The recent war of words between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the president of the city’s Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, is framed by tragedy. Specifically, the tragedies of Eric Garner's death and the subsequent non-indictment of officer Daniel Pantaleo, and by the deaths of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, recently murdered by a mentally ill man, who imagined that he was seeking revenge on behalf of Garner and Michael Brown. In this context, de Blasio’s repeated suggestion that black citizens attract significantly more attention than white citizens do—and with a far greater chance of tragic deaths at the hands of the police—has been read by Lynch and others as a sign of great disrespect.
Respect is the price the rich are supposed to pay for their protection. Making sense of this transaction, though, requires us to stop seeing this as chiefly a matter of cops versus the community, or even as a story dominated, in some simple way, by race or color. We need to understand the function of the police in contemporary urban life, in an age marked by declining routes to social mobility, and to recognize the intersecting roles of race and class in the larger story.
As a negotiator, Lynch is a bomb-thrower. Writing in a New York Post editorial, he suggested that that the NYPD had been “scapegoated for centuries of racial issues” and celebrated “extraordinary achievements in reducing crime in all communities and protecting the lives and property of New Yorkers of all races.” Speaking to PBA delegates in Queens, Lynch said that de Blasio appeared more interested in "running a fucking revolution" than in leading a city through this crisis. "If we won’t get support when we do our jobs, if we’re going to get hurt for doing what’s right then we’re going to do it the way they want it," he said. "Let me be perfectly clear. We will use extreme discretion in every encounter." He added, "Our friends, we’re courteous to them. Our enemies? Extreme discretion. The rules are made by them to hurt you. Well now we’ll use those rules to protect us."
Respect is at the center of this argument. Listening to Lynch, one hears that cops are now nearly criminals, indistinguishable from the real dangerous elements. One hears that citizens should be immediately obedient and pliant when confronted by law enforcement. One hears that the policing of poor communities of color requires a very different siege mentality, with newer, bigger weapons and strong-armed, protective tactics. And one hears, finally, that the rank-and-file of the NYPD have been betrayed by the wealthy, that the city is not grateful enough to those who have made its recent and historic prosperity possible.
Uniformed officers have responded by disrespecting these imagined “enemies,” turning their backs on de Blasio as he visited a hospital where the officers died and then later as he attended funeral services for one of them. Unofficial “contracts” have been circulating, in which active police officers request de Blasio’s absence at their own funerals, should the very worst happen. And officers have followed Lynch's call to use "discretion": Since the double-murder, traffic tickets and summonses for minor offenses—a vital part of “broken windows” theory of policing—are down 94 percent over the same period in 2013.
The PBA—a union in some ways, a fraternal organization in others—has pushed back against NYC mayors for several decades now, focusing on issues that are strikingly familiar this winter. In 1992, after rumors circulated in Washington Heights that a police officer had shot and killed an unarmed man, neighborhood residents staged massive protests. After then-Mayor David Dinkins proposed a new review board for all police shootings, the PBA organized a sweeping protest that included a march across the Brooklyn Bridge, a traffic stoppage not unlike recent community protests against the non-indictments in Ferguson and Staten Island. Dinkins, who was black, was seen as an advocate for greater civilian oversight of the police, and was imagined—like de Blasio—to be more sympathetic to the families of “criminals” than to the police. Rudolph Giuliani, then campaigning for his own mayoralty, accused Dinkins of “ceded[ing] neighborhoods to the forces of lawlessness.” Only a few months after massive riots in Los Angeles, NYPD officers took to the streets as protesters, numbering in the thousands according to the New York Times, and demanding new automatic handguns and an end to public critique. Chanting “No Justice, No Police,” many wore t-shirts that read: “The Mayor’s On Crack.”
Much of the recent press coverage of racial profiling has sought to illuminate the issue through granular details. Some have pointed to the composition of the police department, assuming that a more representative force would enjoy better community relations. According to The Washington Post’s recent consolidation of census data, de Blasio’s NYPD is 46 percent white—policing a city that is 34 percent white. Others have looked at specific rules and regulations, or training procedures, that might explain the crisis of policing racially diverse cityscapes.
Respect is an abstract thing, though. The city has always needed a multi-ethnic police force to serve as a social engine, absorbing new immigrants and roughly reflecting the community—a diverse force whose basic purpose has been to ensure that the lives of the truly rich are protected, that property values are safeguarded, that commerce can proceed. The wage for this service isn’t just a modest bit of social mobility—a few lace curtains, an extra bathroom, a nicer neighborhood—but also this intangible thing called respect, with its peculiar class inflections. Put simply, joining the police force is a well-trod route to gaining respect from the city establishment. In exchange for that respect—and even for their occasional valorization as “heroes”—the rank-and-file are supposed to use maximum force on even the smallest challenges to the status quo.
And no challenges are too small. The city has enjoyed a renaissance as a consequence of the “broken windows” policy, which suggests that cutting down on petty crime in poor neighborhoods will catch a greater number of serious criminals—an approach that shifts the focus of policing onto black and brown bodies, naturalizes crime as a feature of minority communities, and justifies the excessive use of force.
The last few decades, in the U.S. but especially in New York City, have been marked by at least two distinctive and contradictory trends: a vast and growing divide between the truly rich and the truly poor; and a series of repeating crises related to race and policing. But they are not unconnected. The new NYPD is battling for what they define as workplace rights and lobbying hard, as well, for the intangible and much-desired benefits of respect. But such respect is only awarded to the working-class and racially diverse force for its role in the city’s ongoing war against crime—a war with casualties disproportionately drawn from the poor and the desperate and the racially marginal.
To see this just as a black/white thing, or to think about it only as a matter of cops and communities, is to miss the awful backdrop. To truly understand what is happening in New York, we need to look harder at class. This is a story about rich people in a minority-majority city, policed by a force that is now similarly minority-majority—but a force that, per the city's orders, defines criminality in terms that impact black and brown peoples most of all. It is a story about who, exactly, is being protected and served. And it is about the wages—literal and, as W.E.B. Du Bois once put it, psychological—demanded for the protection of some but not all, and at the expense of others.