My personal favorite chalking read, “To serve and protect if you are white, to harass and kill if you are black.” In a close second came, “What are Hispanics to police? Target practice.” People were mad as hell, and they were not going to take it.
Williams students were finally active, and active over a good cause. This column is not about whether justice was served or not in the Diallo trial; it, instead, is focused on the response on campus. Unfortunately, that response seemed both defensive and unfocused.
We were college students disgusted with a horrible injustice. We arose in a mighty crescendo (or, at least, 100 students did) and just as quickly faded into a whimper. The Williams response to the Diallo shootings, though understandable, was quite ineffective and, some would argue, offensive.
What is the purpose of protest? Is it to vent anger or to force conflict that would hopefully lead to change and consensus? Clearly, demonstrations are expected to work towards improvement, not contention. Like it or not, the NYPD is an institution that is both needed and needing. It needs constructive criticism, not claims of outright racism and bigotry. The people of New York City do not need that either.
Police departments have one of the most difficult and important roles in modern society. Upholding the law is both dangerous and rewarding. Every day a police officer goes out on the beat, that police officer is scared that might be his last day. In NYC, the police are scared, as well as the people.
It’s a perverse situation: the police are scared of the people they serve while the people whom the police protect are scared of the police. It seems like a cycle that cannot be broken. It can, but it is a painful process.
Community policing recognizes one important fact lost in the NYPD’s current system: it recognizes the need for a rapport between cops and innocent people. One of its main missions is to destroy the fear that feeds the paranoia of both sides of this argument through cooperation between officers and local leaders, and it works. New York is one of the few cities lacking a community policing program, and reforms such as these have succeeded.
For example, in Boston (one of the first cities to institute community policing), only one juvenile has been killed by gunfire in the over two years. Longer, more intense training for plainclothes officers on how to stop a suspect without causing panic could have easily averted this specific disaster. These are just two examples of concrete changes in policing that the Williams community could have focused on in its protest. Sadly, they were missed.
It’s a lot to ask: for the protest to not only cry out against a tragic killing, but also to take a step towards discussion and reconciliation. It requires a ridiculous amount of courage and maturity. However, for our society to be improved through ideological agitation, the activists must take the first step toward conciliation and mediation. Activists must not only raise awareness of the problem, but – more importantly – also raise awareness of the solution.
This should not be taken as an attack on the protest leaders. In fact, I am very impressed with the speed and determination they illustrated. In the infamous purple bubble, it was quite surprising to see apathy decimated so quickly and so effectively.
On the other hand, this decimation of apathy was based not in rational thought and focused arguments for change but rather emotional attacks on cops. I looked at the chalkings with a friend of mine whose father is a police officer. It offended him. Were the NYPD (about 99 percent of whom have never shot their guns) on campus, would the cries of racism and bigotry have been a step toward better communication or away from it?
Ultimately, Williams can learn two important and unexpected lessons from last Tuesday’s protests. First, the apathy that many bemoan is not nearly as pervasive as we thought (I couldn’t find one student who hadn’t spoken to someone about the Diallo trial). Also, the next time we take action, we need to look not only at what caused that action, but what results we want from that action.
I left Tuesday with a mixed feeling about the demonstrations. It’s hard not to be emotional about such a tragedy, but without a rational goal, that’s all it is: emotion. The Williams campus was “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The next time our emotions are roused (hopefully, there never will be a next time, but let’s be realistic), let us also rouse our common sense and common desire for change. Then, and only then, will we signify something with our impressive sound and righteous fury.