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Why it's wrong to blame protests for the Brooklyn cop killings

Mourners near a memorial where the police officers were shot and killed
Mourners near a memorial where the police officers were shot and killed
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On December 20, New York City Police Department officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were killed while sitting in their patrol car.

The killings came after months of protests over police brutality and intense criticism of the criminal justice system. The protests picked up in recent weeks, when grand juries declined to indict police officers for killing unarmed black men — Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island.

While the officer's deaths are still under investigation, a few details about the suspect, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a 28-year-old black man who killed himself in a subway station after Liu and Ramos were shot, have been reported. Police say he posted a photo on Instagram with this caption on the day of the shooting: "I'm putting wings on pigs today. They take 1 of ours … let's take 2 of theirs."

These details have fueled a loud and angry response to the officers' deaths, but not against the man who pulled the trigger. Instead, much of the vitriol is being targeted at the thousands of American protesters who've spent months making an emotional plea that that "Black Lives Matter," against civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton, and against Democratic politicians like President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who have acknowledged racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Former New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani told Fox News the blame for the killings should be placed on "four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police." MSNBC's Joe Scarborough said that the killings were "fueled by an avalanche of hate speech" against police officers. "To listen to protesters, editors, and left-wing talking heads go on and on since the shooting of Michael Brown," he said, "you would be led to believe that white police officers were randomly driving through black neighborhoods searching for young black males to shoot down."

It's frustrating to realize that some who were put off by the recent social justice movement see the officers' deaths as vindication of their "police are the good guys and protesters are the bad guys" stance, or a chance to make a political statement. It's sickening that so many have hungrily latched on to the weekend's tragedy to support their own worldview about black Americans. And it's demoralizing that civil rights organizations have seemingly resigned themselves to these narratives, and felt compelled to condemn the brutal murders on behalf of their communities. (Really, since when do organizations have to make statements about random criminal acts simply because their leaders share the same racial identity as the perpetrators? Since now.)

But there's something even more insidious that's fueling a lot of these responses to the weekend's tragedy: a dangerous and all-too-common failure of nuanced, critical thinking that seems to surround anything related to race and justice in America.

Let's take on three main misunderstandings that are at the heart of the compulsion to blame these killings on black leaders and the Ferguson protests.

1) An inability to see the accused killer as anything other than black

To understand Brinsley's horrific crime, which he appears to have committed with no accomplice, as a negative reflection on anyone but himself requires a belief that he is a representative of, and the responsibility of, black people and organizations.

This is nothing new: we see evidence of this type of thinking time and time again when it comes to public reactions to crimes. For example, a white person like the Colorado movie shooter James Holmes, or Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, is evaluated as a rogue and likely disturbed criminal. But any crime committed by a Muslim automatically stokes larger questions about Islam and demands for condemnation by people who share the criminal's religion.

In this case, critics seem to have eagerly interpreted Brinsley's actions as representative of widespread anti-police antipathy in the black and civil rights communities, and a sign of more violence to come from others who have been incited by recent protests. It's hard to imagine any other explanation for this, besides the fact that many automatically see a black criminal as a representative of an entire community and not as an individual perpetrator.

But look at the individualized roots of Brinsley's alleged actions, which indicate that he was a person who did not decide to take up a life of crime in recent months: he reportedly had a lengthy criminal record and mental health issues that preceded the current wave of protests. He was also not a protest leader or even a protester, as far as we know. Nor was he a member of Sharpton's National Action Network. But details aren't important when people are looking to make connections that support their biases.

2) An insistence on characterizing the protest movement as anti-police, despite the evidence

Calling the murders "a predictable outcome of anti-cop rhetoric" would make sense if the theme of the protests or the statements of various pro-civil rights politicians were actually anti-cop.

But this isn't the case.

Since the summer, when protesters began demanding answers about why Brown was killed, many observers insisted the protests were anti-law enforcement.

Never mind all of the signs about race and justice and the value of life. Never mind the stories of parents who said they were demonstrating because it broke their hearts to tell their children that they wouldn't be treated fairly because of their skin color. Never mind the carefully crafted statements of protesters and the endless refrain, "we know there are a lot of good cops."  At best, interpreting the protests as anti-police is a lazy and superficial reading of the movement — at worst, it is a cynical strategy to dismiss it or score political points.

A related misunderstanding is that the protests are about black people versus police — this despite all of the people of different races at the protests in Ferguson and across the country.

The truth, which is both more complicated and tougher to grapple with than the oversimplified "anti-cop" narrative, is that people of all races see a criminal justice system that can allow police to kill unarmed men with no punishment, and they want change. The protests, while they were set off by the actions of a few police officers, were the interest thousands of people across the nation.

Mischaracterizing the movement as anti-police makes it easy to criticize and it also makes it easy to portray the officers' murders as a blow to the protesters' message or the result of statements sympathetic to their cause.

But that only makes sense if all of the protesters' mission was to completely turn against the thousands of men and women in uniform, and if their protest motto was "police are terrible and don't actually risk their lives every day." As much as critics of De Blasio and of the countless Americans who took to the streets might like to believe, that never actually happened.

3) An apparent belief that nobody should ever talk about anything that could set off a disturbed criminal

The most damning fact connecting Brinsley to the Black Lives Matter protests — and the one that seemingly inspired Al Sharpton, the NAACP, and Ferguson protest leaders to condemn his crime — are the reports that he implied on social media that he was going to kill police officers in retribution for the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

The thinking of the anti-civil rights reactionaries, and of the police union president, Patrick Lynch, who accused De Blasio of having blood on his hands, seems to go like this: "You got people all upset over police brutality and made them anti-police and fired them up, and, now look, one of them was inspired by you to kill someone."

But the protests were not anti-police. They were anti-racial disparities in criminal justice. And politicians like De Blasio or Obama never even came close to uttering anti-police statements in their acknowledgement of the criminal justice system's flaws. (In fact, many critics on the opposite side of this issue have been disappointed in what they see as Obama's lukewarm response to the protests.)

This line of thinking relies on the argument that, despite the important role of civil rights advocacy in our country's history, nobody should ever criticize a system for failing to live up to out ideals of justice, because someone with a criminal background might lose control of themselves and get so angry that they irrationally commit a crime.

That's absurd.  Americans, from everyday Twitter users, to politicians, to television pundits passionately criticize our laws and elements of our culture every day. None of us would want to live in the world where constructive criticism was avoided or stifled to avoid the small risk that some out-of-control person could latch onto it and be inspired to commit a crime. If we really believed this, every politician who's ever spoken against Obama would have to apologize every time someone tried to hop the White House fence.