NYPD on June 5, during a protest in response to the killing of George Floyd. Photo: tetiana.photographer / Shutterstock.com
Last week, the United State Justice Department “officially,” to the extent something so meaningless can be official, classed New York City as an “anarchist jurisdiction.” Our city’s anarchists were amused and surprised to hear of their success. New Yorkers are treating this, rightfully, as an absurd red-meat political gesture, which it is. But it is also yet another sign that Donald Trump has New York in his crosshairs, a city waiting to be violently tamed and made to bow down. On that, he has an ally: our brutal police department.
The New York Police Department is an unaccountable mob and Donald Trump is a violent authoritarian. Fighting either of these forces in isolation consumes massive amounts of time and energy. The notion that Trump and the NYPD could team up in anything more than a symbolic or rhetorical sense is exhausting and terrifying. It is also, unfortunately, happening right in front of our faces.
The NYPD has become a MAGA sleeper cell. It boasts tens of thousands of armed members who have, both collectively and individually, professed ultimate allegiance not to any law, but to Trump himself. For his part, Trump has encouraged the NYPD to commit violent acts. In recent days, he has given every indication that force, not statutes or votes or courts, will determine who controls the cities and streets of our nation when November 3 comes — indeed, he has essentially promised that violence will reign. All signs indicate that the NYPD stands ready to assume the profane duty being asked of it.
A sleeper cell waiting for activation
The contention I make in this essay — that there may come a time in the near future when the NYPD breaks entirely from legal shackles and becomes a private Trumpian militia — is one that many may dismiss outright as hysterical or overwrought. But I am not reading tea leaves — just giving credit that Trump and NYPD leaders mean what they say. While New Yorkers know nothing about our regulated, over-policed city could be called “anarchic,” the NYPD no doubt welcomed that designation. It is more justification for the cops to unleash the hounds.
The “anarchist jurisdiction” designation was one step closer to a rogue NYPD. There are invaders in our city and with one tweet or public comment from their favored strongman, their relationship to those they police could change drastically. The sleeper cell is waiting for activation. The time bomb is ticking.
Since George Floyd’s murder, NYPD unions have alternated between complete disregard for law, and wild, fascistic fearmongering. The Sergeants Benevolent Association in August demanded that Mayor Bill de Blasio resign his office by “sundown,” in the style of the Wild West. The head of the SBA, Ed Mullins, has tacitly endorsed QAnon, a pro-Trump conspiracy theory that boasts as a central tenant the inevitability of forthcoming mass arrests of Trump’s political opponents. The SBA even doxxed Mayor de Blasio’s daughter after she was arrested at a protest, tweeting out an internal arrest report containing personal information about Chiara de Blasio. A union that takes such public actions to threaten and intimidate an elected official is a union without fear of consequences — a union that owes ultimate allegiance to a higher authority.
On the last night of the Republican National Convention, exactly which authority was made explicit. Viewers across America were treated to a sight we New Yorkers have loathed for decades: the pale visage of Patrick Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, the union representing 24,000 NYPD officers. Lynch, appearing before an ominously lit American flag marked with a thin blue line, painted a bleak picture of New York City as a murderous hellscape and declared, “Democratic politicians have surrendered our streets and institutions.” “The violence and chaos,” he solemnly intoned, “is actually the goal” of the “radical left.”
Luckily, as per Lynch, “we have a real leader” in President Trump. “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” and for that reason, “we know that we cannot afford to lose [Trump].”
Two weeks earlier, Lynch’s union made its first-ever presidential endorsement, formally backing Trump’s reelection. Accepting the endorsement, Trump had a message for NYC cops: “You gotta fight back.” Reflecting on an incident in which two cops had water dumped on their heads, Trump told the adoring crowd of officers, “I wish they woulda fought back. I promise nothing would have happened to them…Fight back, I swear you’ll be protected.” Big cheers.
Lynch is popular among his rank and file. Anecdotal evidence and statements from police leaders support the idea that NYPD officers have been Trump-friendly since he first came to power. If that seems odd for a city that went for Hillary over Trump by a four-to-one margin, consider that most NYPD officers do not live in New York City. The NYPD is a culturally, economically and intellectually foreign body here — its officers, by and large, do not share the values of most New Yorkers, its leaders do not share their politics. They are, quite possibly, the only New Yorkers who did not burst into laughter when hearing that we are a city overrun by anarchists.
Perhaps these reactionary suburban oddballs should not also be among the only New Yorkers who own guns. But they are.
A city battling a police force
Even without Trump egging them on, the NYPD has embraced brute force policing of demonstrators. Protests throughout the spring and summer have featured shocking, unprompted violence from NYPD officers. To date, exactly two officers have been punished in any way for protest behavior — they were suspended for 30 days. Officers have specifically targeted legal observers present to document police behavior.
When the NYPD has not been directly beating and macing peaceful protesters, it has been assisting counter-protesters in committing acts of terrorism. At a protest this month in Times Square, a group of pro-Trump counter-protesters enjoyed their very own NYPD escort, right up until the moment they drove through a crowd of protesters. The drivers — local pro-police advocates — have not been arrested.
Any one of the above-described circumstances in isolation could perhaps be shrugged off. But the combination of a highly politicized police force that is openly hostile to the civilians it polices and the politicians who ostensibly regulate it and a volatile, dictatorial leader who has been encouraging violence and declaring an election fraudulent before it has even taken place, is dangerous.
The exact chain of events, like everything else in America now, sounds unrealistic right until the moment it happens. The most immediate sign that the NYPD has picked sides would come if they take Trump up on his request to become a sort of poll-watching force on Election Day. That would be an explicit display of loyalty that Trump would surely notice and relish.
Next, in rapid succession: Trump calls the election results into question, whether by declaring victory before all the votes are counted or making accusations of widespread voter fraud or creating any one of the numerous “nightmare scenarios” experts think possible. A crisis of democracy ensues. Street protests in NYC, previously the domain of Black Lives Matter and its supporters, grow even larger, as the looming threat of fascism activates people across the ideological spectrum.
Counter-protests grow larger, too, as Trump uses his bully pulpit to urge his followers to “fight back” and prevent a stolen election. The MAGA trucks omnipresent on Portland streets would arrive on Broadway soon enough, this time off the Belt Parkway and the BQE from Nassau and Suffolk counties. As he has promised, Trump sends in whatever federal forces he can muster, declaring that this “anarchist jurisdiction” must be crushed.
In this context of massive protests and counter-protests and federal troops and a president telling his supporters that they are battling for their very lives, the NYPD as an institution will be forced to choose its loyalties, as will individual NYPD officers. There is just no reason to believe that the NYPD, or many of its officers, will choose de Blasio over Trump. At that point, we will no longer be a city with a police force — we will be a city battling a police force.
As conditions degenerate, officers may begin to use guns against unarmed protesters. We already know that Trump supports extrajudicial killings by law enforcement and the PBA previously defended an officer who pulled a gun on a crowd of protesters. Soon, our Twitter and YouTube feeds will fill with images of brutal mass arrests and previously unimaginable statist violence. One gunshot, one Kent State replay, in this pressure cooker will explode anything that has not blown up already. The City of New York has given the NYPD weaponry that can shoot down airplanes from the sky — no act of brutality can be dismissed as impossible.
Eventually, de Blasio, and other politicians the NYPD perceives as enemies, could be targeted and arrested. Trump has already implied that the NYPD should go rogue on de Blasio, accusing the mayor of causing chaos in New York and saying, “I don’t understand even how the police can allow it to happen.” The SBA has declared “war” on de Blasio, ominously warning that if he does not fall in line, “this is going to get to a point that it’s not gonna be good.” A disputed election could easily turn this cold war into a hot one.
Like all good New Yorkers, I do not like Bill de Blasio. But I also do not want to see him frog-marched into Rikers on phony charges by an unshackled, unhinged police department. And if you think this is unrealistic, if you think it is beyond the pale, consider that police in Portsmouth, Virginia, have arrested a state senator and criminally charged the city’s vice-mayor explicitly to intimidate them for speaking out against the police department.
New Yorkers fighting back
That an American city in 2020 could essentially be held hostage to its own police force feels shocking. But these are shocking times. Even before coronavirus and the murder of George Floyd, mainstream newspapers pondered the possibility of another civil war. Insurgency experts worry that America is quickly becoming their next area of study. And nobody has managed to articulate to me a convincing scenario where November 3 comes and goes without a meaningful breakdown in civil order. Perhaps, given these circumstances, it would be better not to have an armed, explicitly Trumpist army of suburbanites patrolling our city.
The NYPD has become used to getting its way. By design — not unfortunate accident — the laws of New York City prevent officers from being held accountable even for egregious criminal acts of violence. Indeed, misconduct allegations and falsifying evidence can be the fuel for a rise through the ranks. The NYPD regularly engages in illegal strikes that no one does anything about. It would be more surprising for the NYPD to resist Trump’s calls for violence than to sit by the sidelines and stay neutral. The NYPD has never been a legally accountable body — it does not need much encouragement to detach from oversight entirely.
And so, what can we do to prevent what looks, at this point, close to inevitable? I wish I had answers. Disarming at least some officers would be a good first step, but de Blasio can barely bring himself to critique the police, much less take away their guns — that our mayor is clearly terrified of his police department has never been a great omen. In fact, any legislative solution will almost certainly not come in time for the election.
Nor do I have much faith that city or state leaders will do the right thing even when the batons are battering us and the bullets are flying. The behavior of the NYPD during this season of protests has been appalling and largely in full public view on camera. In April, May and June, New Yorkers woke up to near-daily videos of the latest police beatdown, macing or illegal mass arrest. And nothing has been done, either to try and reform the department or, at the very least, hold individual officers accountable. By the time de Blasio is in handcuffs, it will be too late.
That leaves us. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if the choice comes down to authoritarian rule or fighting back, I think many New Yorkers will choose to fight back. Everyone will need — does need — to make an individual choice about whether to stay or go, and what resistance means to them.
I am grateful to live in a city with an engaged and brave-as-hell activist community. I have a feeling that even some New Yorkers who were skeptical of or even hostile to the protests will be thanking those same activists, when the NYPD fully embraces lawlessness. If New York really does descend into chaos — not anarchy, but chaos — it will not be marchers and the black bloc taking us there. It will be the cops.
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