Members of the New York Police Department are currently engaged in a nonviolent campaign against New York City officials. Almost immediately following the killing of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu on December 20, department members began to publicly dissent against both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton.
On December 27, hundreds of police officers turned their backs to de Blasio at the funeral services for Ramos, as he addressed the crowd that had gathered outside the chapel. The mayor then faced a similar response at the Madison Square Garden graduation of 884 new officers last Monday. On Friday, Bratton issued a firmly-worded memo ahead of Liu’s Sunday funeral, saying that the service should be about “grieving not grievance.” This call for decorum went unheeded, as hundreds of officers, yet again, turned their backs to de Blasio, during the eulogy he delivered for Liu.
In a statement that might seem ironic to protesters who’ve encountered the NYPD at marches and demonstrations, Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, stated, in response to Bratton’s memo, that, “I remind my members of their first amendment right to expression … It’s your choice.” Police unions have been some of de Blasio’s harshest critics, with Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch taking to the airwaves immediately after the deaths of Ramos and Liu to chastise the mayor for having “blood on his hands.”
The NYPD’s most notable action, however, has been the “work stoppage” reported in the New York Post last week. Arrests for minor offenses dropped by 94 percent in late December compared with the same period in 2013, while arrests overall are down 66 percent. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association has strongly suggested officers not make arrests unless “absolutely necessary,” which —it’s worth noting — should probably be standard operating procedure rather than a protest tactic.
As Matt Taibbi pointed out in Rolling Stone, the “slowdown strike” has unwittingly placed the police in an awkward position: with arrest rates plummeting and no significant harm done to public safety, the department may soon find itself having disproven the value of Broken Windows policing polices that #BlackLivesMatter protesters have been calling for an end to all along. Eric Garner, killed by police officer Danny Pantaleo this summer, was accosted and eventually choked to death for selling a 25 cent loose cigarette, the type of minor offense at the heart of Broken Windows. As comedian Chris Rock quipped on Twitter, “Maybe the NYPD can use their newfound love of back-turning the next time they see a dark skinned man walking the street doing nothing wrong.”
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, a union, has called on its 25,000 members to take a page out of the history books, or at least civil resistance scholar Gene Sharp’s 198 Methods of Nonviolent Struggle. At a union meeting following the December 20 killing of Ramos and Liu, Lynch told officers: “We’re going to take that book, their rules and we’re going to protect ourselves because they won’t. We will do it the way they want us to do it. We will do it with their stupid rules, even the ones that don’t work.” In other words, tactic number 111: a “Work-to-Rule Strike.” Turning one’s back? That’s number 54. Some officers even took up number 12, skywriting, by hiring an aerial advertising company to fly the words “De Blasio, Our Backs Have Turned To You” over the Hudson River.
Sharp’s methods, along with many other frameworks for organizing and movement building, are only blueprints or tools to disseminate a certain message and win campaigns and public support — regardless of values or intent. Saul Alinksy’s “Rules for Radicals,” known as a veritable Bible of community organizing, has also been used as a handbook for the Tea Party and conservative activists like James O’Keefe. In Ayn Rand’s right-libertarian magnum opus “Atlas Shrugged,” industrialists go on strike to protest increased regulation, forcing the government to recognize the critical value of producers.
The fact that the NYPD — a body that maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of force — has resorted to nonviolent methods is a testament to those methods’ power. But, in the words of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility.” The NYPD’s actions represent a growing rift between the police department and the mayor’s office. The fissure is especially troubling because it signals an even greater hostility to civilian oversight for one of the world’s most militarized police forces. Message matters — a lesson that’s chillingly clear when forces like the NYPD use tactics dreamed up to bring down tyrants, dictators and institutionalized racism to, instead, assert what it believes to be its right to unchecked power. It will be up to protesters with a just cause, rather than a conservative and reactionary one, to win the battle for public opinion.