(December 4, 2014 / JNS)
Over the last fortnight, large parts of the country have seethed with anger, first at the decision of a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown—18 years old, and black—and second, at the decision of a grand jury in New York not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the Staten Island police officer who placed Eric Garner—43 years old, and black—in the chokehold that contributed to his death minutes later.
The proximity, in terms of timing, of the two killings, together with the proximity of the grand jury decisions, has dealt a blow to the artfully simplistic notion that with Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008, America entered a new, post-racial era. Many Americans now believe that, as far as law enforcement is concerned, the lives of African-Americans—and particularly those of African-American men trying to eke out a living at the margins of the economy—are worth far less than the lives of everyone else.
Moreover, it’s a belief that is spreading. Those persuaded that there were enough procedural and moral ambiguities in the Brown case are finding it hard to reach the same conclusion in the Garner case, because we’ve all seen the video of the New York Police Department officers rounding on Garner, and we’ve all heard the pitiful plea of “I can’t breathe” as he was wrestled to the ground. And I’m pretty positive I was not alone in reacting to Officer Pantaleo’s claim that he was trying to protect Garner from being injured by his colleagues with an inner groan of contempt.
In this charged environment, no mental gymnastics are required to understand why slogans like “Black Lives Matter”—something that really shouldn’t have to be said in a civilized, democratic society—become so appealing.
But therein lies the danger. Talk to some of the protesters (or just read the signs they carry), and you will walk away with the impression that police forces across the U.S. are targeting African-Americans with all the zeal of a Haitian death squad. So, instead of discussing policy remedies regarding policing methods in those African-American neighborhoods where distrust between the cops and the community reigns supreme, and instead of trying to understand the degree of racial bias that informed the actions of the police officers in the Brown and Garner cases, we default to the overarching explanation that America is an irredeemably racist society.
As a result, a political approach based on finding solutions is displaced by a political approach that compensates a woeful lack of ideas with pure spectacle—furious protests, chants like “How do you spell ‘racist?’ N-Y-P-D,” and CNN reporters breathlessly charging after demonstrators blocking the main traffic arteries into Manhattan.
All this, of course, gets picked up joyfully by media outlets like Russian mouthpiece RT and Iranian mouthpiece Press TV, whose mission is to portray America as both tyrant and hypocrite—because according to their warped logic, a country that criticizes the abuses of Vladimir Putin or the mullahs in Tehran while simultaneously murdering black people for venturing into the street hasn’t got a leg to stand on.
I am fearful over where this stance will take us, for two reasons. Firstly, the policing of minority communities where there is an excess of poverty and lack of opportunity is not just an American problem, but one shared by many democracies. We are not Russia and we are not Iran; in our political system, all citizens are equal before the law, regardless of ethnic or racial origin, and if that principle isn’t being applied consistently, then reform is needed. The key difference is that we can cite that principle as our point of departure, whereas we couldn’t do that in Russia or Iran, since that principle doesn’t exist in the first place. If you are a Baha’i or a Jew or a Christian in Iran, for example, the courts will, a priori, regard you as inferior to a Muslim. So these comparisons, as my old history teacher would have said, are odious.
Secondly, the toxic politics of the Palestinian solidarity movement has emerged in the Ferguson and New York protests. Essentially, those activist movements dedicated to the goal of eliminating the State of Israel have tried to hijack the debate about policing in America, and the standard, predictable obscenities have flowed as a consequence. A journalist friend of mine who was covering the Garner protests in Staten Island emailed me a photo of a sign laid on the spot where Garner died, bearing the words, “Resistance is Justified from Ferguson to Gaza.” Far worse, a Facebook group pushing the slander that Israel is an apartheid state posted a photo of Jewish concentration camp inmates behind barbed wire with the tag line, “I Can’t Breathe.”
It would, frankly, be suicidal for those who genuinely want a different, more humane form of policing in America to embrace the strategy of “Palestinianization.” If we end up analogizing African-Americans to Palestinians, then we are condemning them to the status of eternal victims, a useful prop for left-wing radicals to proclaim the hogwash that the world is enveloped by an imperial racism stretching from the American midwest to the heart of the Middle East. Instead of solutions we will have slogans—and if the slogan for the Middle East is that justice requires the destruction of Israel, then shouldn’t the same apply to America also?
Above all, let’s remember that we live in a country that gave the world Dr. Martin Luther King. It is his example, rather than the irrelevant agenda of the anti-Semitic murderers of Hamas, that should inform the public debate about policing in the wake of the Brown and Garner cases. All the Palestinian solidarity movement provides are false and offensive analogies that will only deepen the sense of polarization in America, instead of bringing us closer together.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.