As we head into the holidays, New York is a city divided. It has always been a place of vigorous debate and contested policies, but the latest controversy over race and policing has dialed up the vitriol and indicates a further departure from civilized debate.
The past summer Eric Garner, a black man on Staten Island died in police custody after being arrested for selling loose cigarettes. A video of his arrest and scuffle with police was widely broadcast. A grand jury declined to indict the police involved in his arrest and the finding was met with instant and widespread protests throughout the city.
Some of my friends are out on the streets getting arrested or leading protests against the police. Some of my friends are in law enforcement or are retired cops who question the motives and the tactics of the protesters.
The Eric Garner grand jury findings came only a few days after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri declined to indict a white police officer for the shooting of a black teenager there. In Missouri, the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer in the shooting of Michael Brown has resulted in several nights of looting and rioting and at least one blatant and under-reported racial killing.
The question is whether protests are going to hobble travel too much. The police are determined not to let that happen, but when thousands and thousands of people take to the streets at once, it’s usually the best the cops can do to try to steer them in a direction that doesn’t clog things up too much.
New York has had its race riots in the past but is less likely to have them today despite being one of the many epicenters in the country for racial disharmony. While we have the same constant churn of racial and ethnic distrust and ill will as the rest of the country, we don’t have the critical mass of complete hopelessness and depravity in large areas that usually act as a crucible for riots. And while our population of professional protesters helps promote a climate of racial grievance, it also knows it has to keep things from getting too violent if it wants to stay in business.
There used to be a gentlemen’s agreement between police and protesters. Years ago, protesters would sometimes block streets or buildings and get arrested. They wouldn’t get too aggressive and the police in turn would process their arrests on the spot and then let them go. Under Giuliani that changed. Police started putting protesters through the system, which can often mean a night in jail or at least several long hours in a police holding cell. Mayor Bloomberg generally kept to those policies.
I urge protesters not to attempt to stop the subways and busses from running; however just you think your cause is, when you throw a monkey wrench into the fragile works of the New York City mass transit system, you are playing with fire. Hell hath no fury like a New York City commuter purposely delayed.
The protests will continue and no minds will be changed by them. The divisions that existed before these latest incidents will remain and people’s views will only be intensified by what they see as the excesses or the ignorance of the opposition.