NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton last week unveiled plans for a new strategic unit of specially trained and heavily armed police that will be trained to respond to terror attacks and "disorder." The unit, a 350-strong Strategic Response Group (SRG), “is designed for dealing with events like our recent protests, or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris," said Bratton.
What a lot of work a little juxtaposition can do.
The police department was quick to rebut initial concerns that the SRG would be patrolling protests with machine guns, which SRG officers will typically carry. It also did not specify which protests exactly would be given the SRG treatment; Bratton only referred to the 2014 protests in response to the police killings of unarmed black men and teens, including Staten Island grandfather, Eric Garner.
Still, with or without machine guns, a special counter-terror unit patrolling protests is troubling. It projects an unfounded assumption that events of popular unrest like the "recent protests" Bratton mentioned — those righteous displays of collective anger at racist police violence — should be publicly understood as sites of potential terror.
We can assume the commissioner, who held the New York top cop position previously under Mayor Giuliani and also has overseen the police forces in Los Angeles and Boston, is seasoned enough to have at least a basic command of rhetoric. He knew what he was doing when he mentioned the recent wave of protests in the same breath as the Paris and Mumbai attacks. If he somehow didn’t, he should.
It's a tacit and false equivalence that serves to stymie valid demonstrations against unacceptable patterns of police action. The fact that such protests would fall under the same bracket of specialized policing illustrates the paranoid lens through which police are viewing this popular criticism — for them, they are threats to be juxtaposed with acts of deadly terror.
Policing protest movements isn’t new. Government "fusion centers," which involve police, the FBI and the Pentagon, as well as private companies, were initially intended to operate counter-terror surveillance, but dedicated significant resources to gathering intel on the Occupy movement, for example.
This reflects both the mission creep of militarized policing into a municipal context, as well as the contemporary tendency towards prefigurative policing — to patrol a large-scale protest with counter-terror readiness echoes the sort of ill-thought police practices that saw entire mosques categorized after 9/11 as terror organizations to enable more surveillance.
In the case of policing protests directed at police, we shouldn’t be surprised the NYPD would want to bring in officers trained to handle the gravest threats. Protests late last year, especially in the wake of two grand juries' failures to indict officers for the killings of unarmed black men, caused considerable — albeit fleeting — disruptions to city infrastructure nationwide, shutting down bridges, tunnels and highways.
It's not clear why such "disorder" would call for a specially trained policing unit. Unless, of course, we consider what exactly such disruptive demonstrations actually threaten. For the most part, they block traffic and commutes; aneurysms in the vessels ushering the urban flow of capital.
There is arguably more, however, behind Bratton's inclusion of "recent" protests in the category of events deserving of SRG treatment: the ongoing narrative, spun by numerous policing institutions, that describes police as a threatened minority.
Blustering NYPD union chief Pat Lynch said there was blood on the hands of protesters after a lone, revenge-bent gunman assassinated two cops in Brooklyn. The Fraternal Order of Police, which has over 300,000 members, has asked Congress to include such targeted killings in the federal hate crimes statute. Cognitive dissonance abounds, when black teen males are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white peers and impunity reins. The union's request baldly ignores the fact that with a police uniform comes authority, a weapon and overreaching protection in the criminal justice system; no such privileges accorded to black skin.
Bratton may have simply mentioned the recent protests because of temporal proximity (although, this makes conjuring the memory of Mumbai in 2008 an odd choice) or just as an example of large scale protest activity where the SRG might be deployed. However, and this is crucial, Bratton stated that the special unit was intended specifically to deal with "black swan" events, i.e. an event that is especially hard to predict. Lone wolf shooting sprees, for example, present as problematic black swans for law enforcement (consistently prompting sprawling, ineffective profile-based policing).
The Charlie Hebdo attack was a black swan event, the burgeoning protest movement against police violence and killings is not. If anything, it was overdue. The size and tenacity of the demonstrations, the determination with which, say, residents of Ferguson turned up night after frozen night, has been impressive. What is more surprising, however, is the expectation from behind the thin blue line that the killings and beatings of black Americans cold continue unabated without consequence.