Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Lynch mobs served as de jure law enforcement for decades in a South defined by its lack of due process for African Americans. The term speaks volumes about the current dynamic between police and a distrustful public.
In the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died on April 19 from a spinal-cord injury he apparently sustained while in police custody after his arrest a week earlier, the president of the Baltimore police union has expressed his sympathies for Gray's family.
But Gene Ryan reserved his strongest emotional language for protesters.
'While we appreciate the right of our citizens to protest and applaud the fact that, to date, the protests have been peaceful, we are very concerned about the rhetoric of the protests," Ryan said in a statement. "In fact, the images seen on television look and sound much like a lynch mob in that they are calling for the immediate imprisonment of these officers without them ever receiving the due process that is the Constitutional right of every citizen, including law-enforcement officers."
For a white police-union chief like Ryan to refer to protesters as a "lynch mob" is chilling. Lynch mobs served as de jure law enforcement for decades in a South that was defined by its lack of due process for African Americans. It is especially grim language to use with regard to the death of a black man that may have been caused by police officers, several of whom are white.
Charging police officers who may be suspects in the death of Gray would not be denying them due process, of course. No more so than than the police were denying Gray due process by initially arresting him. Protesters objecting to the death of a man whose spine was almost completely severed are calling for an investigation. (And the U.S. Department of Justice is answering that call.)
Investigations, arrests, and trials all follow in the course of due process.
Ryan's extraordinarily poor choice of words recalls the ghoulishness of Pat Lynch, the president of New York's largest police union, who blamed the tragic, execution-style deaths of two police officers on protesters and the mayor, saying that there was "blood on many hands tonight."
Even the extreme comments of Ryan and Lynch are virtually indistinguishable in tone from the responses of police-union leaders across the nation to #BlackLivesMatter protests following the deaths of black men at the hands of police. From the inflammatory rhetoric of the police-union president in St. Louis County, where Michael Brown was killed, to places far away from these specific incidents of violence—places like Anne Arundel County, Sacramento, and Philadelphia, to name just a few—the language is similar.
As police-union leaders almost everywhere tell it, protesters are hate-mongers, sensationalists, and above all, "lynch mobs" bent on seeing police hang. (The rare exception might be the union president of Portland, Ore., whose statement following the grand jury's decision in Ferguson was measured and neutral.)
Police-union leaders must stop using racially inflammatory language to denounce peaceful protests. They shouldn't be denouncing protesters in the first place. Police unions must invite the kind of reforms that will boost civic trust in law enforcement across many different populations. Otherwise, police unions should not get the automatic deference from city leaders that so many of them do.
The racially inflammatory rhetoric in particular is more than just insensitive, cruel, and ineffective—though it is all those things. Coded terms portray police leaders as reflexively defensive toward any and all charges of excessive force and racial bias, even before any facts can be obtained. Baltimore police-union president Ryan is explicit about his ultimate disregard for the facts in Gray's death:
We fully support the Officers involved in this matter as we know them to be well trained, respected members of the Baltimore Police Department and our union. There is, at this time, no indication of any criminal activity whatsoever but our support will not waiver for any reason. We are, by nature of our profession, a proud group of men and women and our pride is unshakeable.
For a police union to make this statement in the course of calling protesters a lynch mob suggests that it is the police who do not care about due process. This kind of statement only confirms the distrust that skeptics feel toward police, and threatens to hamper efforts to recruit trustworthy police officers in the future.
It's a dangerous sentiment, and one that—by police-union leaders' own admission—is too widely shared.
Top Photo: Jose Luis Magana/Reuters