is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.
Rafael Ramos’s December 27 funeral in Queens drew an estimated twenty to thirty thousand police officers—not only from the United States but also from abroad. Commissioner William J. Bratton referred to it as a sea of blue, and print and broadcast media across America followed suit. The image was no doubt meant to be awe-inspiring to the public at large, calming and reassuring to Ramos’s family. The image also signaled something else: a police show of force, an excessive, narcissistic show of force. Mourning rituals have a politics all their own. The police gathered in huge numbers to display solidarity—for Ramos and his family, for each other, for the very idea of police. They gathered to let the world know that the police own New York City and that they are different, that blue lives matter most because what they do is different from what anybody else does. That’s why Ramos was not just murdered but assassinated. He was assassinated because he was blue. This, according to Bratton, makes him a hero.
Bratton’s eulogy not only paid tribute to Ramos, then, it was also an exercise in institutional self-assertion. Bratton does not conceive of the police as a subordinate element of society, as an instrument of democracy that executes necessary assignments related to the coordination and cooperation of society, while the mainsprings of democratic life unfold elsewhere. He thinks of the police as the “foundation” of society. The police are “the blue thread” that holds things together in the face of anarchical forces that might otherwise tear them apart. The police are the condition of possibility of everything. That’s why there were twenty to thirty thousand cops in Queens. They wanted the rest of us, mere civilians, to know their place in the order of things.
Bratton, not surprisingly, holds politics in contempt. Early on in his eulogy, he told a short story about his first police funeral. It took place in Boston in 1970. Patrolman Walter Schroeder had been killed responding to a bank robbery. Bratton reminded his audience that America suffered from a great deal of tumult in 1970. He cited civil rights protests, anti-war activism, and anti-government and anti-police demonstrations. He cited “divisive politics” and a “polarized …city…and country.” “Maybe that sounds familiar,” Bratton remarked, as if to suggest that the conduct of democratic politics, especially an oppositional politics, leads invariably to violence. Bratton didn’t come right out and say it, of course, but he didn’t need to say it. He let his list of happenings cited do the work for him. Schroeder was “ambushed by a violent group of anti-war extremists.” Besides, he’d been more explicit a few days earlier—and received criticism for it. At the funeral he needed to be more circumspect. But make no mistake: politics killed Rafael Ramos and those who were—and remain—on the streets protesting the police are responsible. While Bratton ostensibly laments that people in America can’t see each other, he’s one of the reasons. His fear and loathing of democratic politics (and the citizens who enact it) as something illicit, something dangerous, something to be monitored, contained, cordoned off, administered, and sanitized contributes to the blindness.
Politics by the police themselves fall into a different category. At Ramos’s funeral, a sizeable number of attendees turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio when he spoke. It was a blatant display of contempt for the democratic figure who is also their boss. Civilian control of those who wear government uniforms and carry guns is a fundamental principle of democracy. It applies not just to the military but also to the police, who apparently like to think that they don’t have to answer to anyone. Ironically, in the aftermath of this protest, when its propriety was questioned, the grievance surfaced that police suffer from a lack of respect. This may or may not be true, but it misses a larger and more important point. What the police don’t seem to appreciate is that while they are a significant aspect of a democratic society, they are not an inherently valuable part of that society. They are a necessary evil, to borrow a well-known American expression about government. In other words, if we could do without the police we would gladly dispense with them. This is not true of other major institutions in American life, however, including one that police traditionally disparage: colleges and universities. Colleges and universities embody and enact (many of) the fundamental values of a democratic society. They are an end in and of themselves. The contributions they make are priceless and irreplaceable and we cannot—and would not want to—do without them.
What’s more, the police often present themselves as antagonistic to and destructive of the basic norms of democracy. This includes New York’s finest, who in recent years have racked up credit for herding, surveilling, and assaulting democratic citizens exercising their rights at the Republican National Convention in 2004, and attacking, dispersing, and destroying Occupy Wall Street encampments in 2011 (the latter formed part of a national campaign). In addition, they routinely erupt at even the slightest criticism, to say nothing of serious critique. Think of the venom top police officials unleashed at Bruce Springsteen in the wake of “American Skin (41 Shots).” If the police feel disrespected, perhaps that’s what they have earned, given how they represent and do the dirty work of society’s powerful interests or how they (mis)treat American citizens of color.
Last summer, Eric Garner was murdered by New York City police on Staten Island. He was black. These facts are connected. No charges were filed against those responsible, including the principal assailant, Daniel Pantaleo. In America, we have learned it’s nearly impossible to indict police for murdering American citizens, even when they do it repeatedly. In the last few years New York police have had several opportunities to prove to a skeptical public that they are not an institution with an intrinsically problematic relationship to democracy, that they take seriously the claim that their job is to serve and protect, that they understand that the foundation of America’s democracy is freedom—and thus politics. They could have refused to move against their fellow citizens in Zuccotti Park. Instead, they might have engaged in democratic civil disobedience to defend the rights of the people themselves, supposedly the ultimate objects of their concern. They might also have attended Eric Garner’s funeral. Where was the sea of blue for Mr. Garner? His execution represents a criminal failure of policing—not just in New York City but America (which holds true for Michael Brown and so many others). Why were the police not there en masse to take responsibility for their failure and to mourn his loss, because he, too, was one of their own?