My web exclusive yesterday took up that oft-repeated script we saw enacted in Ferguson, Missouri—police violence against young black males, protests that shift toward retributive violence, hand-wringing, soul-searching, and then little change. Thorough reflection on that script needs to take in the quite different trajectory of similar events here in New York.
Last month Eric Garner was killed by a policeman who put him into a choke hold while he was being arrested for selling contraband cigarettes on Staten Island’s Bay Street. There have been a series of small protests, culminating in a march of more than five thousand on Saturday. There was no violence. There were no arrests.
How do we explain the difference? To begin, black leaders such as Al Sharpton and former governor David Paterson acted like leaders, shaping the tone and purpose of the protest. Sharpton’s statements brought things into focus: “We’re not against police. But those who break the law must be held accountable.” Exactly.
Moreover, the NYPD was exactly the opposite of a militarized presence. There were lots of officers present, but they wore blue and white polo shirts, not uniforms. The message: We don’t see American citizens exercising their right to protest as a threat. Chalk that up to good leadership in the NYPD.
Actually, chalk that up to a very calm, even trusting atmosphere in New York, something made possible by a general lack of disorder, discord, and danger. There has been a rash of shootings lately in some of the poor neighborhoods. Nevertheless, New York City is set to see yet another drop in major crimes this year.
There’s talk of revisiting the “broken windows” approach to policing. (Garner’s arrest fits with the approach.) According to this theory, small violations of the law create an atmosphere of lawlessness that leads to more serious crimes. Every theory needs revisiting and reconsideration, and doubtless that’s true for the way NYC has approached crime over more than two decades. But to a certain degree it has worked. New Yorkers aren’t afraid of each other in the streets.
There are other factors at work as well. Because New York is home to so many recently arrived immigrants, neighborhoods are often in flux. People learn to deal with each other, even across great cultural divides. I’m not saying there’s a happy-clappy multi-cultural bonhomie. But it works. And because it works there’s a basic, plain vanilla but real trust that develops.
Another factor may be 9/11, a shock that drew the city together in ways that surprised many people, bring out a truth about America that we often don’t see. That we have a great deal in common. That we love the same things and need each other.
In New York it’s still the case that when a policeman kills someone, you can assume, often correctly, the victim is black. That part of the script remains the same. But the rest is being re-written, it seems. Perhaps that’s because violence does not preoccupy our nightmares these days in New York. Thus, the ways in which violence and race have been intertwined in our social imaginations for so long feels less urgent and exercises less control over the rest of the script.