turning their backs on the mayor at a funeral and a police graduation ceremony disgust us, many Black leaders have been ascending a far-better learning curve from the demagoguery of the 1980s and ‘90s to more sophisticated, humane strategizing.
Where now are the Louis Farrakhans, the Vernon Masons and Alton Maddoxes (lawyers of Tawana Brawley infamy) and the Johnnie Cochrans, whose verbal threats and courtroom tactics sent chills down whites’ spines? Al Sharpton, whom I knew well in those years and described here in November, has climbed that learning curve: He said that the Ferguson, Missouri, protest movement “was not about Darren Wilson’s job. It was about Michael Brown’s justice…. We are not anti-police. If our children are wrong, arrest them. Don’t empty your gun and act like you had no other way.” Sharpton also led Eric Garner’s family in protesting Brinsley’s deed and mourning the deaths of officers Ramos and Liu.
Sharpton is a flawed leader, but efforts by Fox News’ flunkies to blame him and recent protesters for bad relations with police prove only that Black leadership’s learning curve has been offset by some white male degeneration along the lines I sketched here.
The glorious funerals given officers Davis, Liu and Ramos don’t dispel these white men’s growing bewilderment, fear and anger, less of it generated by Black men than by economic and cultural riptides that would still dispossess and disorient many of them even if the U.S. were white from coast to coast.
To overcome racism, we’ll have to reach past “Black and white” story lines and find strategies that free the oppressed by freeing the oppressor. Police are trapped in the swamp I navigated in Brooklyn because all of us are trapped in a political economy that’s no longer legitimate or sustainable. Unless we confront what Joan Walsh is telling us has happened to the white working and middle classes, and what Don Hazen, economist James Galbraith and historian Eli Zaretsky are trying to tell us about the real roots of America’s white male problem, “Black and white” explanations will fall short, on both sides of an enduring race line that leads us nowhere.
By: Jim Sleeper