By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
This year is turning out to be quite a difficult one. A new virus that emanated from China is affecting millions of people around the world and has caused more than 100,000 deaths in this country alone. As the country began crawling out of the government-enforced stay-at-home lockdown, riots erupted in cities across the United States. Forty million people are out of work and businesses are closed, their proprietors desperately trying to hold on somehow. Schools are closed, children are missing out on vital studies and social contact, and their parents are at their wits’ end.
Storekeepers attempting to open are shut down by police armed with executive orders of politicians who set capricious rules based on arbitrary numbers. People such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warn shopkeepers that if they disobey his order to remain closed, he will go after them mercilessly and shut them down for good. While Republican states are open for business and their citizens are free to resume normal lives, residents of Democrat states are still under emergency orders, expected to remain in their homes except for vital outings.
Then a bad cop, who served on an unprofessional police force with improperly trained officers, killed an unarmed man and resulted in cities across the country being set ablaze. Law and order disintegrated, and cops who had been expending their energies shutting down mom-and-pop stores were now confronted with high-octane police work and coming up empty.
Plunder, carnage and savagery have supplanted the talk about the importance of maintaining social distancing and wearing masks, if for no other reason than “as a symbol,” in the words of Dr. Fauci. The terrifying collapse of the rule of law has sucked out the oxygen of stubborn governors who still claim that a shutdown is in order.
De Blasio Demands ‘A Light Touch’
On the same weekend, both the best and the worst this country has to offer were on display: in a new milestone, a rocketship blasted off for outer space; at the same time, a black man was murdered by a Minneapolis policeman, triggering rioting, arson and looting in dozens of cities, ostensibly in protest.
Nearly every major city in America saw crowds face off against police, burning businesses, police cars and anything else they could throw a match at. Chaos reigned for six nights, as thousands of protesters, claiming to be grieving over a man senselessly killed by a policeman, created mayhem.
New York City was no exception, and when police responded forcefully against the criminal elements threatening them and destroying property, the mayor pushed back. “The anger out there is real and, unfortunately, very justified,” Mayor de Blasio said. “I really believe that the NYPD knows how to handle protests and respect whoever is protesting, but I want to see a light touch, because people are undeniably angry for a reason.”
The same mayor who was quick to drop everything and run off to a Brooklyn levayah to enforce social distancing, tweet about how dangerous the Jews are and how they must be dealt with forcefully, felt comfortable condemning the actions of police fighting back against violent demonstrators who of course were not social distancing. Not to defend anyone’s actions, but he legitimized the anger of the looters, while not doing the same when it came to the pain of law-abiding people who wanted to pay last respects to a revered leader. There was no room for any compassion and understanding that day in Williamsburg. Nor was there any compassion for the people struggling to keep their heads above water and opened their shops on Lee Avenue and Thirteenth Avenue. Talk about a double standard.
Rampaging groups ran through New York City’s poshest areas, emptying one store after the other, setting fires, causing mayhem and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. There were no police in sight; nobody was there to stop them. But don’t take that as an indication that the NYPD is soft on crime. On Monday afternoon, cops chased young Chassidic children from a city playground in Williamsburg. They were disobeying the law. Parks are closed, as are small businesses of all types, unless you happen to be protesting the death of George Floyd.
De Blasio went further in his condemnation of the police, saying, “Anytime you see a protestor just arbitrarily thrown to the ground by a police officer, that does not reflect our values and there need to be consequences. The NYPD has to do better. We’ve seen some videos that do not reflect the philosophy of this city; the values of this city; the values of this administration. That is not neighborhood policing, and we will not accept any of that behavior.”
The Sergeants Benevolent Association responded to the mayor via Twitter: “If Mayor de Blasio wants a light touch, then let him stand in front and take the first brick to the face. Or perhaps he can sit in a police vehicle and catch the Molotov cocktail that’s thrown into it.”
Over Shabbos in New York City, at least 345 people were arrested, at least 47 police vehicles were damaged or destroyed, and 33 police officers were injured. In Beverly Hills, 2,000 people stood on Rodeo Drive chanting, “Eat the rich,” as stores were looted. Over the first six days of the rioting, at least 5,600 people were arrested in 145 cities. National guardsmen were deployed in 15 states in a bid to get an upper hand on the riots. At least 60 Secret Service agents were hurt protecting the White House from rioters. In a dramatic portrayal of the chaos, confusion and anarchy which is reigning supreme in America’s cities, on Friday night the president of the United States was whisked to an underground bunker for his protection.
Lessons From the Past
In 1967, Detroit and Newark exploded in racial rioting. Those cities never came back, still sitting in a state of disrepair, with poverty and hopelessness everywhere. The riots left lasting scars in the cities of this country, and now, all these years later, the same images are being flashed again. Protesting inequality and injustice, people all across this country have taken to the streets, burning businesses and police vehicles. Mobs have taken control of the streets and government officials stand by, not knowing how to put a stop to the chaos.
We see the pictures and wonder what’s going on here. After all this country has been through, how can a policeman be so callous to purposefully kill an unarmed black man? Setting aside the officer’s personal views and racism, did he not know that an act such as the one he perpetrated would lead to no good? Did he not realize that it would cause billions of dollars of damage, hundreds of people will lose their livelihoods, hundreds would be injured, and deep wounds would be created and not easily healed? What could he have been thinking?
What about the three officers who stood by and witnessed the murder, without attempting to intercede to save the life of another human being? Isn’t their job to protect, defend and serve?
Rudolph Giuliani took control of New York City at a time when crime was rampant. During the infamous Crown Heights riots, his predecessor allowed rioters to let off steam for a couple of days, as properties went up in flames and Jewish lives were threatened. Giuliani instituted the “broken windows theory” of policing and turned around the city. The thinking behind the theory is that if you look aside from small crimes, such as people breaking windows and jumping subway turnstiles to escape paying, the criminals will escalate the severity of their crimes. To make the city safe again, it would be necessary to show zero tolerance for crime, petty as well as severe. It worked, and Giuliani was on his way to becoming a hero. His leadership following 9/11 cemented his stardom.
Apparently, it works the other way, as well. Assuming policemen join the force for the right reasons, to serve the community, this zero tolerance can cause them to slowly begin looking down at the people they are paid to protect. Invariably, their interactions with the community usually involve stopping people for traffic infractions and engaging in crimes. Slowly, they lose their sympathy for the “little” people and begin viewing themselves as superior. When they give a traffic ticket, very rarely is there any compassion or kindness. When they encounter a person they think is a criminal, courtesy goes out the window, lest it be perceived as weakness. Eventually, some of them are overtaken by a callous mentality.
Treating Fellow Citizens as People
When they engage in actions such as shutting down stores at the behest of a doltish mayor or governor, some show compassion for the people whose livelihood is being hurt, but others are heartless and cruel as they go about their duty. The superiority mentality festers and grows if not kept in check by supervisors and a system that reminds the men and women who carry a gun and badge that they are public servants. They are hired to serve, not to act as cruel and oppressive tyrants who wield power unjustly.
It is the responsibility of governors, mayors, police chiefs, and district captains to maintain discipline, but also to establish lines of communication between their men and the people they serve, known as “community policing.” This ensures that police become familiar with the citizens so that when it comes time to interact, the theory goes, they will treat their fellow citizens as people, not subjects.
This country has come a long way in race relations and the way it treats Jews and other minorities. Blacks have been elected to every office including the presidency. But at least once a year, an incident occurs such as the one in Minneapolis, where an out-of-control cop demonstrates that he has so little regard for a citizen’s life, he can casually snuff it out. Murder should not be tolerated, no matter who does it, and racism should have no place in the modern world. But when perpetrated by men in blue, the impact is far greater. Because rabble rousers, rumor mongers and political opportunists invariably exploit the crime to inflame the masses for their own reasons. The poor suffer. Storekeepers suffer. Schools suffer. Everyone suffers. Then things simmer down for a while until the next eruption caused by a bigoted arrogant lawman.
The unrest has brought people to streets rendered empty by the coronavirus, lumping together all police, and blaming them and prosecutors for the actions of a few. Despite the great progress the country has made in leveling the playing field for all races, when an incident like the Minneapolis episode occurs, the Sisyphean wheel rolls everything decades back.
The mayor of Minneapolis fed the rioting, issuing a statement that said, “The city urges everyone to exercise caution and stay safe, while participating in demonstrations, including wearing masks and physical distancing as much as possible to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The city has made hundreds of masks available to protesters this week” – as if the lack of masks and social distancing was the problem and violence is an acceptable way to address issues.
If there are no consequences for the looting and violence, if anarchy takes hold of the streets and police stand back offering masks, their fear of acting is seen by the rampaging thugs as a signal that they can act with impunity. Billions of dollars of damage is caused across the country, as rioters let off steam and “express their pain”. Stores that fed and clothed their own communities will be forever shut. Businesses will close and take their jobs and services with them to safer pastures.
Eventually, the rioting quells and peace and quiet return to the currently shuttered cities. People store what happened in the recesses of their brains and return to their daily activities. But if nothing is done and the broken windows theory of policing is not brought to the police precincts, training the men and women to serve with compassion and dignity, then, inevitably, another policeman whose arrogance causes him to see people as objects will become unhinged and the story will repeat itself again and again, just as it has since 1967.
Government has to be more effective. Police need to be more empathetic and justice has to be more just. In this day and age, the people won’t settle for anything less.
As the country battles multiple crises at once, we can use the current period as a reminder to always carry ourselves in a pristine fashion, not permitting the callousness, chaos, confusion and unruliness around us to affect us and our families. We are expected to conduct ourselves on a higher level, with refinement, respect and dignity at all times.
May Hashem continue to protect us each and every day, and may our actions, both public and private, be a source of nachas to Him.