Why protesters are ignoring New York mayor's plea for a pause

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio wants protesters calling for police reform to remain quiet until two slain NYPD cops are buried. But protest groups say their cause is not connected to the actions of the killer.

Patrick Dodson/The Daily Gazette/AP
Protesters stage a "die-in" to chant "black lives matter" and protest the recent grand jury decisions from Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island in New York City during a demonstration at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, N.Y., on Saturday. More protests are planned for Tuesday in New York.

A day after New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called for a pause in protests until after the funerals for two slain New York police officers, most protest groups expressed anger at the requests and said they would continue with protests as planned, including a major one Tuesday evening on New York's Fifth Avenue.

To do otherwise, they said, would be to ignore the fact that the most meaningful protests – including the civil rights movement of the 1960s – necessarily caused discomfort to advance society. Moreover, pausing the protests would be to acknowledge a connection between the calls for reforms in policing, which have largely been peaceful, and the killings of the two officers.

"To not protest, from our perspective, would be to admit that somehow these protests are contributing to a climate of chaos and vigilantism, and the only way that the protests would be 'disrespectful' would be if somehow that narrative was true," says Eugene Puryear, a national organizer with the Answer Coalition, an activist group that is organizing the march in New York Tuesday night. "We believe that narrative is a self-serving narrative by those who don't want to see the NYPD or other police forces" implement reforms.

At a press conference Monday, Mayor de Blasio, appearing together with New York Police Department Commissioner William Bratton, tried to bring a conciliatory tone to an atmosphere that has been highly charged, and that grew more divisive in the wake of the Saturday killings of the police officers.

"I think it’s a time for everyone to take stock that there are things that unite us, there are things that we hold dear together as New Yorkers, as Americans," de Blasio said. "I think it’s important that regardless of people’s viewpoints, that everyone recognizes it’s a time to step back and just focus on these families. It’s a time for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all the things that we will talk about in due time."

De Blasio went on to say that the only concern in the coming days should be supporting the two families of the slain officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, and urged people, when they see an officer, to "take a moment to console them."

De Blasio is facing his own difficulties, as an already tense relationship with his police force and New York's police unions has grown far worse. The head of the largest police union has directly accused de Blasio of contributing to the murders by not tamping down protests, and on Saturday, dozens of police officers staged a protest against de Blasio, turning their backs to him when he arrived at the hospital where the officers died.

Behind de Blasio's request to pause the protests is a feeling on the part of some that the protests helped foment an anti-police atmosphere that directly led to the officer killings. Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the man who allegedly shot the officers as they sat in their car, had evoked the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of police in his social media posts, and made other anti-cop comments.

But to tie the actions of one mentally troubled man with a history of violence to the far broader, and largely nonviolent, protest movement is disingenuous and inaccurate, say civil rights leaders. They see de Blasio's and others' requests that the protests be paused as a veil for an effort to smear the movement and ultimately stop it, and to squash basic First Amendment rights.

“This is not a time for political grandstanding and punditry. Unfortunately, we continue to see elected officials and police leadership twist this tragedy into an opportunity for them to silence the cries for justice from families who have lost their loved ones to police violence. Our families matter, too," read a letter drafted Monday by Ferguson Action, a lead activist group, and signed by over a dozen grass roots organizations.

The letter criticized Patrick Lynch, president of New York's largest police union, both for his comments in the wake of the police killings and his resistance to any police reforms, and called Commissioner Bratton's requests for protests to be paused "shameful attempts to use the deaths of these officers to attack democracy."

It also offered condolences to the families of the slain officers, noting that, "as those who stand with the victims of police violence, we know all too well the deep sense of loss that a community feels when they lose a loved one." And it renewed calls for reform in police departments.

"Instead of remaining silent, it is all the more important for people around the country to stay active and demand an end to the epidemic of police violence that is ravaging Black and Latino communities throughout the United States," the Answer Coalition said in its statement on de Blasio's remarks.

Mr. Puryear, the organizer with the Answer Coalition, says he hasn't seen any division within the activist groups over whether protests should be halted in response to de Blasio's request, and says he hopes that most people will understand why they feel it's important to go forward with planned events.

"On these sorts of issues, where the lines are drawn relatively sharply, I expect there will be those who think we’re doing the wrong thing," adds Puryear. But, he says, in some ways that heightened tension is necessary to achieve real gains and to further the conversation.

In the civil rights movement, there were frequently calls for protests to be stopped, and yet many of the most controversial – including the Chicago Freedom Movement, which helped launch the Fair Housing Act, and the Birmingham Children's Crusade – were also the most effective, he says.

"It’s part of the creative tension that moves forward actual change on the issues, because it’s what gets people talking about what’s actually at the root of the issues instead of simply dancing around it," says Puryear. "It injects the urgency of now, for those who are heavily affected by this, by these police murders, into the political movement."

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