By Patrick Donachie
Violent shooting incidents involving the police spurred an outpouring of grief and frustration at community meetings and prayer vigils throughout the borough and city from elected officials and community members.
On July 5, police stopped Alton Sterling outside of a Baton Rouge, La. store. They tackled him to the ground and officers claim he reached for a gun in his pocket. The officers fired several shots, killing Sterling, and two videos of the incident appeared online and in news reports soon after. Less than a day later, Philando Castile, a cafeteria supervisor for a St. Paul, Minn. school, was pulled over while driving with his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter. Reynolds began streaming video live on Facebook after the officer fired four shots, mortally wounding Castile.
The murders and release of the videos spurred protests and marches throughout the country. On July 7, at the conclusion of a Black Lives Matter march in Dallas protesting the shootings, Micah Johnson opened fire on officers guarding the march, according to multiple news reports. Five officers were killed and an additional seven were wounded.
In Queens, state Sen James Sanders held a meeting at LIFE Camp in Jamaica for community members to discuss the shootings, while the Queens County Young Democrats organized a vigil in Jamaica’s Rufus King Park. Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) said that police reforms and the safety of police are both important.
“We have to address both problems that are not mutually exclusive, to not fall into that false dichotomy,” he said.
At a memorial services for the five murdered police officers in Dallas Tuesday, President Barack Obama sought to comfort those in mourning and worked to mend the chasm between the police and the communities they serve. The service was also attended by Vice President Joe Biden and former President George W. Bush.
“Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience,” Obama said. “I’m here to say we must reject such despair. I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem.”
Other public figures, including former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch criticized the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of the Dallas shooting, depicting the movement as incendiary.
“Much of the anger directed at police officers over the past few years has been fueled by erroneous information and inflammatory rhetoric put forward by groups and individuals whose agenda has nothing to do with justice,” Lynch said, while Bratton said the movement “accomplishes nothing” during an interview with WABC’s Rita Cosby.
Many attendees at the Rufus Park vigil disputed such statements, arguing that safety for their communities from police misconduct was not antithetical to safety for police.
“Pro-black does not mean anti-white. Pro-black does not mean anti-blue,” Jovan Richards, the chairman of the New York State Young Democrats Caucus of Color, said during the vigil. “If you think that the Black Lives Matter movement is putting those lives above others, you’re mistaken.”
Lancman expressed frustration that Bratton seemed to discount the grievances expressed by the Black Lives Matter movement.
“He seems to be in complete denial that black people have a different experience with police,” he said. “How that can be denied at this point is mind-boggling.”
It was announced on Wednesday that U.S. Rep. Hakim Jeffries (D-Brooklyn), whose district includes parts of Queens, had been selected to participate in a Congressional Task Force to improve police and community relations throughout the country. A study released this week by Harvard economist Roland Freyer found that black and Hispanic men and women are 50 percent more likely to be subjected to harsher treatment by police than white people, though the study also concluded lethal use-of-force incidents wereoccurred at the same rate.
Jamal Wilkerson, another attendee at the vigil, said the example needed to be set from the top down in police departments. He said that while there were good police, they were “being drowned out by the bad ones.”
“In the same way we’re asked not to paint all police with a broad brush,” he said, “they need to not paint us in the same way.”
Speaking before a crowd of congregants at St. Patrick’s Cathedral Sunday, Mayor de Blasio spoke about the pain the city had endured due to the recent events that had traumatized the country and also spoke of the example New York City could offer a battered nation.
“We are far, far from perfect, but we’ve come a long way. This is a city that, over decades, has found more common ground,” he said. “In this city we aspire to a different and better relationship between police and community. We believe it can happen.”
Reach reporter Patrick Donachie by e-mail at pdona