NYPD officers editing the Wikipedia pages of black men killed by police conjures a dystopian picture. From within the brutalist edifice of Manhattan's 1 Police Plaza, cops logged in to the online encyclopedia and rewrote history to suit their purposes. With subtle changes, the unofficial police revisions attenuated officer aggressions and made the deceased African Americans appear more volatile and threatening.
Orwell knew well the significance of how current events get inscribed into the historical record. "He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past,” he wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And while the edits on police killing details have been traced to only two NYPD officers, and their revisions have since been edited out, we should not underplay the fact that cops attempted to retell the deaths Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo in a way that shines a kinder light on their uniformed killers.
In entry about the killing of the black Staten-Island grandfather, for example, “Garner raised both his arms in the air” was replaced by “Garner flailed his arms about as he spoke”; "chokehold" was edited to "respiratory distress."
The incident reflects a troubling, defensive police mindset. It reminds us, too, that we must be vigilant about what gets to be asserted as Fact, and that this should not be left in the hands of authorities seeking to absolve themselves of oppression and violence. Wikipedia is an open, collaborative venture, a rare realization of the Internet's promise to democratize knowledge. While official histories remain all too consistently the purview of the white and the powerful, the ability to contest narratives on sites as popular and oft-referenced as Wikipedia is to be celebrated. Indeed, consider the fact that Capital New York was even able to trace the 1 Police Plaza edits.
Cops and cop apologists are as welcome to edit pages as anyone else. The police officers linked to the Wiki edits will barely receive a slap on this wrist for using city property for unofficial business. By now, we shouldn't be surprised that a New York cop would want to control the narratives around these killings. Police around the country have acted with stubborn defensiveness in response to valid claims of racist violence. Consider the cops who wore "I am Darren Wilson" wristbands, and the two police funerals during which hundreds of NYPD officers turned their backs on Mayor de Blasio for daring to offer muted criticism of racist police practices.
Police have seen their narratives of killings like Garner's affirmed by the U.S. justice system. The grand jury did not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for Garner's death, nor Officer Darren Wilson for shooting dead Mike Brown. Sean Bell's killer cops were found "not guilty." This being so, it's all the more important that the police version of events be scrutinized and challenged.
Time and time again videos, both from dash cams and cell phone cameras, have undermined mendacious police reports. Indeed, the regularity with which police have been found to lie in court has produced its very own term just for cops getting away with perjury—"testilying." Criminal justice (a paradox of a phrase) may have lavished police with impunity for the killing of unarmed black men, but thanks to the crucial efforts of Black Lives Matter activists, inspired in part by the righteous rage in Ferguson, the annals of history will not pass silently over racist police violence.
It's worth noting that the Wikipedia edits traced to NYPD IP addresses were not limited to pages on police killings. An aleatory list of entries were revised by police, on topics from UFC, the Kosovo Police, and even the sleeveless shirt. My friend, writer Willie Osterweil, noted that all the Wiki revisions combined offer a strange picture of the things over which police officers feel they have factual command.
Little attention has been paid to an edit made to the page on neo-Nazi website, Stormfront. An NYPD employee removed the terms "neo-Nazi" and "white supremacist" from the description, explaining the edit as follows: "Stormfront is not white supremacist or neo-Nazi or a hate website and claiming otherwise is biased and violates the neutral integrity of Wikipedia." Here we have a cop defending racism under the guise of following the rules. Sound familiar?
The Wikipedia incident might seem like a relatively insignificant side story in the struggle against police racism and impunity. But there's an important lesson to take away: The old dictum holds true—the devil is in the details. The edits to pages like Garner's were subtle. Like the addition of the sentence, “Garner, who was considerably larger than any of the officers, continued to struggle with them.”
Attempted absolution of guilt with the turn of a phrase. If we recognize the power of language here, we must also to importance of who gets to speak, who controls which details become fact, who gets to tell. If left to the police and the powerful, a sea of details can drown a glaring fact about brutality and racism.