New York Times columnist Charles Blow is outraged that some observers are connecting a recent spike in violent crime to the ongoing Black Lives Matter protest movement.
In his column on Thursday, Blow takes exception with those who connect the crime surge to the protest movement. “One of the most pernicious and slanderous theories is that protests over police officers’ excessive use of force, or ‘police bashing’ as some prefer to call it, is responsible for the uptick,” Blow writes. He adds, “One facet of these theories is that criminals have simply been emboldened as officers become more diffident, fearing prosecutions for run-of-the-mill policing.”
One might start by asking what Blow means by “run-of-the-mill.” Is asking teens to walk on the sidewalk run-of-the-mill? How about investigating a convenience store robbery? He doesn’t really say what would constitute normal policing and what would be considered something that might provoke an incident. Perhaps that’s because, like police, once can never know.
Blow does quote a bit of the piece Mac Donald wrote for the Wall Street Journal in which she makes that case that the protesters have hurt police morale, but Blow skips over most of the evidence she presented to back it up. For instance, an NYPD officer tells Mac Donald, “Any cop who uses his gun now has to worry about being indicted and losing his job and family.”
And he’s not the only officer making this kind of statement to the media. Former NYPD officer Bill Stanton tells CNN, “When you take away police pride and you take away giving them the benefit of the doubt … and you’re going to call them racist and you’re going to prosecute them for doing nothing wrong, then what happens is they’re going to roll back. They’re not going to go that extra mile.”
Echoing the same logic, former Baltimore police officer and current professor of policing Peter Moskos tells CNN, “If there’s a national mood that starts to see police as the bad guys, the police as the enemy responsible for these problems, it makes it a hell of a lot harder to police. One way that cops deal with that is that they just stop policing those people.”
Blow doesn’t seem interested in arguing with any of these cops’s take on the situation. Instead, he just condemns them wholesale: “if there are any officers intentionally restraining themselves from doing normal police work because citizens have protested over perceived excessive force, then those officers are guilty of a dangerous, unethical dereliction of duty.”
The Ferguson Effect
Another NYPD officer who spoke to Heather Mac Donald offered a more specific cause for concern. Speaking of the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, he says, “Does an officer need to be unconscious before he can use force? If someone is willing to fight you, he’s also willing to take your gun and shoot you.” The reference to Ferguson is important because it is the best known incident and also the one that really kick-started the current protest movement.
Officer Darren Wilson saw two teens walking in the street and asked them to move to the sidewalk. They refused and moments later Wilson realized they may have been involved in a robbery at a local convenience store he had just heard about on the radio. He backed his car up and engaged the teens.
What happened next was the subject of months of heated speculation and media coverage. Officer Wilson was initially accused of what could only be described as murder, i.e. shooting a fleeing Brown in the back or, even worse, shooting him in the face as he surrendered on his knees.
Many seem to have conveniently forgotten how, “Hands up, don’t shoot” became the mantra of the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement. In a matter of weeks, celebrities and activists had turned the story of the gentle giant who tried to surrender to a rogue, racist cop into a symbol everyone was familiar with.
All of the anger generated by this version of events resulted in death threats against Wilson. His home address was circulated online, prompting him to pack and flee in case someone tried to cash in on one of the bounties placed on his life. He stayed out of sight, spending his time at the movies where he could sit unnoticed in the dark. Meanwhile, protesters continued to march and to demand his arrest and prosecution without ever hearing his side of the story.
When prosecutors announced that Wilson would not be charged, the reaction was more anger and more violence:
Police officers in riot gear stood in a line as demonstrators chanted and threw signs and other objects toward them as the news spread. “The system failed us again,” one woman said. In downtown Ferguson, the sound of breaking glass could be heard as crowds ran through the streets.
As the night went on, the situation grew more intense and chaotic in several locations around the region. Bottles and rocks were thrown at officers, and windows of businesses were smashed. Several police cars were burned; buildings, including a Walgreens, a meat market and a storage facility, were on fire, and looting was reported in several businesses.
Even after some elements of Wilson’s version of events began to make their way into the media, supposedly reasonable authors devoted pieces to making the case that Wilson’s story wasn’t credible; they called him a liar. (Ezra Klein made a particular fool of himself.) Hands up, don’t shoot was quietly forgotten after autopsy results suggested Brown’s hands probably hadn’t been up (something eyewitnesses would also later confirm).
Wilson initially hoped to return to the job he loved, assuming he would be cleared of any wrongdoing. Eventually, one of his own attorneys warned him that if he ever went back, the first call would lead him to a dark alley where people would be waiting to murder him. Wilson resigned. His career was over.
Months later, an exhaustive DOJ report concluded that the shooting was justified and that the most reliable witness testimony matched Wilson’s account of the incident, including that Brown appeared to charge him. One of the conspicuous facts noted in the report was the fear the genuine witnesses had experienced before coming forward. They did not want to contradict the narrative created by the protesters for fear of the repercussions. As a sign in the area said, “snitches get stitches.”
Despite being cleared of any wrongdoing by the Obama Justice Department, Wilson will forever be a pariah to a segment of the population. An attendee at one of the recent marches in Baltimore wore a shirt with a photo of Wilson and the word “murderer” superimposed over it.
And this is where things stand. Officer Wilson was cleared but lost his career and his sense of security. Michael Brown was found to have instigated events that led to his shooting but is still considered a victim and even has a memorial plaque approved by the city. What are police officers supposed to take from this if not that following the rules does not guarantee things will work out!
And here’s the point Charles Blow seems to miss: Wilson didn’t have to tell Brown and Johnson to get on the sidewalk. He didn’t have to back his car up and investigate whether or not they were in fact the people involved in a minor robbery in which no one was hurt. It took less than two minutes from the time he made that decision to the time Brown was dead. And, as was made painfully clear to Wilson in the months that followed, he would have been much better off if he had said nothing and just kept driving.
Charles Blow says it’s unfair to smear “the blood running in the street onto the hands holding the placards.” He’s right that the protesters can’t be blamed for violence committed by criminals. But that doesn’t mean there’s no connection between the protests and the mood among cops.
Baltimore resident Donnail Lee told the AP last month, “I see people walking with guns almost every single day, because they know the police aren’t pulling them up like they used to.” That change didn’t happen for no reason. Given what can happen to those who get on the wrong side of the protest movement (what did happen to Officer Wilson), police may feel that, at this particular moment, it’s wiser for them to let a few windows break.