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Activists say blaming them for police killings is a dangerous distraction

Some fear trend toward police reform is threatened by backlash against activists following murder of two NYC officers

Activists aligned with protests against police brutality and discrimination said Tuesday that comments linking their peaceful grassroots movement to the recent murder of two New York Police Department (NYPD) officers form a dangerous distraction from the issue the activists have worked so hard to elevate to a national conversation.

A mentally ill black man fatally shot two NYPD officers at close range in the city’s Brooklyn borough on Saturday, hours after shooting and wounding his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore. The shooter had posted Tweets saying he was taking revenge for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown — unarmed black men killed by white police officers earlier this year.

After the Saturday killings, Patrick Lynch, the president of New York City's largest police union, said police reform protesters and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio have “blood on their handsand some organizations aligned with the protest movement say they now feel pressure to disavow the murders, even though their actions have been largely peaceful.

“I think it (Lynch’s comment) reveals the danger of distraction, in part because the issue of police brutality against black people and people of color is being heavily opposed even as cities, states and even the White House are responding to these calls for police reform,” said Akiba Solomon, editorial director of Colorlines, a daily news website focused on racial justice.

“That was the story up until Saturday; now it’s about the effect these two police officers could have on the movement,” Solomon said, adding that some activists resented being linked to the actions of a "crazy person" who had nothing to do with their protests.

Expecting the movement against police violence to deny responsibility for the actions of a lone gunman resembles a tactic used earlier against the protests over Brown’s Aug. 9 death in Ferguson, Missouri. There, critics tried to “lump in the violence and looting with legitimate protesters, who have disavowed that behavior,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a six-time NBA champion, wrote in an opinion piece for Time magazine.

Abdul-Jabbar called such efforts to link the crime with the protests against police brutality “deliberately misleading in a cynical and selfish effort to turn public sentiment against the protesters."

"They hope to misdirect public attention and emotion in order to stop the protests and the progressive changes that have already resulted," he added.

The anti-protester backlash stemming from the murders of Police Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu is aimed at discrediting the movement as a whole, said Alicia Garza, a founder of Black Lives Matter — an organization working for justice system reform — and special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

She said the situation bears similarities to what happened during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when violence by a few was conflated to be representative of the entire group working for racial equality.

"There was a real attempt to discredit a very righteous struggle for equality, justice and democracy,” Garza said. “We’re seeing a little of that now.”

Activists have racked up judicial reform gains that some attribute to pressure from protests, in which tens of thousands have taken to the streets demanding reform since Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot on Aug. 9 by white police officer Darren Wilson — who was not indicted for any crime. President Barack Obama recently announced sweeping reforms including outfitting police departments across the country with body cameras, as well as more oversight on the use of military equipment by domestic law enforcement agencies.

Earlier this month, Congress passed a bill making it mandatory to keep a federal record of how many people die in police interactions each year — data that was previously only voluntarily reported to the Department of Justice, leaving scant information about overall patterns.

Garza said recent statements from the New York City police union have made some activists turn their sights on reform there. Police organizations immediately blasted New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s comments on the Brooklyn killings, labeling the mayor’s position as anti-police because he said the attack should not be tied to recent protests.

“You have people who are trying to work for a more fair society,” de Blasio said. “Anyone who does that non-violently, I respect that. I respect our men and women in uniform. Those are not contradictory thoughts.”

Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) had said Saturday, “There is blood on many hands, from those that incited violence under the guise of protest to try to tear down what police officers did every day.” 

“The blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor,” Lynch added.

Ferguson Action, an umbrella group for protest organizations sparked by Brown's death, wrote on Monday in an open letter signed by dozens of organizations aligned with the protest movement, saying the shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, suffered from mental health problems and acted alone. The letter also condemned Lynch.

“A troubled young man who began his day by attempting to kill his ex-partner, shot two officers and then killed himself has nothing to do with a broad non-violent movement for change,” the letter read.

“This weekend, Patrick Lynch used his role as the president of the largest police union in New York to essentially declare war on black communities,” the letter read. “This is unacceptable and should be condemned.”

The letter alleged that under Lynch’s leadership the PBA has resisted nearly every criminal justice reform to end discriminatory police tactics, and demanded an apology from him. Garza said Lynch’s statements, and his union’s alleged blocking of reforms, have prompted protesters to set their sights on a new type of reform aimed specifically at police unions.

“Given the recent activities and actions of police unions across the country in really hindering these demands for transparency and accountability, it’s worth having a deeper conversation about the impact of police unions in opposing any progressive measure of police reform,” Garza said.

“We’re really proud of the way our folks have showed up in this movement, and it’s our sincere hope that the police will follow suit,” she said. “Right now they seem to be out of touch with millions and millions of Americans in this country who believe there’s a different way to protect and serve.”

With wire services

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