A still from the video for the Uncle Murda and Maino song Hands Up (WorldStarHipHop/YouTube)
When Patrick Lynch chastised Mayor de Blasio that “there was blood on the mayor’s hands” following the tragic killing of officers Rafael Ramon and Wenjian Liu, many reasonable people recognized the comment for what it was, an effort to verbally smear the mayor to secure Lynch’s political base, and deflect attention from the serious questions being raised post-Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island. The mayor’s purported sin was that he had spoken to his son about how to behave when confronted by armed police officers. Lynch ignored context and called the mayor’s conduct an unacceptable attack on all police officers. As the target of an inflammatory attack, one would not have expected the mayor to engage in similarly inflammatory rhetoric.
Yet that is what he did at a Jan. 30 press converence when responding to a question about the two lawyers from the Bronx Defenders who appeared in a “Hands Up” video that included a graphic image of two men pointing handguns at the head of someone dressed as a police officer. The mayor warned that the Bronx Defenders had to act quickly to discipline the two “bad apples” and reform its procedures or face sanctions that could include the loss of city funding. While recognizing the good work that most Bronx Defenders do, de Blasio cautioned, “But these are some very bad apples who did something absolutely horrid” (“Mayor Demands Discipline for Bronx Defenders ‘Bad Apples’,” NYLJ, Feb. 2).
The Bronx Defenders’ failure to secure a guarantee to screen the full video prior to its being posted or publicized was an error. To be clear, there are no “bad apples” at the Bronx Defenders.
These lawyers are smart, committed and hardworking, and have earned their clients’, their community’s, and this city’s trust as a consequence of their dedication and the quality of their work. The two lawyers who appear in the unspeaking cameos may have made an ill-considered decision to involve their office in a video that, in the current environment, placed its good works at risk. But they are decent, caring, thoughtful people—hardworking lawyers motivated by concerns for social and racial justice and committed to achieving a world where access to due process does not depend on the color of one’s skin or the color of one’s uniform.
In a less charged moment, with a mayor unconcerned about regaining the trust of the city’s police rank and file, I suspect much less would have been made about the lawyers’ decision to appear in the video. The lawyers’ forced resignations and Robin Steinberg’s two month suspension, which now seem an inevitable consequence of the elevated rhetoric, might not have felt quite so necessary.
Watch the video. Then watch the video again. Most of it is a mash-up of cell phone videos, and news footage of actual encounters between unarmed black civilians and police officers.
The Department of Investigation’s report asserted that the video advocates the retaliatory killing of police officers. In fact, the video is far more nuanced, primarily venting frustration at the sheer number of unarmed black men killed by the police, and lamenting the justice system’s persistent failure to hold officers legally accountable for their conduct. It warns that anger and frustration have produced a call by some for retaliatory violence but its dominant theme is that when confronted by officers, one should extend one’s arms to the sky and say “Hands up. Don’t shoot.”
When, in a recent New York Times column, Charles Blow said that the failure of the Ferguson grand jury to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown “touched something deep and ancient and anguished in the black community,” mainstream readers did not accuse him of being anti-police. No one accused Blow of inciting to loot or riot. It would have been offensive and absurd if anyone had. He wrote in a language recognized and accepted and shared by the readership of the New York Times and the New York Law Journal.
But when members of the community who have suffered aggressive policing and the indignity and trauma of hundreds of thousands of unlawful stop-and-frisks, and who most recently suffered the loss of Ramarley Graham, Eric Garner and Akai Gurley, register their anger and frustration in a language and with images that resonate in their community, too many of us are inclined to reflexively dismiss and condemn it. Instead of listening, we rush to judge—judge the video and the lawyers, members of a community-based law office who recognized that the rappers were expressing their community’s frustration. Instead of reducing the video to its worst possible meaning, we all would be better served by trying to understand the anger and frustration, and work to ameliorate the circumstances and conditions that produced it.
But no matter what meaning one extracts from the video, it is difficult to see how one can leap to characterizing the Bronx Defenders lawyers as “bad apples” and demand a plan of action at the cost of an implicit threat to de-fund the office. Its 250 lawyers, social workers, advocates, investigators and other staff serve clients charged with crimes and assist community members with housing, family, child custody, immigration, school-related and re-entry issues. The office has trained scores of public defender offices around the country to adapt its creative, cost-efficient model. At a time when so many communities are struggling to give meaning to the 50-year-old promise of Gideon v. Wainright, Steinberg has built an office that delivers that promise on a daily basis.
Reasonable people should recognize overreaction when it stares them in the face. And no responsible party should have sought to score political points or regain political capital by threatening the health of Bronx’s underserved population or the dedicated Bronx Defenders staff and lawyers who serve them.
Calls for some ameliorative, managerial measures for the Bronx Defenders might have been proportionate to what in hindsight was an ill-advised decision to participate, no matter how tangentially, in the video. But too many were willing to threaten the Bronx Defenders’ ability to continue to serve a borough and its people who rarely get their fair share of New York City’s resources.
Corrective measures have been proposed and adopted; the city’s concern with managerial accountability has now been met. But as with the Staten Island grand jury’s failure to indict, members of the public are left puzzling over the appearance of a double standard.
Two Bronx Defenders lawyers were forced to resign, Steinberg will be suspended without pay for two months, and the legal staff will submit to a “new training program” to ensure that they “observe their responsibilities as officers of the court.”
Meanwhile there are dozens of cases every year in which judges reprimand assistant district attorneys for inappropriate behavior that borders on malpractice but those prosecutors are never investigated, retrained or fired.
But let me be clear: I am not calling for retaliatory punishment.
Instead of focusing on punishments, may we please turn the focus away from the video and return the focus to where it should rightly be: on how this city should police its citizens. May we turn the focus back to the struggle in which the Bronx Defenders responsibly engage every day—advancing and securing the dignity of people no matter their color or the zip code in which they live?