Christmas came early this year for police unions and business interests when Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio announced that Bill Bratton would once again be the police commissioner of New York City on December 5th.
The appointment of Bratton may have not been surprising for those who had followed media reports the last few months that had De Blasio hinting at Bratton as his man. What was perhaps more surprising was the lack of a strong and unified response to the Bratton appointment from some of the more visible police reform groups and erstwhile progressives that had loudly and publicly denounced the Bloomberg administration and its police commissioner, Ray Kelly.
I remember seeing the live coverage of the announcement of Bratton’s return on TV and feeling my face warm with anger. In college, I had read all about Bratton’s policing philosophy and making the connections between his “Broken Windows” approach and the pro-active type of policing, perhaps best expressed through the controversial Stop and Frisk policy, that slowly became the norm in New York. More recently, I followed the movement against Stop and Frisk develop from activist cries to election season pandering for votes. The Stop and Frisk movement, which began at the grassroots level before it ever became a mainstream electoral talking point, had spent years trying to clean up the racist, civil-liberties-violating mess Bratton had laid the groundwork for when he last called the shots at 1 Police Plaza.
The day after the announcement, City Councilman Charles Barron condemned the appointment alongside activists and parents of NYPD brutality victims on the steps of City Hall. He called for a “grassroots campaign” to oppose the Bratton appointment. I had already begun conversations with activists and friends via email and on social media about what could be done. Most of us assumed that policing activist groups, like those in the Communities United for Police Reform coalition, that had been heavily involved in the legislative and legal fights against the Bloomberg-Kelly regime, would have a plan of action around Bratton.
No one did, really. A lot of the fence-sitting may have had to do with a need to develop a strategy that included viable alternatives – a constant, but complex demand that media and power always places on activists. Another explanation could have been that the non-profit world, much of it funded by the same sources that supported De Blasio, simply couldn’t take such an adversarial tone towards the great progressive hope and his new appointee.
I suspected, perhaps, that some in the movement might be taking their lead from the reactions of movement heavies like the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). Their announcements accepted (if grudgingly) Bratton, to the disappointment of myself and others. Communities United for Police Reform, for their part, reacted with a commitment to “partnering” with De Blasio and Bratton. In mid-December they released a report with a “set of recommendations” for the incoming Mayor. Likewise, elected officials, including councilmembers within the Progressive caucus, have remained silent.
Among the individuals groups, reactions ranged from the expression of a cautious optimism to implications that Bratton would be working under a watchful eye. Still, we have yet to find a statement condemning the appointment – not even a Tweet – even as the contradictory nature of a Bratton-Civil Rights groups partnership was evident. They know very well that Bratton has always been at odds with civil liberties advocates throughout his career, rejecting research and criticism constantly and even bragging about beating legal efforts aiming to curb his policing policies.
You can imagine my surprise when I learned that some groups met with Bratton after the announcement. No one really knows who (aside from the NYCLU’s Donna Lieberman, who talked to reporters afterward) because it was a secret meeting. Well, secret until the De Blasio team pointed to the meeting to respond to media questions after a large anti-Bratton march and rally on December 27th that we and other groups had helped organize in Harlem raised questions. The Mayor’s transition team referred to this meeting and the blessings of media-favored civil-rights leaders like Al Sharpton as signs that Bratton was reaching out to the his critics and was being accepted by the community.
This media-driven narrative largely ignored the rising opposition that was brewing among some activists. A couple of weeks prior to the larger rally, a few dozen of us organized the first protest of the appointment when we took signs and chants to a $25,000/table fundraiser hosted by the Nation magazine where De Blasio was the special guest. The theme was “political courage” of all things. I’d like to think there was more courage outside where activists protested the Bratton appointment loudly while being hassled by cops than there was on the inside where attendees toasted proclamations of New York’s return to its progressive roots.
The next day there was press conference organized by some independent activists where we had the chance to ask some councilmembers of the progressive caucus why they had not unequivocally condemned the Bratton appointment. We received very carefully-worded political responses from Rosie Mendez and Ydanis Rodriguez, who immediately belted out “I support my mayor!” when he saw us. But the response of Jumaane Williams, co-sponsor of the Community Safety Act and media’s go-to councilman on the Stop and Frisk issue, was the most disappointing. Williams was trying very hard to seem appreciative to our message – without joining in it.
We saw Williams again in the freezing cold outside of NYPD headquarters on January 2nd as the public swearing-in of Bratton was wrapping up. A handful of us had gathered outside with signs and fliers in protest of Bratton’s return. He reiterated that he would work with the Mayor and that he would “wait and see” how Bratton 2.0 played out. As we told him that we and the millions of New Yorkers criminalized and brutalized by the Bratton legacy couldn’t afford to wait, we parted ways – perhaps symbolic of what Bratton’s return may slowly do to the policing movement in the coming years.
The election of a self-described “progressive” public advocate whose proposed break with the policies of Mayor Bloomberg – including changes to the NYPD – might have signaled to some of Bloomberg’s loudest critics that they had an ally in Gracie Mansion. The police reform movement’s years of work, in particular, aided De Blasio’s win in the general election as his seeming rejections of Bloomberg’s NYPD set him apart from his Republican opponent. The centerpiece of the reform movement, Stop and Frisk, had become a household term that the De Blasio campaign team had effectively used in its platform of reform. An ad where his bi-racial son touted his father as “the only one who will end a stop and frisk era that unfairly targets people of color” seemed to solidify his policing reform cred.
However, a closer look at De Blasio’s words reveal a more measured approach. Among the Democratic candidates for mayor, De Blasio’s position on Stop and Frisk was never very detailed, but definitely fell far short of calls for major overhauls or even an end to the practice. Yes, people heard, perhaps, what they wanted to hear – but this is what a good campaign propaganda effort is supposed to do, isn’t it? The idea that a career politician who had been Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager might embody or even be the fulfillment of the politics of the anti-Stop and Frisk movement (or Occupy, as some suggested) was always the electoral equivalent of wearing beer goggles.
At the crux of the dilemma for the left is the Obama syndrome, which is to say a deferment to seemingly progressive electoral politics. The underlying problem is that progressive politics are so deeply wed to the establishment and the status quo that the real victims of systematic abuse fall for promises that never end up materializing. Many people point to the relationship between the left and President Barack Obama as a recent example of the what De Blasio might mean for New York activists. Hailed by some as the fulfillment of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., Obama had divided elements on the left into those who defended him from those who saw a continuation of the status quo. De Blasio, like Obama, has been linked to not only progressive politics, but even to communist politics. He was a Sandinista, you see! There was even an act of civil disobedience by De Blasio in the run up primary season as he was arrested when protesting the closure of a Brooklyn hospital.
The specter of Obama, the non-closure of Guantanamo Bay (as symbolic of an array of disappointments for left-leaning activists) and the mind-numbing fakery of national politics aside, New York seemed to have solidly put itself into the hands of a progressive Democrat for the first time in years. The City Council seemed to have swung progressive. And of course, even skeptics will say that local politics are much more within reach – and therefore malleable – than national politics. More importantly for the police reform movement, there had been legal and legislative defeats dealt to Bloomberg around the issue of racial profiling. An incoming De Blasio regime that framed itself as an ally might only seem to work in their favor.
Still, never in the years and years of work that went into raising the issue of civil liberties and racial profiling did anyone ever say: “You know who’d fix the NYPD? Bill Bratton.” And would anyone doubt that had Joe Llhota been the Mayor appointing Bratton that there would have been a stronger response from these groups and from the left?
Let me be very clear in saying that in no way shape or form does Al Sharpton or a small group of cherry-picked activists speak for the entire community or represent the grassroots. Even as De Blasio and most of the media use the words of a few community leaders to sell this package of a community-oriented Commissioner Bratton (the same Bratton who derided Mayor Dinkins’ community policing efforts as “social work”), activists and organizations must decide firmly where they stand around Bratton. Politicians can be expected to take the pragmatic approach, but movement work must always be to push people towards a collective vision and goal. If we want changes to endemic and systemic police abuse – which include racial profiling, fatal shootings of unarmed New Yorkers and Muslim surveillance – that permeates the culture and soul of the department, then how can Bill Bratton figure into that vision?
He can’t. There will be no “seat at the table” and no partnership with the Mayor, either. He will, like a stable of other corporate Democrats before him, betray the unions, betray the activists and the most vulnerable New Yorkers. And Bratton, if not opposed immediately, will simply sidestep questions of his conflicting business interests and policing philosophy as he adds a public relations veneer to a department that will operate much as it has the past few years. Already De Blasio and Bratton are in lockstep with statements about the future of the NYPD. Their pledges towards “community policing” take the conversation away from calls for “constitutional policing” that many have called for. More striking, their assertions that they have to find the “right balance” between curbing Stop and Frisk and maintaining public safety still operates on the basis that there is a correlation between the two – the prevailing logic of the Bloomberg and Kelly years. As numerous civil-liberties groups have pointed out, there is no evidence to support this.
While the Mayor may be correct (and politically astute) to harp on in his speeches of a Dickensian New York City, it should be very clear that both he and Bill Bratton’s cosmetic, public relations-based proposals at reforming the NYPD do little to truly address the problems etched into the DNA of policing. In fact, they take us away from our goals and our demands. And no one should shy away from saying so.
“We say NO to the status quo. Bill Bratton has got to go!”