Blue Lives Matter
, Carlo Allegri/Reuters
The reactions to the murders of two New York police officers this weekend have been mostly uniform in their outrage. There was the predictable gamesmanship exhibited in some quarters, but all agree that the killing of Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos merits particular censure. This is understandable. The killing of police officers is not only the destruction of life but an attack on democracy itself. We do not live in a military dictatorship, and police officers are not the representatives of an autarch, nor the enforcers of law handed down by decree. The police are representatives of a state that derives its powers from the people. Thus the strong reaction we have seen to Saturday's murders is wholly expected and entirely appropriate.
For activists and protesters radicalized by the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, this weekend's killing may seem to pose a great obstacle. In fact, it merely points to the monumental task in front of them. The response to Garner's death, particularly, seemed to offer some hope. But the very fact that this opening originated in the most extreme case—the on-camera choking of a man for a minor offense—points to the shaky ground on which such hope took root. It was only a matter of time before some criminal shot a police officer in New York. If that's all it takes to turn Americans away from police reform, the efforts were likely doomed from the start.
The idea of "police reform" obscures the task. Whatever one thinks of the past half-century of criminal-justice policy, it was not imposed on Americans by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are, at the very least, byproducts of democratic will. Likely they are much more. It is often said that it is difficult to indict and convict police officers who abuse their power. It is comforting to think of these acquittals and non-indictments as contrary to American values. But it is just as likely that they reflect American values. The three most trusted institutions in America are the military, small business, and the police.
To challenge the police is to challenge the American people, and the problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that we are majoritarian pigs. When the police are brutalized by people, we are outraged because we are brutalized. By the same turn, when the police brutalize people, we are forgiving because ultimately we are really just forgiving ourselves. Power, decoupled from responsibility, is what we seek. The manifestation of this desire is broad. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani responded to the killing of Michael Brown by labeling it a "significant exception" and wondering why weren't talking about "black on black crime." Giuliani was not out on a limb. The charge of insufficient outrage over "black on black crime" has been endorsed, at varying points, by everyone from the NAACP to Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson to Giuliani's archenemy Al Sharpton.
Implicit in this notion is that outrage over killings by the police should not be any greater than killings by ordinary criminals. But when it comes to outrage over killings of the police, the standard is different. Ismaaiyl Brinsley began his rampage by shooting his girlfriend—an act of both black-on-black crime and domestic violence. On Saturday, Officers Liu and Ramos were almost certainly joined in death by some tragic number of black people who were shot down by their neighbors in the street. The killings of Officers Liu and Ramos prompt national comment. The killings of black civilians do not. When it is convenient to award qualitative value to murder, we do so. When it isn't, we do not. We are outraged by violence done to police, because it is violence done to all of us as a society. In the same measure, we look away from violence done by the police, because the police are not the true agents of the violence. We are.
We are the ones who designed the criminogenic ghettos. We are the ones who barred black people from leaving those ghettos. We are the ones who treat black men without criminal records as though they are white men with criminal records. We are the ones who send black girls to juvenile detention homes for fighting in school. We are the masters of the American gulag, a penal system "so vast," writes sociologist Bruce Western, "as to draw entire demographic groups into the web." And we are the ones who send in police to make sure it all goes according to plan.
When defenders of the police say that cops do the work ordinary citizens are afraid of, they are correct. The criminal-justice system has been the most consistent tool for making American will manifest in black communities. The tool for exercising that will is not the proliferation of ice cream socials. I suspect, we would like to know as little about criminal justice system as possible. I suspect we would rather the film of Eric Garner's killing not exist. Then we might comfort ourselves with the kind of vague unknowables that dogged the killing of Michael Brown. ("Did he have his hands up? Was he surrendering? Was he charging?") Garner, choked to death and repeating "I can't breathe," trapped us. But now, through a merciless act of lethal violence, an escape route has been revealed. This overstates things. To the extent that this weekend's murders obscure the legacy of Eric Garner, it will not be due to the failure of protests, nor even chance. The citizen who needs to look away generally finds a reason.
I wonder if there is some price attached to this looking away. When the elected mayor of my city arrived at the hospital, the police officers who presumably serve at the public's leisure turned away in a display that should chill the blood of any interested citizen. The police are not the only embodiment of democratic society. And one does not have to work hard to imagine a future when the agents of our will, the agents whom we created, are in fact our masters. On that day one can expect that the tactics intended for the ghettos will enjoy wider usage.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.