Background for the Teacher
On December 20, 2014, police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were on patrol in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant. According to reports, at 2:47 in the afternoon, they were ambushed by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, 28. Earlier in the day, Brinsley allegedly shot and wounded his former girlfriend, Shaneka Nicole Thompson. He had also made threatening posts online against the police.
Brinsley is believed to have shot and killed both officers at short range before running into a nearby subway station, where he shot and killed himself. It now appears that Brinsley was a mentally disturbed loner who, according to his family, had psychological problems since he was young.
The murders came at a time when police departments around the country have been under increased scrutiny because of a pattern of police brutality against men of color highlighted by the recent deaths of Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, and Michael Brown. The grand jury decisions not to indict in the cases of Brown and Garner drove people into the streets by the tens of thousands to demand institutional reform and racial justice. Nearly all the protests were peaceful.
After Officer Ramos and Officer Liu were murdered, some police leaders suggested that the protests had somehow helped fuel the attack by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, and that New York City Mayor de Blasio had "blood on his hands." Brinsley had made statements on social media that he was angry about the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Mayor de Blasio, like other political leaders, had supported the right of citizens to express themselves in protesting for reforms following the deaths of Garner and Brown, but he had also said that violent protests would not be tolerated and that police officers must be respected.
In the days since the killing, many people, including police officers and protesters, as well as the mayor, have mourned the deaths of the two officers. However, there has also been a lot of finger pointing and accusatory language. At the funeral of Officer Ramos on December 29, many officers turned their backs as Mayor de Blasio was speaking.
In the activity below, students consider a wide range of statements about this convergence of events. Some of the quotes are inflammatory; others call for healing or emphasize the need for peaceful protest and reform to bring about a safer and more just society for everyone. In guided discussion, students consider the statements, what the speaker intended to achieve, and whether they feel the statement was helpful.
These guidelines for discussing controversial issues may be helpful in discussing this potentially emotional subject.
Ask students what they know about the death of two police officers in the New York City neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant on December 20, 2014. Elicit and explain what took place, and touch on the fallout since then.
Responses to the killing of Officers Liu and Ramos
In reacting to the killings of Officers Liu and Ramos, some have focused on division and escalation. Others have sought to recognize that many people are hurt and angry, and that empathy and understanding can be part of the healing that needs to take place. Many also emphasize that achieving justice and respect for all often means pushing for positive reforms and standing up for those who have been harmed.
Invite your students to read a selection of the quotes below and ask them to discuss whether they think the statements help or harm the situation today. Does the statement escalate or deescalate matters? Deescalating conflicts can help us see common ground that we can't see in the heat of the moment. Help students look for any common ground as they consider the quotes. Many of the protesters believe that standing up for those who have been harmed and pushing for institutional change is a necessary step toward improved community relations and greater safety and justice for all.
You might use the following debrief questions as you invite students to reflect on the quotes:
- What are your thoughts and feelings about this quote?
- What do you think this person is trying to achieve with what they’re saying? Do you think they’ll be successful? Explain.
- Do you agree/disagree with the quote? Explain.
- Do you think the statement helps or damages the current situation in New York and beyond? Why/How?
- Do you think it escalates or deescalates the current situation in New York and beyond? Why/How?
In the course of discussion, try to answer or clarify questions that come up. Record unanswered questions on the board for future research.
Patrick Lynch, President of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association: "There’s blood on many hands tonight... Those that incited violence on this street under the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day... We tried to warn it must not go on, it cannot be tolerated. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of city hall in the office of the mayor."
Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP: "It was unfair to link the criminal insanity of a lone gunman to the peaceful protests" over grand juries' refusal to indict white police officers in the killings of Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. "The fact of the matter is, in this country, we have a violence problem... Think about it this way. The tears of the families of these police officers and the tears of Eric Garner's family and Michael Brown's family aren't shed in law enforcement blue, racially black or brown. They're colorless. They're tragic and unnecessary."
NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton, speaking at the funeral of Officer Ramos: "The police, the people who are angry at the police, the people who support us but want us to be better, even a madman who assassinated two men because all he could see was two uniforms, even though they were so much more. We don’t see each other. If we can learn to see each other, to see that our cops are people like Officer Ramos and Officer Liu, to see that our communities are filled with people just like them, too. If we can learn to see each other, then when we see each other, we’ll heal. We’ll heal as a department. We’ll heal as a city. We’ll heal as a country."
President Obama: "I unconditionally condemn today's murder of two police officers in New York City. Two brave men won't be going home to their loved ones tonight, and for that, there is no justification. The officers who serve and protect our communities risk their own safety for ours every single day and they deserve our respect and gratitude every single day. Tonight, I ask people to reject violence and words that harm, and turn to words that heal—prayer, patient dialogue, and sympathy for the friends and family of the fallen."
Ronnie Gonzalez, cousin of slain Officer Rafael Ramos: "He's [the gunman] forgiven already. He's in the hands of God now. We don't believe in vengeance; we just forgive." http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/killings-nyc-officers-27751701
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police officer: "Those who were calling for police reform were not calling for police retribution ... Blood is not on the hands of the mayor." "I understand some of the concern that many people have in the law enforcement community. But this is not about one voice. This is about the voice of the entire city crying out for unity, crying out of saying, ‘How do we come together and deal with real issues in policing, at the same time, protect our officers?' ... We cannot allow someone to get in the way of moving towards police reform."
Reverend Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader who has led protests calling for reform: "Our city is hurting, we are hurting. Today we mourn the loss of two NYPD officers who were gunned down in a vicious act of senseless violence. ... Violence never has and never will have a place in the true fight for equality and justice." http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/sharpton-city-hurting-murders-nypd-officers-article-1.2052285
Former New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani: "It goes too far to blame the mayor [de Blasio] for the murder or to ask for the mayor's resignation. ... But I don't think it goes too far to say the mayor did not properly police the protests. He allowed the protesters to take over the streets. He allowed them to hurt police officers, to commit crimes, and he didn't arrest them. And when you do that ... you create a great riot."
Esaw Garner, the widow of Eric Garner, who was choked by a police officer in August 2014: "I just want to express my condolences and heartfelt sadness for these two officers and their families ... I know what they are going through to lose a loved one right before the holidays. It's so sad." She also made a plea for demonstrations to remain peaceful. "Please protest in nonviolent ways. My husband was not a violent man, so we don't want any violence connected to his name."
Twelve protest groups on the Black Live Matter Facebook page: "Commissioner Bratton and Patrick Lynch must immediately apologize to New Yorkers who desperately want change in the city. Mayor de Blasio and other elected officials should condemn these opportunistic distractions that attempt to avoid meaningful reform ..."
Rev. Stephen Phelps at a vigil in Harlem: "Those who had participated in the Garner demonstrations were devastated by the officers' slaying. Our hearts were broken... We want to see changes, but at the same time, we want the police to know that we support them. We want the police to know that we want to work with them."
Former New York Gov. George Pataki: "Sickened by these barbaric acts, which sadly are a predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric of #ericholder & #mayordeblasio. #NYPD"
Mayor Bill de Blasio: "I think it’s important that, regardless of people’s viewpoints, that everyone recognizes it’s a time to step back and just focus on the ... [Ramos and Liu] families. ... I think it's a time for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things that we will talk about in due time."
#BlackLivesMatter, a national grassroots and social media driven movement at the heart of much of the recent mobilizations against police violence: "Our hearts grieve with New York, a community already reeling from the losses of Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, Kimani Gray, Akai Gurley, Islan Nettles and many more. An eye for an eye is not our vision of justice, and we who have taken to the streets seeking justice and liberation know that we need deep transformation to correct the larger institutional problems of racial profiling, abuse, and violence."
Travis Morales of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network: "There have been calls to put aside the protests ... Well, I will tell you this, the NYPD and police around this country have not put aside their murdering of our people."
Elle Green, a 38-year-old social worker at a vigil in Harlem on December 21: "I'm here because all life is valuable and all life matters ... At a time like this it [is] ... important to build trust and safety in the community and to nurture a positive relationship with the police. Just because you're angry doesn't mean you're anti-law enforcement," she said, referring to the anger over Garner's death.
Ask students to share one thing they learned from today’s discussion.