In the wake of the announcement that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for shooting and killing Mike Brown, protestors across the country took to the streets in mass acts of civil disobedience, and in some cases, property damage.
And so, yesterday, following a New York grand jury's failure to indict New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo for choking 43-year-old Eric Garner to death in July, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a statement. "[W]hile there will be people who disagree with today's grand jury decision," it read, "it is important that we respect the legal process and rule of law."
He did not explain why.
As we've watched two killer cops, half a country apart, skip even the process by which they might be held to account for the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, politicians and editorial boards have taken care to make similar pleas. You must respect the process. You must respect the system. You must not break the law in response to the law's failure.
The "legal process" that Governor Cuomo is wheedling his citizens to respect is the one that last Monday declined to indict Wilson for shooting an unarmed 18-year-old as many as eight times, killing him. A legal system that yesterday failed to make Pantaleo answer for putting a man accused of selling cigarettes illegally into a banned and ultimately fatal chokehold, even when the man's last words were caught on videotape. A legal system in which prosecutors are given so much power that grand juries could be persuaded, as judge Sol Wachtler famously put it, to "indict a ham sandwich"—and yet where thousands of cops on duty kill suspects every decade and are almost never charged.
The "rule of law" that Cuomo wants us to hold in high esteem is the very same one that has given the NYPD a wide berth to harass, intimidate, and abuse young men of color, a "rule of law" governed by a rapidly militarizing police force training trigger-happy violent cops. A rule of law at the base of a system of violence and hate so out of control that even the mayor of New York City needs to warn his son of it.
How can you ask people to respect the law when the law does not respect them? How can you remind them of the importance of the process when Missouri and New York are reminding us the process is hopelessly broken?
There is a troubling trend in American thought that holds we should "respect" cops as we might "respect" venomous snakes: by staying away from them, by avoiding eye contact, by not making threatening gestures. "It is important that we respect the legal process and rule of law" because otherwise we will be beaten and sodomized with nightsticks and shot to death on our doorsteps. "It is important that we respect the legal process and rule of law" because the state has a monopoly on violence that it has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to use, especially against poor minorities.
That's not respect. That's terror and fear.
Respect is a reciprocal relationship. It is not the awed veneration of cops that prosecutors and grand juries apparently feel. It is built on trust and understanding and it must be continuously maintained. It is not, as Cuomo would apparently have it, a shield to be wielded by the state against the righteous anger of its citizens. As parents and needlepoint stitchings are fond of saying, it is earned, not given. That the governor of New York should feel the need to remind his citizens of the respect due the law should be as clear a sign as any that the law has failed to earn it.
Huffington Post's Ryan Reilly pulled some anonymous comments yesterday from PoliceOne, a message board limited to "verified law enforcement professionals":
If these are the men sworn to uphold "rule of law," it's no wonder Cuomo is reduced to begging his citizens to "respect" it. Respect cannot exist between one community and another it regards as subhuman. You cannot respect a demon.
And you cannot ask a people brutalized and oppressed, told their lives are worthless and their deaths are their own fault, to respect the institutions and people that uphold those systems of terror and violence. "I taught my son to respect the law, to respect the police, but the law killed him. It is the law that is killing our sons off, taking our sons away," Anya Slaughter, whose son Kendrec McDade was killed, unarmed, by a Pasadena cop in 2012, told the Los Angeles Daily News last week. "Where do you go from there? I don't know what to teach my kids anymore."