- Steven Thrasher
weekly columnist for the Guardian U.S. and a doctoral student in American Studies at New York University. His most recent article is “Two NYPD cops get killed and 'wartime' police blame the protesters. Have we learned nothing?”
- Graham Weatherspoon
retired detective with the New York City Police Department. He is also a board member of the Amadou Diallo Foundation.
New York City is grappling with the aftermath of the first targeted killings of police officers in years. Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were ambushed in broad daylight while sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn on Saturday. The shooter, 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley, fled to a nearby subway station where he turned the gun on himself. Brinsley had shot his former girlfriend hours earlier in Maryland, leaving her wounded. He later used her Instagram account to make anti-police statements suggesting he would kill officers to avenge the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Criminal records show Brinsley had a troubled history with the law, with multiple arrests and at least two years behind bars. His family says he had mental issues, including a reported suicide attempt a year ago. But the head of the city’s biggest police union has faulted the recent anti-police brutality protests and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has expressed sympathy for the movement’s concerns. After the killings, Patrick Lynch of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association said: “There’s blood on many hands tonight: those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protests, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day. … That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall — in the office of the mayor.” We discuss the officers’ murders, the recent protests against police brutality and police-community relations going forward with two guests: Graham Weatherspoon, a retired detective with the New York City Police Department and board member of the Amadou Diallo Foundation; and Steven Thrasher, a weekly columnist for the Guardian US.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: New York City continues to mourn two police officers killed in broad daylight Saturday when a gunman ambushed them. Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn when 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley approached the car and shot them dead. Brinsley then fled the scene, eventually turning the gun on himself as police closed in.
Earlier in the day, Brinsley shot his former girlfriend in Maryland. She survived and called police. He later used her Instagram account to make anti-police statements suggesting he would kill officers to avenge the deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown. He wrote online, quote, “I’m putting wings on pigs today. They take 1 of ours, let’s take 2 of theirs.”
Criminal records show Brinsley had a troubled history. He was arrested 15 times in Georgia, four times in Ohio, and served two years in prison on charges that included robbery, shoplifting, carrying a concealed weapon, disorderly conduct and obstruction of a law enforcement officer.
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, mass was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral here in New York. Mourners gathered at a makeshift memorial to remember the life and service of the officers. At a news conference, Officer Rafael Ramos’s aunt, Lucy Ramos, thanked the community.
LUCY RAMOS: I would like to thank all those who have shared their sympathy and support for our beloved family member, Rafael Ramos, who will always be loved and missed by many. I hope and pray that we can reflect on this tragic loss of lives that have occurred, so that we can move forward and find an amicable path to a peaceful coexistence. We would like to extend our condolences to the Liu family also.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Obama issued a statement that said, quote, “I unconditionally condemn today’s murder of two police officers in New York City. Two brave men won’t be going home to their loved ones tonight, and for that, there is no justification.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke soon after the killings.
MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: Although we are still learning the details, it’s clear that this was an assassination, that these officers were shot execution-style—particularly despicable act, which goes at the very heart of our society and our democracy. When a police officer is murdered, it tears at the foundation of our society. It is an attack on all of us. It’s an attack on everything we hold dear. We depend on our police to protect us against forces of criminality and evil. They are a foundation of our society. And when they are attacked, it is an attack on the very concept of decency. Therefore, every New Yorker should feel they, too, were attacked, our entire city was attacked, by this heinous individual.
AMY GOODMAN: The police union has criticized New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, accusing him of unfairly siding with protesters who have taken to the streets over the police killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Some police officers turned their backs on Mayor de Blasio Saturday evening when he walked through the hospital where the slain officers had been taken. The president of the police union, Patrick Lynch, said the mayor’s office should be held accountable.
PATRICK LYNCH: There’s blood on many hands tonight: those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protest that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day. We tried to warn it must not go on, it cannot be tolerated. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall—in the office of the mayor.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Pat Lynch, the president of the largest police union in New York City, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.
Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests here in New York City. Graham Weatherspoon is back with us, a retired detective with the New York City Police Department, also a board member of the Amadou Diallo Foundation. And Steven Thrasher joins us. He’s a weekly columnist for the Guardian US, his most recent piece headlined “Two NYPD cops get killed and 'wartime' police blame the protesters. Have we learned nothing?”
Graham Weatherspoon and Steven Thrasher, it’s great to have you both with us.
GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Thank you.
STEVEN THRASHER: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s start with Graham Weatherspoon. Your response to what happened and the response of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association to what happened?
GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Well, I’ve had flashbacks. I came into policing during a very violent period in New York City in the mid-’70s, when crime was off the hook and guns were found everywhere. And police officers at that time were being killed at the rate of no less than one a month in New York City. I was on a funeral detail with transit police. I attended funerals routinely. And we rehearsed at the Brooklyn Casket Company doing the procedures.
My partner was shot in the face in 1978. He was off duty, going out to dinner with his mother. And he saw something that didn’t look right, and he went to check it out, and it was a robbery of an elderly woman. And he was shot point-blank in the face. Kenny survived, thank God. The call came over the radio that a member had been shot. And the transit police had poor radio communication, and I called the command. We were working in the Village. And when I called, a fellow, Ralph, says, “Spoon, it was Kenny.” And I collapsed, at the West 4th Street Station.
I can only imagine what the families are going through. We know that there’s always a chance—and, you know, death stalks all of us in so many different ways. But to have an incident such as this, even with the timing of the incident, it’s beyond tragic. It’s horrific. Not since the Byrne execution, or attempted execution of Byrne, have we seen something this evil.
Pat Lynch is throwing gasoline on the flames. I think that he should take time to consider what he’s saying. I understand he’s a union leader. His job is to promote the welfare and the benefits for his members. But this doesn’t fall at the feet of City Hall. This is a societal issue. This man had an extensive criminal history, and he’s not a New Yorker. He was not part of anything going on in New York. We know he shot his girlfriend. He drove to New York. He was suicidal. He had an—he took an attempt on his life a year ago. So there are mental problems. And we have a very violent society, unfortunately. So, here it is that things have escalated in that man’s life to the point, “Well, I’m going to kill some cops, but I really want to die.” And we generally call it “suicide by cop.” You know, when you see people come out and do crazy things just so that they can be shot by the police, they really want to die. But in this case—and I’ve seen it before, cases I’ve worked on, where we had a guy barricaded, and he took his own life, after killing two people on Nostrand Avenue.
So, it’s—there’s a lot. But I wish that Patrick Lynch would consider drawing back from the politics. He doesn’t make the call as to whether or not the mayor or the police commissioner will be present at the funeral of a deceased member. That is a call that’s made by the family.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you referring to?
GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: He had said a while back, and quite prophetically, he said, “If a police officer is shot, they will not be welcome at the funeral.” Well, that was a reprehensible statement. And Pat is going to have to—I think Commissioner Bratton is going to have to sit down with him and rein him in. Pat Lynch is a member of the New York City Police Department. And to bring adverse criticism against the department is grounds for dismissal. So, he will only be a union president as long as he is a member of the police department. He is still a police officer. And I’m sure that Mayor de Blasio is going to sit down with Commissioner Bratton, and the three of them are going to have to come to terms.
And I think that Pat should bring it down, because no one in New York—nobody—my pastor spoke about the officers yesterday in church, and Brother Ramos, he had just completed his chaplaincy training. He goes to a church that’s the sister church to my church. He was due to get his certification this week. These are not bad guys. They weren’t bad guys. They weren’t part of the problem; they were part of the solution.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Graham, on that note, there’s been an attempt, obviously, by some, especially the PBA, to sort of link what happened with Brinsley to the overall protests, as if all of the—as if the protesters were protesting against police, in general, rather than specific practices. Your reaction to this attempt?
GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: No, you know, my mother used to call me when something happened. She’d call me up. I said, “Mom, I didn’t do it. You know? Give me a chance. I didn’t do it.” You know, we can’t broad-brush anybody. Blacks have been broad-brushed in the society. Latinos have been broad-brushed. All groups have been broad-brushed. And there are some outstanding police officers out there, and some of them I know personally, you know, and they’re not happy about what has transpired with the situation in Staten Island and in other cities, because it casts a dim light on police officers.
So, the death of Eric Garner, we’re waiting for the grand jury, all these things—I don’t think that the general public in New York City is looking to go into a violence mode. Protest is the right, it’s the constitutional right of the people, and we have to remember that. It’s not a matter of being policed to the point where you are now under a lockdown by the department, whether it’s New York City or any other city. People have the right to protest and make their voice heard to the political entities who are required to set policy and procedures.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion. Graham Weatherspoon is a retired detective with the New York City Police Department, also board member of the Amadou Diallo Foundation. Amadou Diallo, of course, was the young man who died in a hail of police bullets—41, to be exact—on February 4th, 1999. His mother, Kadiatou Diallo, has formed this foundation. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the aftermath of the killing of two police officers on Saturday, what the mayor of New York, Mayor de Blasio, has called an assassination. Our guests are Graham Weatherspoon, retired detective with the New York City Police Department, on the board of the Amadou Diallo Foundation, and Steven Thrasher, weekly columnist for the Guardian US and a doctoral student in American studies at New York University. Steven, talk about the police killing and what this means for New York and the country.
STEVEN THRASHER: It’s an extremely sad time, obviously. And we’ve seen a lot of theater leading into this, that, as Detective Weatherspoon was saying, is putting a lot of fuel on the fire. Just the night before, about less than 24 hours before the shootings happened, I was at a pro-police rally here in New York City. And I’ve been covering—
AMY GOODMAN: That was Friday night?
STEVEN THRASHER: That was Friday evening at City Hall. And I’ve been covering protests. I was in Ferguson this summer. I’ve been covering the protests here in the city throughout, you know, the past few weeks. And there’s been a lot of tension building.
There were not many people on the pro-police side, but they were extremely vitriolic, invoking a lot of military imagery and 9/11 imagery and talking about the people who are protesting police brutality as if they were enemy combatants. And you could really tell, sort of in this theater, even though it wasn’t that many people, that there’s already—there was already a lot of anger at Mayor de Blasio. There was a lot of anger just for letting people exercise their constitutional rights. And I could tell at that time, this is going to get really ugly if anything actually happens to the police officer, because people were talking about just scuffles with police officers.
AMY GOODMAN: Were they police officers themselves?
STEVEN THRASHER: There were off-duty police officers. They were mostly members of families, as far as I could tell. Not a lot of people would go on the record with their names. But there were off-duty officers, and there were many retired officers and family members.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: There was also a counterprotest at the same time, wasn’t there, on Friday evening?
STEVEN THRASHER: There was.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That some people tried to move onto the bridge, Brooklyn Bridge?
STEVEN THRASHER: Yes, and when the two groups were encountering each other, it was really disheartening, because you had almost all nonwhite people who were against police brutality, then you had almost entirely white people who were there in support of the police. And the anti-police brutality crowd would say, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” And the white people no the other side would respond, “Hands up! Don’t loot!” And so, it was extremely charged language.
AMY GOODMAN: And they were selling T-shirts?
STEVEN THRASHER: There was a man there who was giving T-shirts away. I don’t know if he was selling them or not, but that was the photo I took that kind of went viral on Twitter that said, “I can breathe.” And so, you had people who were actually using the dying words of Eric Garner against the anti-police brutality protesters.
AMY GOODMAN: Saying “I can breathe”?
STEVEN THRASHER: Right. I mean, we’ve gotten used to hearing “I can’t breathe,” because they were Eric Garner’s last words. And, of course, that’s taken off, that people, from basketball players to activists of all races, around the country have been wearing these “I can’t breathe” shirts. And a man from Colorado, who said he read a story in the New York Post, came all the way from Colorado, brought a rolling suitcase full of “I can breathe” T-shirts and gave them away. And whether or not these people—whether this was officially sanctioned by the Policemen’s Benevolent Association or not, it was extremely disturbing to see off-duty officers and police supporters wearing these really taunting shirts. And whether or not that statement, that was initially attributed to the PBA or not, whether it came from them or not, it’s really disturbing to see that this is the level of some people under the police department. And as the detective was pointing out, you have kind of a civilian insurrection when you have police officers turning their back on the mayor at the hospital, you have the PBA saying the mayor and the protesters have blood on their hands. So it’s extremely worrisome and disappointing.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Graham, I wanted to ask you, this—I was talking to one of my editors, who told me he’d never seen this kind of conflict between civilians and police, and I said, “Of course we have. We saw it during the Dinkins era.”
GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Right, absolutely.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In fact, there was a protest of about 10,000—
GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: At City Hall.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —cops that almost turned into a riot at City Hall just at the time that the City Council had established a Civilian Complaint Review Board, and there was a really ugly situation there, directed against that mayor then. I’m wondering, you—
GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And didn’t Mayor Giuliani address the crowd there? And they were—
GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: He was part of the—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes.
GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: He was stirring the pot.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: This was 1992.
GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: ’92, I believe it was, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And they were saying things like calling Dinkins a washroom attendant.
GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Washroom attendant, he wears slick suits, all of those things, you see? And we’ve lost track of the police—police officers are public servants. Public servants. You don’t—you can’t be a leader unless you’re willing to serve, and you must be willing to serve the public. But the attitude there is an us-and-them attitude that’s being projected through the department. And a lot of police officers—we had a captain years ago that told officers, “Well, if you get hurt, it will most likely be a black or Latino that hurts you, so you have to be careful out there. I killed one already, and I sleep well at night.” We had him removed from his command that day. I called. It was—if I remember correctly, it was Bratton who was the chief of transit police that time. We had that captain removed from his command. We cannot exist with us-and-them, a Buber “I-Thou” relationship. If there is no “we,” we will not exist. We will not.
The gentleman that came all the way from Colorado, same scenario. This gentleman came from Maryland and committed a crime. This other fellow comes from Colorado bringing shirts in here, and he’s stirring up the pot. He’s not a resident of New York. And the police union and the police officers should have had enough intelligence to tell him, “Listen, that’s not what we’re about. Put your shirts away,” and go ahead with their presentation.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who appeared on Fox & Friends on Sunday.
RUDY GIULIANI: It’s certainly true that we have been treated to about three or four months of propaganda about how the police are the enemy, the police are the problem, that there’s a major problem between the police and the black community. I call it propaganda because the reality is the police “interreaction” with communities is a reaction, it’s not the cause. The cause is why those police officers were there yesterday. They were moved from one precinct to another, because there was more crime in that precinct. They were there to protect the lives, in this particular case, of black people in that neighborhood. And the reality is that the problem here is citizen crime. In inner cities, it happens to be black crime.
AMY GOODMAN: Steven Thrasher, your response to the former mayor, Giuliani?
STEVEN THRASHER: Of course, I am always kind of frustrated with Mayor Giuliani. He’s also pouring gasoline on the situation, just like Pat Lynch did when he put the letter forward asking people to sign away having the mayor at their hypothetical future funeral. A big problem is that they’re trying to conflate protesters, peaceful protesters, people exercising their constitutional right, and saying that they have some kind of culpability for this. And the protesters are not causing police brutality. They’re not causing these police deaths. The protests have arisen as a reaction to police brutality.
But this is sort of the way that racism works. In Ferguson, we had Darren Wilson, who is not indicted. He doesn’t apologize. He says he has nothing on his conscience. He probably was paid a fair amount of money for his interview and probably will make more writing a book, and so on and so forth. He doesn’t have any culpability. But racism, I think, in a lot of ways plays out in police interactions, that all black people somehow now have to apologize for this crime, and all protesters have to apologize for this crime.
And Mayor Giuliani, of course, has no problem linking the two. And, you know, he—his own daughter has been arrested for shoplifting, and—or, shoplifted—I don’t know whether she was arrested or not. I don’t think that he would be comfortable with the police reacting to her the way that they would have in other cases, but he makes it sounds like there’s no need for a judge or a jury or a trial for police to used brutal, mortal force against somebody.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police officer, who co-founded the organization of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. On Saturday, he called on protesters to hold off on future demonstrations out of respect for the slain police officers.
BOROUGH PRESIDENT ERIC ADAMS: I’m asking all of those to hold off on any form of protest until these officers are laid to rest in a peaceful manner. It’s time for New Yorkers to come together.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s now Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, the former police officer who co-founded the organization 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. Graham Weatherspoon, you were a part of that organization.
GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Actually, Sunday night in Harlem, there was a protest against police brutality, but also it served as a vigil for the slain police officers.
GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Yes. You know, the black community is not anti-police. I think all New Yorkers are pro-police and anti-bad policing. Eliot Spitzer did a report, for instance, on stop-and-frisk 13 years ago, I believe it was. And he said, as the New York state attorney general, that the way in which NYPD was doing and utilizing stop-and-frisk, it was improper. But yet and still, Raymond Kelly persisted with his venue. So, should a police commissioner not listen to the attorney general of the state of New York? And if he will not, what does that convey to the members of the department down the line?
Eric and I have worked closely, very closely, over the years. I’ve known him, well, since he was a rookie. But I think the recommendation is truly called for, out of respect for the loss of the lives of these two gentlemen. And also, keeping in mind Eric Garner and the others, we might need to just woosah, reflect, meditate on what’s going on, and just allow the families to move through and transition through this period. It’s not going to be easy for them. I know it’s—when you come to the gravesite, that’s the real hard-hitting aspect of it. But I think that we should give the families a chance to just meditate, get themselves together, get the help that they need, as with the families such as Eric Garner and others who have died over the years, you know, because after the cameras are gone, no one questions what condition the families are in after the funeral. And that’s another thing that you might want to look at and write about, the tragedy that goes on post-media in a lot of families. And some of—I talk with people suffering with depression, thoughts of suicide, insomnia. It’s very horrific what goes on after the person has been laid to rest.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Steve Thrasher, I wanted to ask you about the—obviously, Mayor de Blasio is now at the low point of his relationship with the police department, and he’s—at the same time, he’s announced all of these reforms, an attempt to change the culture of the department by retraining all police officers, with an aim of reducing the number of violent confrontations between police and citizens. Your sense of what this means in terms of any reform efforts by the mayor in the coming year?
STEVEN THRASHER: I think that any—any excuse is going to be used to try to stop reform, we see. In Ferguson, we see it at the Mall of America. Any time you’re inconveniencing people and challenging them to change their way of life, there’s going to be friction. And this, of course, is going to cause a lot of friction here in New York City.
The mayor came into the office not with a great deal of credibility with the police department as a civilian and already talking, not as pointedly as he has in the past few months, but talking about his son. When he did talk about having the talk with his son, which every black father, including mine, had with me—he’s white, but he had it with his mixed-race black son—that caused so much uproar with the police department, it was already obvious that there was going to be a lot of pushback.
The thing that is most confusing, and I don’t know how to deal with this, is that you do see him and you see the police department enacting certain reforms. I think if you go back a couple of years, we had 700,000 stop-and-frisks, and this year we should tap out, I think, around 35,000-40,000 by the end of the month. But at the same time, even though they’re down and crime is down at the same time, I believe they’re over 80 percent still of black and Hispanic young men. How do you change that? I mean, that’s not simply a matter of doing a different kind of training. That can help a little bit, but that really speaks to sort of the inherent racism and racial profiling that we have in our whole society.
AMY GOODMAN: You speak, Steven Thrasher, about your own experience with police here in New York as a young African American.
STEVEN THRASHER: Yeah, I wrote for the first time publicly about my only kind of violent encounter with the police. My father had much more charged interactions with the police than I had had. But one time I went out running in our Summer Streets, where they open streets up, and when I got to the end of it—I hadn’t brought my watch or my phone with me—there were some police officers, and I went and asked one of them for the time. And the cop put his hand on his gun, started to pull it out of the holder, saw the look of terror on my face, and then just said, “Hahahaha, just kidding,” as if this was a joke to, you know, pretend like he was going to pull his gun on me, and then told me the time. And I left, and then I thought about going back to get his badge number, and, you know, I’m embarrassed to say, I was just too frightened to. I didn’t feel like going up and looking at it after this cop had already threatened his gun on me. So, that is sort of my most charged experience with the police, and I’m a person who has an education and I have relative access to work and opportunity. And we have a city—we have a country full of so many people who don’t have access to those things, who don’t—
AMY GOODMAN: Your parents’ experience with law enforcement, being an interracial couple?
STEVEN THRASHER: Yeah, my father was in the military. He was black, my mother was white. When they first met, my mother was arrested. When she—when they went on a date, she was accused of being a prostitute. And eventually—it was illegal for them to get married in the state where they had met, Nebraska. They had to go to Iowa to get married, at which point also a relative tried to arrange for police to stop my mother from leaving the state, but she was able to circumvent them.
But my father had especially a lot of very charged interactions with the police. He was a military police officer himself before he became a teacher, but while he was going to night school in California, his base commander would try to keep him from leaving the base to go to college. And pretty much every day when he’d leave, he would get stopped by the same police officers, who knew him and worked with him in sort of joint operations between the base and the local police, but they didn’t like this uppity Negro trying to get a college education. So they would stop and search him and put him on the hood of his car every day.
And I—yeah, I, thank God, have not had exactly that kind of experience myself, but I heard about it from my father. I saw him be pulled over by the police once, which really left a mark on me. And I know that this is something that people go through. And even though I try to diminish my own emotions when I’m in a big crowd of angry pro-cop people, or when a police officer pretends like he’s going to pull his gun out on me, it still takes a toll on me. And it takes a toll on all of us.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to follow this story. Steven Thrasher is a weekly columnist for the Guardian US, his most recent piece called “Two NYPD cops get killed and 'wartime' police blame the protesters. Have we learned nothing?” We’ll link to that at democracynow.org. And Graham Weatherspoon, thanks for joining us again, retired police detective with the New York Police Department, board member of the Amadou Diallo Foundation.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll look at North Korea and the allegations that they hacked into Sony Pictures. Did they? And what about the U.S. relationship with North Korea? Stay with us.