The shooters had things in common — a history of crimes against women, social media politics, long journeys to arrive at the scenes of their crimes.
The one who staked out Alexandria, Virginia before firing on a baseball field of congressmen Wednesday was shot and killed by police.
The man who traveled from Baltimore to Bed-Stuy in December 2014 and shot Police Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos died of his own gun.
Afterward, the same question: Do these acts of violence stand as the endpoint of deepening political chasms?
Political and politically motivated violence isn’t new in America. In recent history, tempers have flared toward serious disruption but movements like Black Lives Matter and the revolution of Sen. Bernie Sanders are nonviolent at their core. Those movements, which the shooters may have identified with, can’t be held accountable for deranged men with easy access to firearms.
But the shootings do reset cultural conversations, which happened briefly in 2014 and may happen again.
Disrupting a tense time in New York
Five days before Christmas three years ago, NYC was facing the latest in a months-long series of on-and-off protests responding to the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island at the hands of police.
The situation was already tense. Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to straddle the line between his supporters, some of whom were out in the street, and his police force. In appearances he both praised the NYPD and noted his past warnings to his biracial son about dealing with police.
Meanwhile, thousands marched through the streets, stopped traffic at bridges and tunnels, and called, first and foremost, for the officer responsible for Garner’s death to be fired, if not jailed.
The shooting of officers Liu and Ramos pushed things even further. Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Pat Lynch said de Blasio had “blood on his hands.” Rank-and-file officers turned their backs on de Blasio at a news conference. There was a suspicious “work slowdown” in which many cops basically washed their hands of the city and their duties given the spirit of the protests. And de Blasio? He urged protesters in the immediate aftermath of the shooting to take a pause.
It was a cautionary move meant to calm the situation, but it had political implications. “We lost de Blasio as an outspoken ally,” says Keegan Stephan, an activist in New York at the time. De Blasio might dispute this, but activists retain that impression even today. It’s incontrovertible that de Blasio didn’t respond to one big issue for protesters: he never backed down from his support of Bill Bratton, the controversial police commissioner who eventually left on his own terms in September.
“I think that the mayor realized that what was occurring in New York was out of control,” says longtime de Blasio critic Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association. De Blasio and the protesters might dispute the idea of New York’s “upheaval,” too, but it’s also incontrovertible that some among the city’s more conservative edges were watching with wariness the protests running “rampant up and down the streets,” according to Mullins. He says the upheaval was preventing people from getting to work and “allowing free commerce to happen,” and in a city of capital and real estate that may have been a consideration for de Blasio and other prominent New Yorkers, too.
What will it mean?
There is a similar sense, albeit less concentrated, of nationwide upheaval today. Anger on two sides (in this case left and right) draws protesters to senators’ offices or out in the streets. Neither side can believe the morals of the other — that America might shut itself off as a beacon for refugees, or that America might hesitate to enforce its immigration laws.
All of it, too, threatens to scuttle pressing policy debates, not to mention business as usual. Someone shooting a congressman for seemingly political reasons is a disturbing return to earlier periods in American history. Can things ever cool off?
In 2014, they did. Protests still went on, but they began diminishing in size in the new year. Maybe it was the holidays, the cold weather, less vocal encouragement from the political class, or the distance from the original events.
But what did that mean in the long run?
It would be a stretch to say that the cool-off resulted in many partisans in either group changing sides.
Did it improve public discourse, as commentators are hoping after the attack on congressmen this week?
Not really. There’s little love for the police at recurring protests around the city, and plenty of cops return the feeling: see any police message board. An internal PBA poll in 2016 found low morale and continued distrust of de Blasio.
Instead, the back and forth continues, with New Yorkers like many Americans trying to advocate for or navigate the right way forward. That should be all it takes to get politicians to respond, not violence. Determined advocacy is the normal state of American politics, and it has continued years after the shooting’s aberration — as it should.