De Blasio and His Police: We Can't Listen With Our Backs Turned

Police officers turn their backs as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at the funeral of New York city police officer
Police officers turn their backs as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at the funeral of New York city police officer Rafael Ramos in the Glendale section of Queens, Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014, in New York. Ramos and his partner, officer Wenjian Liu, were killed Dec. 20 as they sat in their patrol car on a Brooklyn street. The shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, later killed himself. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

When I heard about the deaths of Officer Wenjian Liu and Officer Rafael Ramos, it broke my heart. I wanted to read stories about the good family men, role models and community leaders they undoubtedly were. Yes, such profiles were written. But it is a different kind of story that is dominating the Internet: the scapegoating of people who did not kill them. The prime target has been Mayor Bill de Blasio. With some NYPD officers turning their back on de Blasio during Officer Ramos' funeral on Saturday, tensions rose to new heights.

But why this anger, this personal sense of blame, so pointedly directed to de Blasio?

Because he publicly spoke his truth about what a parent feels compelled to tell a Black child. Many resent de Blasio for voicing the need to caution his Black son on the suspicions he may be subject to. We vilify de Blasio for expressing his reality instead of listening to him and working to change why parents need to have "the talk."

This moment could be a chance to start listening. Only hearing each other's experiences -- as cops, as parents, as young people -- will allow us to find a way forward towards trust. That is the only path that gets us to what all parties want: a better relationship between law enforcement and communities they serve and, of course, less violence.

I imagine people of color know all too well what de Blasio just found out: that voicing a personal truth about race in America must be weighed against the potential cost of doing so. How defensively will it be received? What will be the price for expressing it?

But how can we solve a challenge as profound as racism if we don't even let each other speak? If we have our backs turned to each other and refuse to listen?

What protestors are doing is giving collective voice to their experiences. They are expressing fear that society values their life less because of skin color, that they are more likely to face excessive -- even lethal -- force.

And are we going to listen to what it's like to be a cop, a job that could cost you your life at any moment? Police have a hard job with constant danger and they've seen horrible things. They didn't sign up to be seen as racists; they want to be seen as human, as protectors in a perilous job.

We can -- and should -- accept hard and conflicted truths from people on both sides of the divide. Let's not be threatened by one or the other. There is no need to choose sides, especially until we have listened, paused, and pondered a bit.

What we must not do is use tragedy as an excuse to silence those who just want to be treated equally. Protestors wanted the deaths of Liu and Ramos no more than they wanted the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice or anyone else.

De Blasio has been exceptionally evenhanded in his respect for police while trying to help us grasp the perspectives of people of color. To think otherwise is to dismiss the lived experiences of these communities. He has tried to be a true friend to the NYPD, in the sense of a friend who believes in you enough to be critical when you can be better.

New Yorkers elected de Blasio because he was candid about raising his biracial son, and now some want him to resign for doing that very same thing. There is a better way of hearing his truths, and those of so many other people, in order to know the changes we must make.

We've progressed to a point where people do not want to be considered racist, but we haven't yet solved the underlying effects of racism in all of our assumptions, fears and resentments. So it becomes challenging to have the candid conversations needed to move us closer to the country we want to be. If we start from an understanding that people on both sides want to reduce violence against innocent people, and that their life matters, we can get somewhere.

There are changes that must happen to increase trust and we can get there.

Let's support a process based on simple respect for protestors and police, which surely begins with the ability to listen. If we can stop blaming each other for things we are not responsible for, maybe we can work together on solving the things for which we are all responsible.

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