The City That Never Sleeps Cannot Sleep

Paris always felt like home, finally. Sitting at the Flore early on a rainy December evening, each December, sipping cognac and watching the lights of the cars on the Boulevard slide by, through the existentially steamed-up windows, gloriously alone, was how things had always been meant to be – but living here in the middle of Hollywood for the last twenty years seems right too. This is the center of the world’s popular culture, for better or worse. Everything that’s cool started here in Southern California, or became cool when the folks out here decided it was officially cool – when it popped up in the movies or on television, or on everyone’s radio. James Taylor was just a pleasant obscure singer from North Carolina until he showed up at the Troubadour down the street and was suddenly cool. It was the same with Carol King. You don’t get famous writing hit songs for everyone else in the Brill Building in Manhattan. Southern California has to bless you. Her sets at the Troubadour started her real career. This is where stars are discovered, or uncovered, or invented. Elvis eventually had to come to Hollywood. Where else was he going to go? And then he ended up in Las Vegas – a five hour drive away, in the middle of a vast desert – where famous stars go to die, even if they’re still doing two shows a night. Las Vegas is the zombie Hollywood – but Hollywood is the center of something or other. It’s not Paris, but it’ll do.

Hollywood, however, is a silly place, because most if not all of popular culture is silliness. Tom Hanks, while a fine fellow, isn’t Socrates. The center of what is not silly is New York, the edgy giant city that is one big raw nerve, but the center of all that is America – finance and the media and the arts and publishing and everything else. In 2008, Sarah Palin said she represented the Real America, the folks who live in small towns or out on lonely farms or up there in the wilds of Alaska, but she got to New York often enough, to shop at Bergdorf-Goodman and chat with Donald Trump, and later, after she lost the election, to appear on Fox News, right there in their studios on Sixth Avenue, just up the street from Radio City Music Hall.

The city is a magnet, the city that never sleeps – and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, as the song goes. Palin knew that. This and that might not be cool until Hollywood decides it’s cool – and then informs America of their decision – but nothing is really important until it happens in New York, on the big stage that is America. The media is there to inform America that it is important, the national media, not the amateurish local newscasters, each of whom longs to work in New York anyway.

That’s understandable. New York isn’t Ferguson, way out there in Missouri, where that hulking young unarmed black kid was shot to death by a white cop. It also isn’t Cleveland, where that white cop jumped out of his police cruiser and immediately shot and killed a twelve-year-old black kid carrying a toy gun, in two seconds flat – no questions asked. New York’s Staten Island is one of the five boroughs, however, where that white cop choked a black guy, who was selling untaxed single cigarettes, to death, on camera, because… well, because something. The cop in Missouri wasn’t indicted for anything at all – the local prosecutor bamboozled the grand jury out there, but there was nothing on camera so that was easy enough – and matters in Cleveland haven’t been decided – but the Staten Island incident, where the grand jury there decided to return no indictment in spite of what everyone could see, over and over, was shocking. Nearly a month of nationwide protests about this sort of thing – under the general rubric that “Black Lives Matter” – intensified. Then an unhinged black guy from Baltimore, after shooting his girlfriend, headed up to the center of everything, the city that never sleeps, and assassinated two cops sitting quietly in their police cruiser in Brooklyn, another of the five boroughs, and then ran down into a subway station and blew his own brains out – and all hell broke loose. His motive was revenge, for Ferguson and Staten Island, and someone had to be responsible for his rage.

It was time for blame. The former mayor, who was once an important person, although now no one can remember why, was, as Matthew Yglesias notes, sure who was responsible:

The cold-blooded murders of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos have sparked a lot of hot takes, but perhaps none so bold and drastically wrong than the one offered by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who cast the blame squarely on “four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police.” He said black leaders, in particular, have contributed to “an atmosphere of severe, strong anti-police hatred in certain communities.”

Giuliani went out of his way to be clear that he’s not blaming a handful of bad apples. He thinks the culprits are everyone protesting police misconduct everywhere. He thinks the culprits are everyone protesting police misconduct everywhere. “The protests are being embraced, the protests are being encouraged. The protests, even the ones that don’t lead to violence – a lot of them lead to violence – all of them lead to a conclusion: The police are bad. The police are racist,” said Giuliani. “That is completely wrong. Actually, the people who do the most for the black community in America are the police.”

He blames Obama for that, and Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, and the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, as does the police union in the city, and all sorts of other local Policemen’s Benevolent Associations. The current mayor met with protestors, and listened to them, and he has a son who looks black, and he had mentioned that he had given his son “the talk” – be respectful and perhaps subservient around cops, and be as silent as possible – as a matter of life and death. Things sometime happen to black kids. You don’t want them to happen to you – better safe than sorry, or dead.

That infuriated the head of the police union in the city. Maybe every father of a kid who looks black does give “the talk” to their son, and maybe he should, but de Blasio should not have mentioned that at all. That was throwing the police under the bus. They were the good guys, and de Blasio suggested that a few of them, at times, might not be the good guys. That was an unforgivable insult.

Everything escalated from there, but on the big stage this time, in the city that houses the national media and never sleeps. Issues about the police that had been bubbling everywhere else came into focus, or were forced into focus, and the mayor had to do something, so that’s what he did:

Mayor Bill de Blasio, publicly silent and largely out of view the day after two police officers were killed in Brooklyn, re-emerged on Monday, straining to demonstrate leadership over a fractured city.

Mr. de Blasio visited the families of the slain officers, spoke to a nonprofit police group and, for the first time since the shooting, took several questions at a news conference at Police Headquarters.

And at every stop, the Democratic mayor of New York, who ascended to office with a pledge to reshape the Police Department, had company: Police Commissioner William J. Bratton – once renowned for helping turn back crime in the 1990s, now the essential bridge between the mayor and a department that distrusts him more deeply than ever.

Mr. de Blasio, at the helm of a city still raw from weeks of protests after a grand jury’s decision, called for a suspension of the demonstrations, asked the public to report any possible threats against police officers and urged New Yorkers to thank and console officers in mourning, even as detectives continued to trace the movements and communications of the gunman before the attack on Saturday.

He was, of course, acting as a proxy for Obama and Holder, both of whom have to manage the same sort of thing, and that isn’t easy:

On a day of somber reflection from the mayor, who spoke haltingly at times, seeming to search for the right words, he grew impassioned as he forcefully defended the rights of peaceful protesters and wondered, rhetorically, if the news media would “keep dividing us.”

Mr. Bratton stepped in repeatedly to buttress his boss. “Do some officers not like this mayor?” he said. “Guaranteed.”

He added, to laughter, that “amazingly, some don’t” like their commissioner, either.

Mr. Bratton said union leaders – who led an extraordinary protest against the mayor on Saturday, turning their backs to him as he and Mr. Bratton walked past at the hospital – had agreed to a “standing down” of heated public comments until after the funerals. (The first funeral, for Officer Rafael Ramos, will be on Saturday, Mr. Bratton said.)

Yet even as the mayor said it was time to “put aside political debates, put aside protests,” it was clear that he remained ensnared in the signal challenge of his tenure so far, with few clear lifelines.

It’s a challenge for everyone, and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie tries to clarify matters:

Despite what these police organizations and their allies allege, there isn’t an anti-police movement in this country, or at least, none of any significance.

The people demonstrating for Eric Garner and Michael Brown aren’t against police, they are for better policing. They want departments to treat their communities with respect, and they want accountability for officers who kill their neighbors without justification. When criminals kill law-abiding citizens, they’re punished. When criminals kill cops, they’re punished. But when cops kill citizens, the system breaks down and no one is held accountable. That is what people are protesting.

And that’s the problem here, in New York, and perhaps, by extension, in Ferguson and Cleveland too:

The idea that citizens can’t criticize police – that free speech excludes scrutiny of state violence – is disturbing. Since, if free speech doesn’t include the right to challenge the official use of force, then it isn’t really free speech.

But these complaints aren’t true. Police officers aren’t under siege from hostile elected officials. At no point, for example, has de Blasio attacked the New York City Police Department. Instead, he’s called for improved policing, including better community relations and new training for “de-escalation” techniques. “Fundamental questions are being asked, and rightfully so,” he said at the beginning of the month, after the grand jury decision in the death of Eric Garner. “The way we go about policing has to change.”

De Blasio saying what those elsewhere have been saying, as a proxy for them:

Neither President Obama nor Attorney General Eric Holder has substantively criticized police. After a Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, Obama appealed for calm and praised law enforcement for doing a “tough job.” “Understand,” he said, “our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day. They’ve got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law.”

When directly asked if “African-American and Latino young people should fear the police,” Holder said no. “I don’t think that they should fear the police,” he said in an interview for New York magazine with MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid. “But I certainly think that we have to build up a better relationship between young people, people of color, and people in law enforcement.”

Even Al Sharpton supports cops. “We are not anti-police,” he said after the Wilson grand jury concluded. “If our children are wrong, arrest them. Don’t empty your gun and act like you had no other way.” And on this Sunday morning, Sharpton held an event where he and the Garner family condemned the cop killings in Brooklyn. “I’m standing here in sorrow over losing those two police officers,” said Garner’s mother. “Two police officers lost their lives senselessly.” The family of Michael Brown has condemned the shootings – “We reject any kind of violence directed toward members of law enforcement” – and in a statement, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, said, “This is not about race or affiliation, and it isn’t about black versus blue. All lives matter.”

Jamelle Bouie, again, is frustrated:

Nothing here should be a surprise. Despite what these police organizations and their allies allege, there isn’t an anti-police movement in this country, or at least, none of any significance. The people demonstrating for Eric Garner and Michael Brown aren’t against police, they are for better policing. They want departments to treat their communities with respect, and they want accountability for officers who kill their neighbors without justification. When criminals kill law-abiding citizens, they’re punished. When criminals kill cops, they’re punished. But when cops kill citizens, the system breaks down and no one is held accountable. That is what people are protesting.

Bouie is also realistic:

Given the dangers inherent to being a police officer – and the extent to which most cops are trying to do the best they can – it’s actually understandable that cops are a little angry with official and unofficial criticism. But they should know it comes with the territory. For all the leeway they receive, the police aren’t an inviolable force; they’re part of a public trust, accountable to elected leaders and the people who choose them. And in the same way that police have a responsibility to protect and secure the law, citizens have a responsibility to hold improper conduct to account.

In New York, the important issue was finally clarified. As with civilian control of the military – the president, elected by the people, gets to tell the military what to do, not the other way around, no matter what they say on Fox News, so the mayor, elected by the people gets to tell the police what to do. The police union may hate that, and eighty-five percent of our armed forces may be beginning to hate that whole idea now – but the alternative is a country run by a military junta, not the people. We said we wanted a government that did what it did only by consent of the governed. That was the whole idea in the first place. New York elected de Blasio. America elected Obama, twice.

Issues get large when they get to New York, as Bouie had noted:

Yes, this is contested terrain and both sides will fight to define the scope and limits of police power. But these arguments are a vital part of self-governance, which is why everyone should be disturbed by statements like Giuliani’s, Pataki’s, and Patrick Lynch’s. The idea that citizens can’t criticize police – that free speech excludes scrutiny of state violence – is disturbing. Since, if free speech doesn’t include the right to challenge the official use of force, then it isn’t really free speech.

Patrick Lynch is the head of the police union, and Michael Tomasky doesn’t have much use for him:

Pat Lynch, by speaking of officers’ blood on the steps of City Hall and urging his cops to sign an online petition that de Blasio not attend their funerals should they be killed in the line of duty, is doing… what? His behavior is divisive to the point of savagery. He is actively trying to make the people who follow him not only despise de Blasio but despise and oppose any acknowledgement that police can be faulted in any way, that black fear of police has any basis in reality. If Al Sharpton did the same with regard to police departments tout suite, which he does not anymore – he denounced the murder of the two cops immediately – he’d be drummed out of society.

Still, de Blasio should find ways to rise above all this. That’s part of the responsibility that comes with being mayor. But he should not back down from what he said.

Even a retired basketball player can see that, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar adds this:

In a Dec. 21, 2014 article about the shooting, the Los Angeles Times referred to the New York City protests as “anti-police marches,” which is grossly inaccurate and illustrates the problem of perception the protestors are battling. The marches are meant to raise awareness of double standards, lack of adequate police candidate screening, and insufficient training that have resulted in unnecessary killings. Police are not under attack, institutionalized racism is. Trying to remove sexually abusive priests is not an attack on Catholicism, nor is removing ineffective teachers an attack on education. Bad apples, bad training, and bad officials who blindly protect them, are the enemy. And any institution worth saving should want to eliminate them, too.

Josh Voorhees, however, writing about the first night of all this, likes to complicate things:

Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, declared that there was “blood on many hands tonight” but that it “starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.”

Those jarring comments followed the extraordinary decision by Lynch and many officers to literally turn their backs on the mayor as he entered the hospital. Taken in tandem, those actions cemented the perception that de Blasio’s support for those protesting the chokehold death of Eric Garner had created a rift between the mayor and his city’s police force, one that Saturday’s slayings of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos had potentially made insurmountable.

But that’s an oversimplification of a story that’s been unfolding since long before Garner’s killing. The reality is that de Blasio and the union have been at odds since he campaigned for mayor last year on the promise to upend the city’s law enforcement status quo, including overhauling Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk program – a vow that de Blasio largely kept once in office.

There’s nothing new here:

The police union has a long history of taking public stands against New York City mayors, including law-and-order types Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani. The relationship between de Blasio and the cops wasn’t soured solely due to the mayor’s response to Garner’s death and the subsequent protests. The mayor and the NYPD were never going to get along, no matter what.

Devoid of that context, Lynch’s remarks this weekend sounded like a rare, raw moment of candor unleashed in the heat of the moment. In reality, this was simply the latest, loudest attempt to discredit de Blasio. Lynch’s ongoing efforts to undermine the mayor were caught on tape eight days earlier at a closed-door union meeting. “If they’re not going to support us when we need ’em,” Lynch said, according to a recording of his remarks obtained by Capital New York, “we’ll embarrass them when we can.” Given the chance Saturday, Lynch did just that.

This sort of thing has been going on a long time:

As former New York Times reporter David Firestone has noted, Lynch and the PBA [Policemen’s Benevolent Association] attacked de Blasio’s three predecessors almost as vociferously. It may have seemed extraordinary when earlier this month, the union began asking officers to sign a letter requesting that de Blasio not attend their funerals in the event they are killed in the line of duty. The union, though, tried a similar move in 1997, during Giuliani’s tenure.

The biggest difference between now and then isn’t what the police union – and Lynch specifically, who’s been president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association for 15 years – is saying. It’s that the killing of Garner and the murder of two police officers have put the strained relationship between the mayor and the NYPD in the national spotlight.

While the union’s anger with de Blasio began with his opposition to stop-and-frisk, it has grown to include a whole lot more – everything from his support for police retraining and body cameras, to the fact that his wife’s chief of staff is in a relationship with a convicted felon who once mocked police as “pigs” on social media. The mayor’s decision in the wake of the Garner grand jury verdict – to describe how he instructed his biracial son to “take special care” when interacting with cops – was the culmination of months of tension, but hardly the spark that started the current fight.

There’s much more to it:

Many of the NYPD’s rank-and-file clearly feel betrayed by the mayor’s decision to have a public conversation about police reforms that the officers think should happen in private, if it happens at all. It is also clear, though, that the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association is a group that is constantly aggrieved, taking offense at slights both real and imagined. In 1992, when David Dinkins was in office, the PBA staged a rally of thousands of officers, who blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge to protest the mayor’s plan to create a civilian group to look into police misconduct. …

Underlying the tension this time around are ongoing, heated contract negotiations between the union and City Hall. That’s not to suggest that this current fight is all – or even mostly – about money. But like any employee, an officer who’s unhappy with the size of his paycheck will see it as an indication that he’s unappreciated. Toss in overblown union rhetoric about being “thrown under the bus” by the mayor and that unease will fester.

Wait – this is not about what everyone, considering what has been said, thought it was about? Nothing is really important until it happens in New York, on the big stage that is America, and this was about union negotiations all along? It seems so.

New York is full of surprises, but then so is Hollywood, another place where nothing is ever quite what it seems. That leaves Paris, in December, and a spot of cognac at the Flore. Politics over there are just as deceptive, but there is the cognac, and there’s the slow winter rain in the early evening. It’s time to get back there. Enough is enough.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to The City That Never Sleeps Cannot Sleep

  1. There are complex issues hiding behind this silly film. Don’t let the poor taste of the film obfuscate the matter. Is this a free speech issue? (Yes) A national security issue? (No) A cyber security/financial protection issue? (I don’t know, but cyber attacks are certainly illegal). Do we declare Hollywood films art instead of entertainment so we may defend the right to produce it as we would defend Rushdie’s book or even an unauthorized or negative book about our own President? (Yes)
    One of the major flags on this for me is the “consulting” pre-release about the content of the film and any discussion of the potential to escalate negative responses from N. Korea! Authors, producers, writers, journalists, entertainers, should NOT need to consider this…Push the boundaries, ask the hard questions, and minimally, in entertainment: please be silly, naughty, creative and uncensored! Perhaps in this way, SOME sort of THOUGHT PROVOKING content will stir the complacent, apathetic masses. *though I don’t think this film is the masterpiece Kim would like to think it is…

  2. Rick says:

    Although I was born near Hollywood and lived many of my first years out there, and still have a nostalgic fondness for the area, I do think you, Alan, overestimate the west coast’s impact on American culture. I remember someone long ago cited the Beach Boys and their popularization of surfing as just another example of California being the birthplace of “cool”, but I think time has not been kind to that argument. (Inspired by the music, I once tried surfing at Long Island’s Jones Beach, and the way I slipped and fell on the board may be the reason I’ve not since been able to have children the “old fashioned way”.)

    And although I lived in New York City only twelve years before moving to Georgia, where I’ve lived for 34 years, I still for some reason consider myself a New Yorker. Not that I loved the place when I lived there, but I did like it a lot. Where else do you find so much going on, all within walking distance?

    But I also recognized the sometimes infuriating insularity of Manhattan Islanders, the refusal to listen to reason on any topic, as if every person has the god-given right to be unreasonable about anything he wants to. I saw this constantly displayed in my neighbors’ bouts with their landlords, based on the common knowledge that all landlords are scum, and especially in the threatening behavior of labor unions that often bordered on mob violence, and occasionally crossed that line.

    When I lived in the city, I always thought that if I were elected mayor, I’d instigate a Fresh Air Fund for every citizen, moving them out of the city to the country for six months, then back again, just for the purpose of attitude adjustment.

    One extension of this Big Apple union surliness can be seen in the chronic resistance, for as long as I can remember, of the Police Benevolent Association to the idea of a Civilian Review Board that oversaw their activities, even one with absolutely no power. It certainly was needed. I remember once walking on 8th Avenue, in Hell’s Kitchen, an off-duty “taxi” came roaring up the sidewalk in front of me, two scruffy-looking guys jumped out flashing badges, grabbed a dark-faced pedestrian and smashed him up against the wall and roughed him up, then jumped back in the cab and tore away, leaving the pedestrian just standing there, looking stunned. Bystanders who had stopped to watch, just wandered away. I knew it was something I’d never seen before, but was then certain it probably happened all the time.

    I do hope those cops that turned their backs on the mayor and police commissioner at the hospital were disciplined. I’m assuming they were on duty (maybe I shouldn’t assume that), in which case they need to be reminded that demonstrations are fine, but need to be kept to when you’re off the clock and out of uniform. These cops need to be reminded that they work at the pleasure of their supervisors and that they need to show proper respect, but from what I read, I doubt the back-turners will be dealt with. It’s a shame. They shouldn’t be encouraged to think that what they did is acceptable.

    In fact, the way all these cops seem to be reacting — not just to two of their own being assassinated by some crazy guy but also to all the peaceful demonstrations of those they serve, suggesting that cops look into improving the way they deal with the citizenry — makes you wonder if we’re wrong in our thinking. Maybe it’s not a case of a few bad apples but is a systemic problem in which either (a) cops don’t realize they’re treating minority citizens differently, or (b) know perfectly well that they are, but see nothing wrong with it. I suppose one solution would be to just fire all the cops and start over again with new ones.

    Although I guess our experience for doing something similar in Iraq a few years ago should teach us that you don’t kick a bunch of disgruntled tough guys out of their jobs and onto the street, especially disgruntled tough guys who own guns and know how to use them.

    Rick

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