As a nation ingests the tragic double slayings of two Brooklyn, N.Y., police officers, there’s little shortage of hot-headed Republican pols in open search of fresh liberal bogeymen to blame. With a resurrected civil rights movement now in our midst, we should have seen this coming.
A perfect storm is brewing: A familiar, and mostly Republican, messaging playbook is in motion as a political counterpunch from the right emerges. Movement organizers are now in a tipping point predicament, shamelessly painted by lawmakers and conservative bobbleheads as cop killers. Clearly, we’re at the junction of “Hands up” and a badly cut horror show in which full-metal armored cops start treating protesters like gun-toting anarchists.
And we really don’t want to go there. But a string of lopsided, loony tunes reactions from lawmakers and commentators are holding our hands on the way. Here are four signs that this mess could end badly:
1. Republican politicians of Christmas past and present are parachuting into talk shows and Twitter feeds. Sanity fading, former New York City mayor and failed GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani just blamed President Barack Obama for “four months of propaganda that everybody should hate the police.” Rising from the political dead was Republican former New York Gov. George Pataki chiding Attorney General Eric Holder, Democratic New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the president for the “predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joined in, blasting Democrats for a “tone regarding cops that incites crazy people.” And always-spitting-acid-at-the-lip Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) implored the left to “stop the cop bashing [and] anti-police rhetoric.”
2. New York City police-union chief Patrick Lynch’s trash-talking is just a play to force de Blasio’s hand on police pay raises and pensions. A nasty contract battle between the police and de Blasio has marred the mayor’s first year in office. Once fashioned by supporters as the embodiment of some sort of new progressive dawn, de Blasio had already cut the election-year deal to bring back stop-and-frisk king Bill Bratton as police commissioner in exchange for union endorsement. Hours after the weekend shooting incident, Lynch was accusing de Blasio of having “blood on many hands.” An entire night of mourning officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu was spent staging emotional memes of NYPD officers literally turning their backs on the mayor as he walked through the hospital.
3. Cop funding will be the next big issue in Congress. First you’ll see slick marketing campaigns like “We Can’t Breathe” T-shirts and “NYPD” limited-edition baseball caps sold at Wal-Mart. Republicans, mostly, will press for more police funding as conservatives point to people-of-color “uprisings” and “lone wolf” jihadis as the main reasons to give cops more gear and pay. Rep. King, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, had been moving in that direction since holding hearings on the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. Senate partners like Graham will be chairing the Senate subcommittee on crime and terrorism when Republicans take over in January.
This is happening at a time when officers on duty dipped from 450,000 nationwide in 2009 to only 390,000 by 2013. According to the Police Executive Research Forum, more than 40 percent of police departments “were still cutting budgets.” Law-enforcement grants from the Department of Justice were slashed by half between 2010 and 2014, while community policing programs have experienced a 72 percent decrease since 2010. President Obama did propose more money for body cameras and training, but he never recommended shutting down military-surplus transfers to local and state law enforcement, instead proposing better training on military-grade weapons.
4. It’s a nightmare scenario for the new civil rights movement. Calls for more police funding are, essentially, war footing code for shutting down dissent. The political right is in a perfect position to increase law-enforcement budgets with little resistance from jittery Democrats afraid they’ll lose elections if they oppose. What’s a protest organizer to do?
Advocates must transition fast out of a total-protest strategy into a political-mobilization model that can wield clout over police departments and their elected bosses. It makes no sense to demand police reform and yet have no skin in the policymaking game as conservatives dominate it. Die-ins and holiday mall shutdowns are really easy lifts in the grander scheme of things. The movement now has to create the PACs, identify the candidates, wage the campaigns, and push the recalls in an effort to control police purse strings and ensure accountability to the citizens they serve and protect. Anything less promises a new year of head-busting cops asking questions later.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.