Will New York protesters' defiance harm their cause?

Protesters are ignoring Mayor Bill de Blasio's request to postpone activities until after the funerals for two slain NYPD cops. In doing so, they are walking a thin line.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask walks up 6th Ave as he protests against the police in the Manhattan borough of New York, Tuesday. Mayor Bill de Blasio's attempts to soothe a city dismayed by the slaying of two officers were further rebuffed on Tuesday as protesters defied his call to suspend what have become regular demonstrations over excessive police force. About 200 protesters began marching through the drizzle and traffic in the center of Manhattan, enraged by the mayor's demand that they suspend their rallies until after the funerals of police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.

When several hundred protesters took to the streets in New York Tuesday night, marching up Fifth Avenue on one of the busiest shopping days of the year, ignoring Mayor Bill de Blasio's plea that protests pause until after the funerals for two slain police officers, they dismissed concerns that they could be hurting their own cause.

Amid a broad outpouring of grief for two New York police officers killed Saturday and beset by a small but vocal contingent of demonstrators making inflammatory anti-police statements, the protest movement runs the risk of appearing insensitive.

But such protests are always fraught with difficult decisions, experts say. On one hand, there is the danger that the protesters could risk losing the political backing necessary to any possibility of change. On the other, they need don't want to lose hard-won momentum.

"It’s a very tough decision, a very tough call," says Hasan Jeffries, a history professor at Ohio State University in Columbus.

But he doesn't see this as a make-or-break moment.

"I don’t think waiting would have won them new allies. I do think not waiting certainly pushes more into the camp of opposition. Is that going to be a game-changer in terms of achieving their objectives? I don’t think so... I don’t know if it’s quite a make-or-break moment for this movement, but it certainly will have an impact on its long-range trajectory."

Tensions in New York, already strained, grew even more so after the Saturday shootings. With former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and others suggesting that the political atmosphere and protest movement had promoted an anti-police culture, there was considerable pressure on the protest movement to dial back, at least temporarily. Mayor de Blasio, seen as a supporter of the protests, asked demonstrations to stop until after the officers' funerals.

Grass-roots protest organizers balked, saying their cause was not connected with the actions of a killer.

Calls for controversial protests to "slow down" are common in civil rights movements, and were frequently heard during many of the tensest times of the 1960s, says Professor Jeffries. Almost always, he says, protesters responded to calls by government officials for a cooling-off period by keeping the momentum going, and that momentum was key to their success.

Still, he says, today's groups need to weigh difficult strategic choices while keeping their goal – police reforms – in sight. Are protesters going to further alienate police by continuing to demonstrate? Yes, but police were unlikely to be their allies in any case. The bigger risk, Jeffries says, is the effect on elected officials, who might have been either cautiously sympathetic or at least willing to hear protesters out if they had enough support from constituents.

"Following the shootings and the decision to continue the protests, that’s the group you risk alienating," Jeffries says, noting that the deaths of the police officers create more space for those politicians on the fence to start supporting the opposition.

But stopping the protests, even for a short period, carries its own set of risks. Activist groups say that heeding de Blasio's call would be to tacitly acknowledge a connection between their protests and the actions of Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who allegedly shot the two officers and who referred to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of police on social media.

"Strategically it’s a sense of urgency because you are building momentum," says Jeffries.

The continuation of protests – with at least some protesters reportedly shouting slogans like "How do you spell racist? NYPD" even as the police wore black bands over their badges – is likely to strike many people as either tone-deaf or disrespectful.

Protesters, on the other hand, are trying to emphasize that their movement has been largely peaceful. At a press conference Monday, de Blasio took the media to task for focusing so much on the most hateful and vitriolic protester chants, which he says are the exception.

"What are you guys gonna do – are you going to keep dividing us?" de Blasio asked a reporter Monday, who asked about protesters chanting slogans comparing the NYPD to the KKK. 

Some of the rhetoric, activists acknowledge, has been hateful or anti-police – but they emphasize that it's a very small portion that is going to occur in any large movement. And they hope that the deaths of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu – which all sides acknowledge to be a tragedy – won't derail the larger efforts for reforms in policing.

"For activists and protesters radicalized by the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, this weekend's killing may seem to pose a great obstacle. In fact, it merely points to the monumental task in front of them," Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the Atlantic Monday. "It was only a matter of time before some criminal shot a police officer in New York. If that's all it takes to turn Americans away from police reform, the efforts were likely doomed from the start."

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