In the midst of the turmoil in Ferguson, New York’s mayor has come out with the most tone-deaf possible answer to the arrest and death of Eric Garner: Trust the police.
“When a police officer comes to the decision that it’s time to arrest someone, that individual is obligated to submit to arrest,” Mayor Bill De Blasio said at a press conference in Harlem on Wednesday, according to the New York Post. “Every New Yorker should agree to do what they need to do as a citizen and respect the police officer and follow their guidance. And then there is a thorough due process system after.”
His comments backed up Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s comments on the Brian Lehrer show, arguing that the real problem here is rowdy people refusing to submit to arrest by the NYPD. “What we’re seeing…is a number of individuals failing to understand that you must submit to an arrest, that you cannot resist it,” Bratton said. “The place to argue your case is in court, not in the middle of the street.”
This is good practical advice, but it ignores the much bigger problem that the NYPD and police across the country are facing: Citizens can’t trust the police. Not in Missouri and not in New York. It is a point that has been made time and again, that half the population view the police as do-gooder public servants, and the other half, justly, views them as an occupying army with hazy moral and legal boundaries. Look at the pictures coming out of Ferguson and tell me that your first instinct isn’t to resist or to run, rather than submit. Due process is all well and good, but the guarantee that you’ll get to that point is one that has failed, time and time again.
It is completely reasonable to fear being arrested. It is completely reasonable to question the motives of the arresting officers. It is completely reasonable not to put your faith in a broken system. Asking “every New Yorker” to “do what they need to do as a citizen” is an amazingly nearsighted interpretation of citizenship. To be a citizen of New York, of America, is to have certain rights. As citizens, it is our job to insist on these rights, to hold firm when they are violated by anyone, including the cops. Is there any wonder that people under arrest do not “respect the police officer and follow their guidance”? We cannot offer our respect to police officers because they do not treat the Michael Browns and Eric Garners of the world with respect. It is our duty to hold police accountable, to scrutinize their practices.
De Blasio has, yes, guaranteed an investigation into the death of Eric Garner. But this is a stance that unambiguously points the finger at the victim. The weight of the blame can not land on the shoulders of the arrested. It is on the officers using excessive, even deadly force, to subdue their suspects. The solution is not to advise compliance with arrest, but to abandon the practice of arresting excessively and using brutal force to do so. To chide New Yorkers for resisting or questioning their arrest is to ask for selective amnesia. It is asking to ignore the poisonous history between police and people of color. This is something we should not, must not do.
Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby