NYPD Tower

In the NYPD’s shadow: Why I was unsurprised by the Eric Garner decision

Of all the feelings inspired by the grand jury decision to not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the murder of Eric Garner, surprise was not one of them. I had held out hope, certainly, that New York City could lead the nation at least allowing Justice to get her foot in the door on this case, but I have lived here too long to think I could expect better than what happened yesterday. 

I grew up in the Bronx’s 43rd Precinct, where the four NYPD officers who murdered Amadou Diallo in 1999 were based. Not long after being mugged many years ago, my father compelled me to pay a visit to the 43 where I was treated to detectives justifying the shooting to him and lamenting loudly that some in my neighborhood expected them to withhold deadly force, not long before telling me there was naught to be done about my stolen wallet. The impression of that conversation stayed with me much longer than the bruises my mugging had left me with.

The NYPD are a civil religion in New York City, and were already crowned with an azure halo long before the epic tragedy of 9/11 rightly made heroes of this city’s first responders. The NYPD is a symbol of the city whose supposed virtues are trumpeted from the front page of every tabloid newspaper, wedded to our civic institutions, arm locked with our mayor, and celebrated as heroes with the same involuntary fervor that greets this nation’s soldiers. I remember quite clearly the furor that greeted a cheeky New Yorker cover drawn by Art Spiegelman showing an NYPD officer cheerfully aiming into a carnival shooting gallery with civilian targets holding various innocuous objects — a reference to the fact that Diallo’s wallet was allegedly mistaken for a gun by the offending officers. The outrage from police and officer’s associations far exceeded any sense of remorse over Mr. Diallo’s death or the racist rhetoric surrounding it.

I remember in high school that I got into a pitched argument with a white Republican classmate about Diallo’s death, and he alleged that 41 shots were not excessive by way of vague allusion to soldiers in World War Two sustaining that many wounds and surviving. Do let that one sit for a moment.

How little, indeed, has changed.

NYPD Tower

An NYPD “SkyWatch” tower in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. (Source: EV Grieve)

This is New York, and the NYPD remains an institution beloved of our city’s great and good. I always found the self-pitying whinges of police who claim media bias against them to be downright delusional, frankly — most of the city’s press fawns over the police, treats their statements and testimony as self-evidently factual, and ensures the public joins crowdsourced funerals to mourn the death of every officer slain in the line of duty, an honor only very rarely accorded to the innocent victims of police violence.

The fact that even The Daily News has, of late, come to realize that the deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown might have been unjust is merely a testament to how bad things have gotten, not how rare such tragedies are.

For trans women of color in this city, harassment by the police is an ever present risk. From officers who use public searches as an excuse to grope you and answer the puerile questions on every cis transphobe’s mind, to one’s who use your birth control as an excuse to run you in on prostitution charges, to those who will look the other way when civilians try to murder you, there is no safety, no good, that ever came from calling the NYPD. The red strobes of the squad car merely bathe my sisters in suspicion and callow judgement.

In my years working with and sitting on the board of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a legal aid society that represents and advocates for low income trans women of color in New York, I can safely say that so many of our clients come to us with stories that — if there were any justice — would be considered national scandals, would become hashtags made of tinder to light protest marches and die-ins. Sex workers, homeless people, immigrants documented and not, all have had various run ins with police whose first act of violence is misgendering and whose last they were lucky to walk away from with their life. My sisters are, at best, a rounding error in an officer’s quota, at worst a vent for their frustrations and petty prejudices.

The story of Monica Jones, a trans woman of color arrested in Arizona for “manifesting prostitution,” (and who is currently being detained by immigration authorities in Australia), is one that is being repeated night after night in New York, with different letters of the law being manhandled by the officers to harass and falsely arrest or imprison trans women of color, whose skin, whose attire, whose speech, or whose use of condoms is seen as reason to arrest — or for the police to just walk away with your contraceptives. It took activism led by sex workers to try and put a legal end to this practice.

That’s the NYPD I think of, the one I grew up with, that cut a path through my neighborhood, which makes enemies of my neighbors and my sisters; that’s why I can’t say I was terribly surprised by yesterday’s decision.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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