NEW YORK - Thousands of people stood under a slate-gray Brooklyn sky to honor Wenjian Liu, one of the two New York City police officers who were murdered two weeks ago, in a gathering where most had little patience for the tension between the police union and the mayor that was again on full display.
Liu’s funeral was held at the Aevioli Funeral Home in the working class south Brooklyn neighborhood of Dyker Heights, and the crowd spilled out onto the streets for blocks. Police officers stood at attention in the center of 65th Street while attendees from all over the New York metropolitan area watched from the sidewalks. The eulogies, including those by Liu’s ashen-faced family and by Mayor Bill de Blasio, were broadcast to the crowd on jumbotron monitors erected outside.
The mourners were a mixed crowd. They included retired and active duty local police officers, law enforcement officials from all over the country, Hasidim from nearby Borough Park, and a substantial contingent of Chinese-Americans who considered Liu’s death a blow to their community in New York.
“Our heart is very heavy,” said Chloe Sun, who helped organize a trip to the funeral with about 60 other Chinese-Americans from New York City and Long Island. “Normally, Chinese-Americans are silent people. They don’t speak out. But we felt this is a time we should stand out, and we really have to express our condolences to the family who lost their loved one."
Liu’s death may have some particular resonance to the city’s Chinese-American community in part because he is thought to be the first Chinese-American police officer to be killed while on the job, according to the New York Times. Chinese-Americans were a rarity in New York’s police force as recently as the 1990s, but their ranks are growing.
Public officials speaking at the funeral — including de Blasio, New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation — alluded many times to Liu’s heritage. Mayor de Blasio quoted Confucius and the Buddha in his address as he extolled Liu for his compassion and sense of duty.
"The Buddha imparted a simple lesson to his followers. 'Resolutely trade yourself to attain peace,’” de Blasio told the assembled crowd. "That was how Detective Liu lived his life. That was how Detective Ramos lived his life." Liu and his partner, Rafael Ramos, who was buried on Dec. 26, were shot while sitting together in their squad car.
As de Blasio spoke, thousands of police officers turned their backs to him in a quiet display of contempt. This was not unexpected. Even before he took office last year, tension between the mayor and many police officers have run high. During his campaign, de Blasio offended the sensibilities of many police officers by publicly allying himself with activist Rev. Al Sharpton and criticizing the police department.
Officers, and their representatives in the city’s various police unions, were particularly incensed when de Blasio said he had told his biracial son to exercise special caution when interacting with the police. Union officials said de Blasio should not have implied that law-abiding African-American men and boys have anything to fear from the police.
When Ismaaiyl Brinsley gunned down Liu and Ramos — in what he said was an act of retribution for the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, two unarmed black men, by police officers — police union leaders accused de Blasio of inflaming tensions between police and civilians. In an angry speech the day after Liu and Ramos were killed, Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said that de Blasio “had blood on his hands.” Thousands of police officers subsequently turned their backs on de Blasio during Ramos’ funeral and began making fewer arrests for minor offenses in an apparent “virtual work stoppage."
Public officials have been hard at work attempting to turn down the temperature. Even the Catholic Church got involved, when Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, wrote a column calling for protesters on alll sides to temper their rhetoric. Bratton and de Blasio met privately with Lynch last week.
On the eve of Liu’s funeral, Bratton issued a memo to all officers on the force criticizing the silent protest that had occurred at Ramos’s funeral. “I issue no mandates. And I make no threats of discipline,” Bratton wrote. "But I remind you that when you don the uniform of this department, you are bound by the tradition, honor, and decency that go with it."
Ignoring Bratton’s memo, many of the police officers attending Liu’s funeral once again turned their backs to de Blasio. But unlike at previous protests, at this gathering, many of the police officers remained facing respectfully forward. On Saturday, when de Blasio and Bratton attended the wake for Liu at a local church, police officers stationed outside the church were photographed saluting as the mayor and commissioner entered.
Bratton spoke after de Blasio. While de Blasio’s eulogy was met with chilly silence, the crowd applauded the police commissioner when he concluded. De Blasio’s speech emphasized citywide harmony and unity; Bratton praised law enforcement officials as the people who make democratic governance possible. “Everything starts with public safety,” Bratton said. “It starts with us.”
Most of those attending the funeral said they are broadly supportive of the police but expressed ambivalence over the public shows of defiance by those in uniform and a weariness with the open conflict over policing that has gripped the city since Dec. 3, when a grand jury in Staten Island decided not to indict the police officer responsible for Garner’s death.
“It’s okay to have a grievance,” said Nechemia Oberstein, a retired teacher in Brooklyn, referring to the officers who turned their backs. “But right now we have the grieving for the family, and let’s try to be a support for the Liu family, for the Ramos family, for the moral of the whole city, if the city’s to go on.”
Other than the display of scorn shown to de Blasio, the prevailing mood was one of solemn tranquility. Liu’s immediate family — tearful and ashen-faced — spoke last. "He is my soulmate," said his wife, Pei Xia Chen. "Wenjian is an incredible husband, son, co-worker, and friend. My best friend." The final speeches were followed by more than 30 minutes of silence, disturbed only occasionally by the distant rumble of the elevated subway.