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Protest leaders seek to distance budding movement from New York police killings

Last modified: 12/22/2014 12:30:07 AM
The ambush killing of two New York City police officers Saturday has forced a burgeoning protest movement over police use of lethal force to address accusations that it bears some responsibility for violence carried out in the name of that cause.

Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were fatally shot Saturday as they sat in their patrol car in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The suspect, 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley, is thought to have posted threats against the police on social media before shooting his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore and then traveling to New York to target the officers. He killed himself moments after attacking the officers.

Police officials in New York and elsewhere were quick to lay at least partial blame for the officers’ killings on ongoing protests of several high-profile fatal encounters between the police and unarmed black men this year. Brinsley referred to two of those men in his online rants.

“Let’s face it: There’s been, not just in New York but throughout the country, a very strong anti-police, anti-criminal-justice-system, anti-societal initiatives under way,” New York police Commissioner William Bratton said during a news conference yesterday. “One of the unfortunate aspects sometimes is some people get caught up in these and go in directions they should not.”

The officers’ deaths were condemned by local, state and national officials, the families of the victims of police killings this year and many of the civil rights leaders and groups that have been the most vocal in the ongoing “Black Lives Matter” protests.

“I’m standing here in sorrow about losing those two police officers,” said Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, whose video-recorded chokehold death at the hands of a New York officer this year sparked national outrage that turned to protest when the officer was not indicted. “These two police officers lost their lives senselessly.”

But pundits, particularly among political conservatives, and law enforcement officials – who for weeks have insisted that the demonstrations are “anti-police” – said over the weekend that the attack on the two officers was a result of the tense environment created by the protests.

“There’s blood on many hands tonight – those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day,” Patrick Lynch, president of the NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, declared during a news conference Saturday night.

Lynch said he personally also held Mayor Bill de Blasio responsible.

Within an hour of the shooting, many of the protest organizers had begun text message and email discussions of how best to handle their public response.

By nightfall, two unsigned statements had been released, one by Ferguson Action, an umbrella group that represents protesters in Missouri – where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot by the police in August – and another on behalf of the broader Black Lives Matter protests.

“Today’s events are a tragedy in their own right,” the Ferguson Action statement declared. “To conflate them with the brave activism of millions of people across the country is nothing short of cheap political punditry.”

In statements, social media postings and interviews, various protest leaders struck a unified message when addressing the New York shootings. They emphasized that the killings were tragic and not linked to the protests, they said the news media had glossed over the fact that the suspect shot his former girlfriend, and they pointed to their repeated public calls advocating nonviolence.

“We’ve all said that this is a horrible thing that shouldn’t have happened,” said Charles Wade, a leading protest organizer. “I say time and time again that I’m against police violence and I’m not against police officers in general. I have an issue with improper policing, police violence and police impunity.”

The Black Lives Matter movement – which is propelled by a diverse set of local grass-roots organizations that have eschewed the suggestion that they appoint a national leader or spokesman – has long grappled with how best to handle acts of violence carried out by those claiming to be in solidarity with them.

The New York shooting also diverted attention from what organizers consider one of their most successful weekends of protest, with demonstrations in Cleveland and at the Mall of America in Minnesota drawing hundreds.

Organizers also are cautious of appearing defensive in the wake of the shootings.

“If we talk about it too much, then people draw more of an association than needs to be drawn,” said Wade, who is in Cleveland helping coordinate the protests. “You don’t out-defend a lie, you outlive it. We have to carry out the work that we set out to do.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton was quick to condemn the killings.

“From the beginning, we have stressed that this is a pursuit of justice to make the system work fairly for everyone,” Sharpton said Saturday, adding that he and the Garner family have received threats in the hours since the New York officers were killed. “This is not about trying to take things into our own hands. That does not solve the problem of police brutality.”

Still, the frequent and leaderless protests in many cities have given a stage to those who advocate violence against police. On several nights in Ferguson, Mo., groups pushing for armed confrontations threatened police officers and their families. In a video clip that has been widely circulated on conservative blogs, demonstrators at a recent protest in New York City chanted: “What do we want? Dead cops!”

The march was one of the smallest of the dozens that have taken place in New York in recent weeks, and protest leaders say attempts to tie the relative few advocating violence – as well as the New York shooting – to the broader demonstrations are unfair.

“This wasn’t at all related to protests. This wasn’t some revolutionary act,” Cherrell Brown, an organizer who has been instrumental in the New York protests, said during an appearance on MSNBC yesterday morning. “This was a senseless murder.”

DeRay Mckesson, a Ferguson protest leader and other organizers were attacked on social media by angry commentators, who suggested they were to blame for the shootings of the New York officers. Mckesson responded with what would be the first of dozens of carefully crafted tweets. This one was retweeted more than 8,000 times.

“I do not condone the killing of the two NYPD officers today. I do not condone the killing of unarmed black people. I do not condone killing.”


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