The deaths of two New York City police officers are tragic. They were two men of color who likely experienced the realities of a racist society and were unjustifiably slain. Ismaaiyl Brinsley killed Asian-American and Hispanic-American officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos by shooting them at point-blank range while they sat in their police vehicle Saturday, then took his own life. Before killing the cops, Brinsley shot his ex-girlfriend, 29-year-old Shaneka Nicole Thompson, in Baltimore, leaving her wounded.
In the wake of these brutal cop killings, there is the potential to use this event to invalidate and disempower the momentum of the current movement for racial justice. Because of Brinsley’s anti-police social media rants, the New York City police union leader is attempting to represent Brinsley’s actions as a reflection on the entire movement and to add credence to the narrative that police are the real victims in urban communities.
Despite the fact that data source after data source reveals that the number of black men killed by police outnumbers Jim Crow-era lynchings, or the fact that FBI data show that whites were responsible for most police killings in 2013, the public discourse as it relates to cop-on-black killings focuses on the supposed criminality inherent in urban black culture.
The criminal acts of individual blacks continue to be characterized as a cultural problem. Already Brinsley’s actions are being portrayed as a cultural pathology of urban blacks. You can see this in the picture of Brinsley that the New York Post chose to depict of him donning a skullcap and blowing out what is presumably weed smoke. Interestingly, though, those who defend the officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown, John Crawford III, Eric Garner and 12-year-old Tamir Rice reserve no such cultural inscription for white folks or law enforcement.
In the days after the nonindictment of Darren Wilson in Brown’s death, some media labeled acts of vandalism carried out by a select few as violent rioting by the black community. However, police firing tear gas canisters into crowds of black mothers and their children received substantially less recognition as the violent culture of law enforcement.
Sensationalized one-dimensional media portrayals in the news and popular culture create illogical scenarios about violent black men. Black people don’t get to just be individuals. We’re constantly under the white American gaze that is ready to reduce us to a stereotype. One of the more damaging stereotypes is of our lack of agency; that we have a cultural proclivity toward maladaptive groupthink. So when Ismaaiyl Brinsley kills two cops or when a rioter emerges from the ranks of black demonstrators, it figures appropriately in some minds regarding the “violent” nature of black folks. Brinsley’s action therefore becomes indicative of a larger problem within the black community.
Because no such one-dimensional narrative exists for white folks in the media, the atrocities that whites commit are not regarded as problems with white culture. Cop killer Eric Fein, Dark Night killer James Eagan Holmes and Sandy Hook mass shooter Adam Lanza get to be individuals solely responsible for their own actions and not part of some racial culture of violence.
In the same way, Brinsley’s actions are not part of the work that black people around the country are engaged in at this moment to resist racist state violence. Do not make him the face of this movement or of urban America. Give credit to the majority of demonstrators and organizations on the front lines whose resistance is thoughtful and organized, unlike the atrocities carried out by Brinsley—or by officers Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo and Timothy Loehmann, who killed Brown, Garner and Tamir, respectively.
The anger and passion of this movement is justified, yet it still pales in comparison with the passion needed to carry out hundreds of years of anti-black government policies.
Kevin Clay is a Ph.D. fellow in education theory and policy at Rutgers University researching racial identity and urban youth civic action. Follow him on Twitter.