Jean McGianni Celestin is a writer who focuses on the intersection of race with culture, sports and politics. Follow him @LiberatedKing.
When NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were fatally shot in Brooklyn on Dec. 20, I was sitting in a barbershop a few blocks away. The mood shifted instantly. Executing two New York City policemen in broad daylight on the streets of Bed-Stuy carries severe repercussions; one of which is the fear of more deadly force by police on the entire community.
Every black man inside the shop understood this. Most of us feel like targets for police harassment every day. One customer, a young black man who lives in the Tompkins Houses near where the shootings took place, refused to go home until there was confirmation the shooter was in custody. Police officers were going to be more on edge than ever before, so he felt safer remaining inside the barbershop.
I too began contemplating how I was going to get back home. I considered what I was wearing – black hoodie, jeans and a heavy jacket – and realized how easily I might fit someone’s description of a suspect. I had driven to the barbershop that afternoon, but thought about calling a cab instead. My desire to avoid the police is nothing new. Most innocent black men I know who have been stopped and frisked by police feel the same way.
The killings of Officers Liu and Ramos come at a revealing moment in this country. Law enforcement encounters in black communities have been under increasing national scrutiny. Ever since Michael Brown was killed on Aug. 9 in Missouri, it seems like there’s been one publicized death of an unarmed black person after another. Instagram postings belonging to Ismaayiel Brinsley before he shot the policemen suggested he was seeking revenge for Brown and Eric Garner’s killings.
Both are haunting examples of how fragile police encounters are for black people in America.
As much as Brinsley’s attack was sparked by the tension between blacks and those who police them, it also illustrated another complexity of the crisis. Mental illness is one of the oldest taboos in the black community and the effects of these illnesses often go untreated or misdiagnosed in high numbers of African-Americans today. This isn’t a vindication of Brinsley’s actions, which began with him wounding his girlfriend in Maryland earlier that day. But there’s a great deal of wisdom and science that helps to better understand them. In a climate as racially charged as the one we’re living in, it isn’t surprising that a black man could fly off the ledge the way Brinsley did. It’s probably more surprising there hasn’t been more like him.
But political agendas focus more on the shooting than on his alleged history with mental trauma. Part of this is because the need for illusion is profound when the belief of black pathology toward violence is rooted in the American psyche.
The extremist response of New York’s largest police union says as much. Despite noble efforts made by black activists to condemn the killings and grieve with the families of the dead officers, the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association considers Dec.20 an act of war and vow to “act accordingly.” Their rhetoric is eerily similar to the Bush Administration’s after 9/11 and was punctuated by hundreds of officers turning their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio as he spoke at a funeral service held for Officer Ramos on Saturday.
The mayor, who is the father of two biracial children, has been outcast by the law enforcement community for showing a modicum of respect to those who’ve lost loved ones at the hands of the NYPD.
The compelling irony in all of this is that the night before the shootings in Brooklyn, hundreds of police supporters gathered in front of City Hall. They were protesting what they believe has been unmerited criticisms of New York’s finest. They shouted, “Don’t resist arrest,” and wore sweatshirts bearing the slogan “I Can Breathe,” a pejorative response to Eric Garner’s final plea for help while he was being choked.
But as insulting as this might seem to the Garner family, the mockery of his death represents the heart of the matter. Remorse is thin when it comes to black pain.