The Bloody 'Bad Old Days': How the Specter of 1970s New York Is Used to Quash Dissent

The horrific ambush-style murder of two NYPD officers last Saturday stunned a New York already wearied by the Eric Garner grand jury decision. It also broke the right’s law-and-order contingent out of what had been a very uncomfortable corner. The shooting death of Michael Brown and subsequent failure to indict the police officer responsible had left the public divided. One side believed Brown was shot for the sole crime of appearing menacing to a white authority figure, while the other side was convinced Brown was a thug whose antagonism left an armed defender no choice but to gun him down.

The Garner case offered no such split. For at least a few days after the Staten Island grand jury decision, a rare bipartisan consensus emerged in the public sphere. Some on the right tried to deflect with tertiary statements about cigarette taxes, but these were half-hearted attempts. No one could locate any justification in the traditional reserves of law-and-order rhetoric for Garner's death. It was as pure a case of police brutality as had been submitted, and it left those who normally defend such tactics exposed.

“I suspect we would rather the film of Eric Garner's killing not exist,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the Atlantic this week, describing the uncertainties of the Brown case as a release valve for talking points. “Then we might comfort ourselves with the kind of vague unknowables that dogged the killing of Michael Brown. (‘Did he have his hands up? Was he surrendering? Was he charging?’) Garner, choked to death and repeating ‘I can't breathe,’ trapped us.”

“But now,” Coates continued, “through a merciless act of lethal violence, an escape route has been revealed.”

The horrific execution of the two NYPD officers also licensed the discourse’s return to the societal need for hardline tactics. In a series of savage tweets, fiery press conferences and bitter interviews, the city’s law-and-order contingent seized the opportunity to shift the focus away from the devastating—and racially specific—consequences of police tactics and onto their alleged function as the only thing that buttresses society from anarchy.

This rhetoric was not a spontaneous reaction to the shooting. It was constructed even before Bill de Blasio took office, around the issue of stop-and-frisk, which de Blasio made the central crusade of his campaign. In the end it was not the future mayor who delivered the final blow to stop-and-frisk, but a federal judge, who ruled the tactic illegal in August 2013.

New York's elected executives, law enforcement officials and tabloid media had a near meltdown over the ruling. Then-mayor Michael Bloomberg decried the ruling, and then-commissioner Ray Kelly promised on the Sunday shows that "violent crime will go up.” Former three-term governor of New York George Pataki warned New York City would become Chicago, while Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota warned it would become Detroit. The New York Daily News ran a doomsday cover warning that New York City without stop-and-frisk would devolve into itself 40 years ago: “FEAR OVER RETURN TO THE BAD OLD DAYS."

“1970s New York” is a foundational text of urban paranoia. It's an abstraction stemming from numerous sociological factors ranging from a crack epidemic to city fiduciary collapses, one that continues to hold significant sway in the popular consciousness. It makes a magnificent foil for the law-and-order types, one that festered in the background of the debate over stop-and-frisk. The controversial tactic had reframed police activity as a problem of overreach and overexecution, not an issue of battling back the wave of crime still fresh in the memories of many New Yorkers. The outgoing administration’s parting shots were meant to rekindle the original urgency of this debate: repeal stop-and-frisk, the warning ran, and New York returns to its American Gangster days.

With the murder of the two NYPD officers, 1970s rhetoric made a comeback. Look no further than Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who invoked the notorious decade 36 hours later. “Who would’ve ever thought déjà vu all over again, that we would be back where we were 40-some-odd years ago,” he said Monday morning. “1970, when I first came into policing — my first 10 years were around this type of tension.”

This sense of a bill come due has underwritten nearly every criticism following the NYPD shooting, and has been expressed as invective against the mayor who ran to topple stop-and-frisk. Just hours after the shooting, NYPD union president Patrick Lynch gave a press conference before the hospital where the officers were taken and effectively accused de Blasio’s administration of having incited their assassinations. “There is blood on many hands, from those that incited violence under the guise of protest to try to tear down what police officers do every day,” he said. “That blood on the hands starts on the steps of city hall in the office of the mayor.” (Other police unions followed suit in equally overheated rhetoric.)

The next morning Ray Kelly, still simmering over watching one of his signature policies capsized, returned to the Sunday shows to reframe de Blasio’s anti-stop-and-frisk campaign as an “anti-police campaign” in 2013, a neat trick of historical revisionism. “I think a lot of the rhetoric was [anti-police] at a time when the police had a 70% approval rating,” Kelly told ABC News. “Obviously that’s not the case now. They joined the de Blasio administration.”

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani even more explicitly conflated anti-police tactics and anti-police rhetoric when he accused President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder of engaging in anti-police “propaganda.”

“We’ve had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police,” Giuliani told Fox News. “The protests, even the ones that don’t lead to violence, a lot of them lead to violence, all of them lead to a conclusion: the police are bad, the police are racist. That is completely wrong.”

This was a bait and switch, and not a good one; fact-checkers called Giuliani out for his statements.

Giuliani's interviews also revealed the contradictions inherent in the law-and-order response. The hosts of Fox & Friends Weekend asked Giuliani if he had ever seen tensions in New York this bad. He said no, yet he went on to list the city’s previous riots, undercutting his point: the Eric Garner protests were not exactly chummy, but neither were the Crown Heights riots. 

Giuliani also remarked that police officers used to be shot in the line of duty far more frequently than they are today. In fact, police deaths in the line of duty are at their lowest rate in at least five decadesSo, for that matter, is crime. The phase-out of stop-and-frisk began after the August 2013 ruling; violent crime fell 4.4% in 2014.

The tidal wave of menace that Giuliani, Kelly and others predicted would crash upon the city once their tactics were rolled back has not come in. Only the rhetoric is back, trotted out to divert attention from the reality so starkly presented in the video of Eric Garner protesting that he could not breathe.

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